Set the Table with Tortillas
Written onJune 01 , 2010
I have to admit, having lived in California for more than 20 years, I have a soft spot for Mexican food. Actually, that’s putting it mildly; I could eat it every day. So when we relocated to Vermont to start this latest adventure in our lives, I figured I’d be saying adiós to some beloved friends. No more fresh tortillas steaming hot in a basket to accompany those creamy refried beans.
Well, I’m happy to report that this situation has changed. On a very cold and snowy un-Mexican March day this year, we attended a tortilla-making workshop at the historic Pierce’s Store in Shrewsbury. Pierce’s Store and the Shrewsbury Co-op are a story unto themselves, but we’ll leave that for another issue. That March day we were on a mission.
Although I’ve seen tortillas being made both on an industrial scale and in small restaurant kitchens, the act still held a sense of mystery. On the surface, it seems simple: corn and lime. You form the dough into a ball and presto! But the questions always lingered. What exactly is lime? Lime, the fruit? Maybe. And do you use cornmeal? Or whole corn? And what type of corn?
Our guide to unlocking the secrets of tortilla making was Maya Zelkin, a Shrewsbury potter and traditional foods enthusiast. When we learned that Maya had learned tortilla-making skills during a stay in Mexico a few years ago, we knew this was going to be good.
During the workshop, Maya explained that the process starts with our local Vermont flint corn—you can find this whole kernel corn in most food co-ops and natural foods stores. Flint corn is used to make cornmeal and differs from sweet corn and popcorn, both of which are unsuitable for making masa (the corn dough you shape into tortillas). Cornmeal is also unsuitable as a starting point because it produces a sticky mess when water is added to it.
The first steps are to boil the whole corn kernels until they are soft, then leave them to soak for several hours in water and dolomite. Dolomite? What about the lime? Turns out they are one and the same. Dolomitic limestone is the naturally occurring mineral that we call lime. And there is a long tradition of soaking corn in limewater, which releases the vitamin B3, or niacin, an essential human nutrient, that is locked in the corn. (Lime also improves the quality of the proteins in the germ.)
I’m not sure you can find a local source for dolomite, although a quick search of the web revealed that the mineral does exist in Vermont. Maya suggested a pottery supply house, as dolomite is used in the glazing of pottery. Make sure you don’t use agricultural lime, as this is something quite different! (See sidebar for source.)
Our Vermont corn is hearty. The outer hull surrounding the kernel is tough and needs to be removed as much as possible after soaking. By hand. But keep this activity to no more than 30 minutes—life’s too short. The kernels should then be rinsed twice in fresh water and drained.
Now on to the grinding. We were shown two different methods. One uses an electric food processor, the other uses a hand-cranked cast iron grain mill, the kind you clamp to a counter or table. Each machine processes the grain in a different manner. The food processor cuts and slices the kernels into small pieces and, although it did produce a workable dough, it was on the grainy side; the resulting tortilla was coarser than it should have been but still tasted good. The grain mill works by pulverizing the kernel as it passes through the mill head. Using the grain mill requires two grindings of the dough to produce a suitable consistency, and this results in a smooth texture.
Golf balls are perfect as a unit of measure. Not only can we size hail by them but now we know how big to make a ball of dough for a tortilla. You can either buy a metal tortilla press or you can fashion one on your own using wood and some hinges; each produces the desired effect. To make the tortilla, place a piece of plastic (I used a piece from a plastic bag) on the press, put the ball of dough on it, fold the plastic over the dough, close the press, and apply pressure. Open the press, peel the tortilla off the plastic and place it on a very hot, dry cast-iron cooking surface. You’ll know when the first side is done when the edges of the tortilla start to lift up a bit from the skillet. Flip it over and cook the other side.
Looking out the window of Pierce’s kitchen that March day, there was quite a juxtaposition between the driving horizontal snow and the unmistakable smell of fresh corn tortillas wafting through the steamy air. I kept thinking, Hola mi amiga!