Corn Tortillas for TACO TUESDAY!!!

Hey erryboddy! It’s TACO TUESDAY and that means we survived another Monday. It’s true; even during shutdown, when one day melds into another, I still don’t like Mondays. Thus, watching the back end of Monday toddle off into the sunset means we celebrate! With the noble taco and by default, the corn tortilla.

What is this delicious wrapper, this pliable disc of corny goodness that delivers tacoliciousness unto my plate? The tortilla, which literally means “little cake”, is an ancient food. Excavations have found that corn tortillas were already being made at least as far back as 3000 BCE, and may have been eaten thousands of years earlier. Once agriculture developed and the first villages formed, it didn’t take humans long to start working on corn tortillas and, by extension, tacos.

Corn was central to the Mesoamerican experience. Modern corn is a descendant of the plant teosinte, which can still be found in Mexico. Human interaction changed the crops from a plant with broad leaves but narrow tassels, that look more like modern wheat, into the large-cob, large kernel plants we know and love. If all of this seems rushed, it’s because I’m trying to cram about 7,000 years of agricultural history into a few short paragraphs. I recommend The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell for an in-depth and fascinating look at one of history’s most important crops.

Our Mesoamerican forbears figured out, in the corn-development process, that processing tough kernels in water treated with ground (slaked) lime–the rock, not the fruit–softened the tough outer hull of the corn and made it more edible. As an added bonus, this process, called nixtamalization, unlocks the niacin in the corn and helped those clever Aztecs to avoid the deficiency disease pellagra. Don’t Google images if you’re eating. Masa harina, the flour in tortillas, is ground from nixtamalized corn, and is noticeably finer and softer than standard corn meal. Which makes sense. They’ve had thousands and thousands of years to get it down.

Making tortillas is easy. Not open-a-bag-and-have-them-fall-in-your-lap easy, but still. Not hard. I’m not even going to do a special .pdf for the recipe; it’s that simple.

  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt (optional)

This will make about 15-16 tortillas; if you want to dial it back a little just reduce the amount of ingredients but keep the ratio intact. 1.5 cups of masa to 1.25 cups water will give you about 12 tortillas. And so on. And you don’t even have to add salt. I just like it.

The first thing you need to do, natch, is mix your dough. Just combine all two or three of the things and stir together. Check the consistency of the tortilla dough; it should be nice and soft, kind of pinchable, but not sticky. Kind of like a sugar cookie.

Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let the dough rest for about 15 minutes. Divide the dough into roughly golf-ball-sized balls, and keep the dough you’re not tortillafying under the plastic so it doesn’t dry out while you work. Crumbly tortilla dough WILL NOT WORK.

If you have a tortilla press, lay a piece of plastic wrap (or a sandwich baggie, split) over the plates of your press, to prevent the tortilla from sticking to the press itself. If you don’t have a tortilla press you can flatten it down with your hands and then roll it with a pin until it’s nice and thin. When I lived in San Antonio I got to watch abuelas pat out tortillas with their hands–no rolling pin, no press. And they were perfect. I don’t have those skills, nor do I have an abuela. Luckily for me, I have a tortilla press.

Look at him go!

Take that beautiful, flat tortilla and put it down in the pan you’ve got ready, warming up over a medium heat, without oil. What, no cooking oil?

No, that will crisp your tortilla, and you’re not looking to fry your shells at all here. If you were making tostadas you’d be on point, but you want these to remain soft and pliable. Anyway. Into the pan!

Super-traditional chefs (I’m looking at you, Rick Bayless) will tell you to have a second pan cooking at a hotter temperature so when you go to flip this beautiful tortilla, it will create a bit of a puff, which is a nice idea. If you don’t have the energy or resources to run a second burner or pan, just flip in the very same pan.

Though I do claim sole access to the George-please-flip-that-tortilla method. Stack your finished tortillas, cover them with a lint-free kitchen towel, and let them steam together while you cook your entire batch. This will help keep them soft for dinner.

And of course, the moment of truth comes through in the eating. What’s the biggest dilemma about tacos? That they fall apart? Crack down the middle? That they’re delicious but can be a total pain? That they’re hardly a hand-held food when they always split?

Well get a load of this.

Look at that. A little crisped around the edges. Totally bendy. Successfully holding my fillings in place, and sorry/not sorry, cilantro haters. Did I mention that it tasted better, and more fresh, than anything I’ve gotten in the stores for the last…all of my life? But wait, wait, check it out. This is just at the beginning of my dinner. What about a few bites in, what then? Can these tortillas withstand the combined force of teeth and hot food and wet food soaking into it?

Yep.

Also, the filling is a chorizo-flavored seitan (or “fauxrizo”, as I like to call it), so it’s still meaty and delicious AND vegetarian. Vegan, if you don’t put cheese in your tacos, but I will *always* put cheese in my tacos unless circumstances do not permit.

So yes, get thee to a grocery store and pick up a bag of masa harina. And pour some water. Really, that’s all you need for delicious, homemade tortillas. And then you can get all sniffy and be like, “Of COURSE I made it myself.” And don’t wait for Tuesday to make this. As far as I’m concerned, every day is Taco Tuesday; you just need to carry that in your heart.

