Sunday, 9 September 2012

Review of Old El Paso store-bought tortillas

One of my readers recently informed me that corn tortillas are available in Lidl in Edinburgh. Though flour tortilla "wraps" have been in all British supermarkets for as long as I've lived here, the only corn tortillas I was aware of were in prepackaged "taco kits", and they were usually those (American) U-shaped hard-shell things. You didn't used to get proper corn tortillas at all.

And, for the most part, you still don't.

This info about Lidl inspired me to do something I've long wanted to do: review a Mexican food product (or restaurant).

I don't get over to Lidl much now that I don't live in the city centre, but I decided to see of my local super-chain grocery store had anything posing as corn tortillas. Whereas flour tortillas are mainstream enough to be kept in the bread aisle, what they pass off as corn tortillas lurked in the "World Foods" section.

As I expected, they had two brands: Discovery and Old El Paso.

For my British readers, let me tell you about Mexican food brands in the US. We do have Old El Paso, but they mostly sell jarred salsas and spice powders, etc. I never saw Old El Paso tortillas until I moved to the UK.

In America, you buy Mission brand tortillas (they sell both flour and corn). There's even a Mission tortilla factory in the California Adventure park at Disneyland. They'll give you free corn tortillas if it's your birthday. And for commercially produced sauces and seasonings, we tend to go for La Preferida, which is made by and for Mexican-Americans. We don't have Discovery products at all.

Having said that, I have usually gone for Discovery brand products here in the UK, because of the bizarre combination of my mistrust of the familiar (even when I have no reason to trust a non-Mexican brand of Mexican foods) and because I've never rated Old El Paso, even back in the US.

When we couldn't be bothered making our own salsa, my family always bought Pace brand picante sauce, which isn't available in Britain. Pace is made in San Antonio, by folks who know what picante sauce is supposed to taste like. Old El Paso, despite the name, is made in New York City, and that really chaps my hide, as explained in this advert:

Notice that both Pace and Old El Paso are trying to associate themselves with Texas, rather than Mexico. 

However, there is a more serious reason I didn't sample Discovery corn tortillas, despite Isabel Hood's belief that they are better than Old El Paso.

When I got to the "World Foods" section of the giant Morrainsburysco near my suburb, I found that the Old El Paso brand said "now with less fat." Immediately red flags were flying. Why was there any significant amount of fat in the first place?

There are basically two recipes for corn tortillas. The first is the über-traditional (or shall I say "sobre-tradicional") method.

1) Take some white Mexican field corn.
2) Soak it in slaked lime (the same stuff you use to make stucco).
3) Rinse it clean. The tough outer hulls will slip off.
4) Grind it on a metate until it becomes a dough called masa. Shape it into tortillas and cook them on a comal.

White Mexican field corn is hard to come by in Britain, and I don't really endorse using a highly caustic substance like slaked lime in the kitchen. But they do sell masa harina here. I get Maseca, the standard Mexican brand, from Lupe Pinto's. The Cool Chile Company sells it as well, and MexGrocer even sells blue masa harina!. All three suppliers ship throughout the UK.

In case you haven't read my other posts on tortillas, masa harina is white Mexican field corn ground into flour. It is NOT cornflour, cornstarch, cornmeal, or polenta. If you try to make tortillas with any of these things, you will fail. But since you can get real masa harina in Britain, you can make tortillas the modern way, which is:
1) Combine masa harina and hand-hot water and knead it into a dough
2) Let it rest ten minutes, covered with a damp cloth (don't chill it. Mexico is a hot country).
3) Shape the dough into tortillas and cook them on a comal.

In either recipe, there's really only one ingredient: corn. So apart from any naturally occurring fat in the corn itself, there should have been no fat to speak of.

I turned over the package and read the ingredients. I was prepared to see some kind of preservative listed, but I was not expecting to find wheat flour. And, of course, there was vegetable oil as well, because flour tortillas do require some kind of fat to help them bind (traditionally you would use lard).

I checked the Discovery brand. They, too, had a mixture of corn and wheat flour, but Old El Paso listed corn first,  while Discovery listed it second. So I went with Old El Paso.

Appearance. If you look closely at these so-called corn tortillas, you can see tiny flecks of yellow. It wouldn't surprise me if these guys are just mixing polenta in with their flour tortilla ingredients. The ingredients claim it is 29% corn flour, but that could mean anything. I'm guess it doesn't mean masa harina. And it probably does mean they're using the wrong kind of corn.

Do not eat this at home. Or anywhere else.

Taste. Too sweet, and not in a good way, which once again probably means they used the wrong kind of corn: common yellow corn or "sweetcorn" as it's called in Britain. We all love sweetcorn; it rocks. But it does have a pretty high sugar content. White field corn has bigger kernels and is much higher in starch. I haven't tried it, but apparently soup made from this corn has the consistency of potato soup. Tortillas, whether corn or flour, should not be sweet. In fact, you should have to add sugar to the masa harina if you're making sweet tamales.

Texture. Gritty, and somewhat fragile. Partly this is due to the polenta, which is too coarse to mix into a proper dough, and partly this is due to the fact that, since it is basically a corn-flavoured flour tortilla and they reduced the fat, there wasn't enough fat to bind the tortillas properly. Sweetcorn, being less starchy than field corn, cannot pick up the slack.

Usefulness. I don't think anyone, even people relatively unfamiliar with Mexican food, would expect Old El Paso corn tortillas to be very high quality. But can they get the job done?

Well, I ate these all week. I wouldn't recommend them for traditional "soft" tacos, as the flavour is just not there. The package actually recommends you use them for enchiladas, but they mean American-style baked enchiladas, where you fill the tortillas, fold them, put them in a baking dish and cover them with jarred enchilada sauce (they recommend Old El Paso brand; I do not) and bake them until the tortillas get hard and unpleasant.

This probably would work, but the more authentic way to make enchiladas is take the tortilla, dip it in home-made red chile sauce, quick-fry it in some fat, and then fill it and fold it. Messy, but worth it.

When I tried to do this with one of  these, the damn thing disintegrated on me. However, I did manage to quick-fry one in butter, cover it in home-made chile sauce, top it with scrambled eggs and poblano chile strips (huevos revueltos con rajas) and some grated parmesan, which was a very good breakfast, except for the tortilla.

The rajas were fecking awesome. The tortilla, not so much.
Bottom line. My expectations were already low, and yet Old El Paso still managed to fall short. I am a firm believer that we can all make our own corn tortillas, and yet even I have sometimes been put off making tacos because I couldn't be bothered going to all that trouble. So quality store-bought tortillas are a must. But these are not them. If this is really the only thing you can get your hands on, buy some Mission flour tortillas and switch to burritos.