Hoe Cakes. Johnny Cakes. Same thing, different names.

Way back in the misty murkiness of time when the United States was still a young republic, a recipe emerged on the American food scene. Which is funny, because we don’t really think of post-Colonial America as something with a “food scene” but nevertheless, people had to eat. The recipe was, at its heart, a flat griddle cake made of ground corn, water or milk, and cooking fat. In the North, this recipe was called a Johnny cake (jonnycake, Shawnee cake, journey cake, any John’s no-cake, and I’m not making that up). Rhode Island has, to this day, made an institution of the Johnny cake, even seeing the particulars of the cake debated in local government.  Southerners called this recipe a hoe-cake, or an ash-cake, or (begrudgingly) a Johnny cake, and to this day they cling to the hoe-cake. Early cookbooks demonstrate that cooks tried to shove a crowbar between the recipes to differentiate them. For example, hoe-cakes were to be cooked on a griddle while Johnny cakes were cooked on a board; please refer to “I’m not making that up”, above. This helps to illustrate a few points:

  1. Corn is ubiquitous to the American way of life.
  2. These cakes are low-rent food meant to fill people up for as little cost as possible.
  3. The North and the South still can’t agree on what to call these things. Though to be fair, New England also can’t agree with the rest of the country on chowder or bowling, so maybe this is par for the course. Also to be fair, they’re not the only place where local beliefs hold strong. But I digress.

Purists aside, most recipes have merged into one overarching ideal–that hoe-cakes and Johnny cakes are now the same thing, though I’m committing to a Southern bias here in using the name hoe-cake and serving them with okra. Whatever you call them, they are cornmeal mash pancakes, cooked on a griddle (a/k/a a “hoe”, a colloquialism that dates back to the 17th century), can be bangin’ if they are done well and are American AF.

So how do you make them?

[Click here for a printable .pdf file for hoecakes]

This is a pretty basic pancake recipe when you get down to it. So make a pancake. Mix together your dry ingredients, and use the cornmeal of your choice. Some folks will insist on finely-ground meal. I like a little texture so I generally choose stone-ground meal. It’s your kitchen, you decide.

In a large measuring cup, measure your buttermilk, and then crack your eggs into the buttermilk and whisk them together. Whisk the honey in with the milk and eggs. I prefer these on the sweeter side so I use two big ol’ tablespoons of honey in my mix, but feel free to use less honey than I do if that’s what you prefer. Pour the milk/egg/honey mix into the dry ingredients and stir together. It will be very thick and lumpy and not appetizing at all, but that’s OK. You still have to add oil and water. Many recipes will tell you to use a neutral oil, like canola or corn, but I like the taste of olive oil so that was my choice.

Once the oil and water are mixed in the batter will become very sloppy, so stir slowly at first, and make sure you deep-dive your spatula to the bottom of your mixing bowl to pull up all the flour/buttermilk mix. It will eventually combine into a relatively smooth batter, but don’t sweat it! A few lumps are OK.

And then cook it on your hoe. I mean griddle. Pan. Whatever you have.

Heat a non-stick or cast iron pan over medium heat. Get some cooking fat in the pan; traditionally, people use butter, or even bacon drippings, which would be tremendous but would make it impossible for my vegetarian husband to eat. Since I’ve already declared my love of olive oil and used it in the pancake mix, that’s the oil I cooked them in too because why not. When the oil is hot scoop out about 1/8 cup batter (half of a 1/4 cup measure, if you don’t have an 1/8 cup in your kitchen set) and let it rip. Like any pancake, watch for the bubbles to form and the edges to start to dry as it cooks.

When the cakes start to look like this, give them a flip.

And if you’re very good, they’ll be golden and delicious. Note the edges, which are brown and crispy, and do indeed have a little snap when you bite into them. The pancakes should take about two minutes per side.

Since we were enjoying this specialty of the Southern United States, we served it with roasted okra, which is the easiest thing in the world to make.

BONUS RECIPE! [Click here for a printable .pdf file for roasted okra]

In a nutshell: Heat oven to 450°F (230°C). Clean about a pound of okra by washing, and trimming the stem cap and pointy end. Split down the middle. Ignore the slime, because it will bake out. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, a few shakes of cayenne pepper and about a Tablespoon of fresh thyme. Put in your hot oven and check it every seven or eight minutes. It’s done when the pods start to brown along the edges and are dry, which should take around 25 minutes total. Enjoy!

They would also be good with collard greens, bacon, maybe some baked beans. God, I love Southern food.

Take your beautiful, golden hoe-cakes and serve. Top them with a little butter and maple syrup, because that’s a winning combination on anything.

If you wanted to gourmet-ize these a little, you could add some fresh corn, sliced right off the cob, into the pancake batter. And corn loves thyme, so fresh thyme would work here too. Or you could just enjoy these hoe-cakes for what they are–simple ingredients made delicious, and a little piece of historical Americana, right on top of your table.