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.

Socca (Farinata) with Rosemary, Halloumi, and Fig Jam

Today’s world tour of flatbread takes us to…France! Or Italy. Or Turkey. Let’s just go cruise the Mediterranean, yes? And while we’re at it, let’s eat some chickpea flatbread.

Socca (pronounced SOCK-a, not SO-ka) is a wonderfully easy flatbread to make. You just mix it up and bake it, and for the most part…that’s it. It’s adaptable to a range of spices and additions (like sauteed onions? Toss ’em in!) and can serve as an appetizer or dinner. Adjust slice size accordingly.

So what is it? Socca, a French word, is also known as farinata in Italian. It’s a flatbread made entirely of chickpea flour, so it’s got a flavor unlike most of the other flatbreads we have known. It’s gluten-free (because chickpeas), so you celiac folks can dig it. Socca has literally been a food item for a millennia. Origin stories credit its development to Roman soldiers in Nice, France, circa the 1st century BCE. Or as the result of invasion by Turkish forces. Or that it was developed in Sardinia. And so on. Food travels along trade routes as well as the trade, so it’s difficult to determine who made socca first. We’re just glad someone did. Thanks, ancient smart foodie!

Here’s a link to a .pdf file of Socca with rosemary halloumi fig jam, so click to print, for the ingredient list, or for a straightforward how-to.

And so. Let’s get going.

Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C) and put your oven-safe pan in to heat with it. I used cast-iron for this, mainly because I have one and I’ve used it so much it’s practically a non-stick pan on its own. If you don’t have cast-iron, stainless steel is perfectly fine, so long as your pan doesn’t have a rubberized handle or anything. Anyway, let that heat. Chop that rosemary.

Mix your flour, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Then add the water.

Mix it all together thoroughly. It should have the consistency of a heavy cream. With, you know. Chunks of rosemary floating in it. Set it aside until the oven is ready. You can let this sit for however long is necessary. You can even let it rest for up to a day, if for some reason you need to mix your socca immediately but don’t have the extra 15 minutes to bake it off.

Meanwhile, dice your halloumi. Your ha-what-i? Halloumi.

Halloumi comes to us from the island of Cyprus, and it’s primarily known because it doesn’t really melt. It’s grillable. You can set it on fire. It will survive, intact, under a broiler. And when you bite it, it issues an adorable squeak. I mainly chose it for this dish because it wouldn’t melt and I wanted the pockets of cheese for texture. Try to find a non-melting cheese if halloumi is hard to come by. Ricotta salata would be a good second choice.

When the oven is ready, pour one tablespoon of olive oil into your hot pan so it coats the bottom. Pour in the batter and then put the diced cheese into the pan so it bakes along with the flatbread.

And then it all goes into the oven, where you’ll leave it alone for 10 or 12 minutes. When you do check the socca, it should look cooked through and dry along the top. Not dusty-desert dry but rather, cooked-all-the-way-through dry. Switch your oven function over to broil. Take that remaining tablespoon of olive oil and coat the top of the socca, then put small dollops of fig jam all around the cheese. I used an insanely delicious fig butter that I may or may not have gotten from Trader Joe’s, but I will neither confirm nor deny the source until I have their sponsorship.

🙂

Put this beautiful thing back under the broiler for a minute or two, just to get it nice and brown and gorgeous, and to set the jam a little. Take it out and cut it into wedges. You can halve each of the full-size wedges if this is party food or an appetizer.

Oh, man. The fragrance of the rosemary. The sweetness of the fig jam. The salty squeaky snap of the halloumi. This dish is a party unto itself.

And then serve it with…

BONUS RECIPE! Click here for the .pdf for Kale with Garlic and Oranges.

This is another trip through the Mediterranean. The first time I heard of this recipe, the chef used fresh spinach. I’m sure it was delicious but I couldn’t see putting spinach through a 20-minute cook time, and you can’t make it a flash in the pan because you need to cook the orange rind. I decided I wanted something a little more hearty that would stand up to a bit more heat. Hence, kale. I swear by all that is holy that some day I will sit in a little taverna in the Peloponnese region and eat this while overlooking some ruins, or olive groves, or a crisp blue sea. For now, I have to make do with my little kitchen in central PA and a travel app on my Fire TV. At least the eating is good here.

Briefly, chop everything and put it in a large saute pan.

Cover and cook for 20 minutes. Et voila!

I know, cooked oranges are weird, right? Wrong! It’s only weird because we’re not used to it. The bitterness of the orange pith mellows, the kale gets sweeter and soft, as does the garlic, and there’s a wide range of textures from the ruffles of the kale to the chewiness of the oranges to keep you entertained through your meal.

All I need is a glass of rosé to make this dinner…merveilleux. Eccelente? Mükemmel. Enjoy it however you see fit! There’s a lot of latitude here.

Eat on, friends.

Whole-Wheat Pita Bread

I grew up in a white-bread household, and I mean that literally as well as metaphorically. The bread of choice from my childhood was generally super-white and super-squishy, which occasional nods to loaves like rye or pumpernickel.

Hence my surprise when my mother came swanning in from the grocery store with this crazy flat bread with a pocket. It was, like, diet bread, and IMAGINE! We could stuff it with vegetables and lettuce and just the tiniest bit of dressing and it would be like eating a sandwich only more diet-y. What will they think of next, I wondered?

Hence my further surprise when I learned that they’d thought of it long ago. Nascent forms of pita have been around for more than 14,000 years and by 4,000 years ago, flat pita bread (maybe minus the pocket) was a staple in Babylon and Mesopotamia. This easy to make, easy to transport kind of bread then spread through the whole Middle East/Balkan/Mediterranean region because deliciousness transcends borders.

I’m making whole-wheat pita primarily because I prefer the taste, and this is my kitchen. We will get to all white flour pita in another post.

[Click here for a printable .pdf file of whole wheat pita bread]

Here’s what you need:

  • 1 cup warm water, shoot for around 105°F
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 Tablespoon honey or agave
  • 1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour plus extra if needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for proofing

Here’s what you do:

Mix your water and honey so the honey is thoroughly dissolved in the water. Pour your water and honey into a large mixing bowl (if you have a stand mixer, feel free to use it), and add yeast. Combine it all together, and the mix will look cloudy and unappealing. Just wait. In a matter of minutes it will start to look like Bayonne Beach at low tide, as the yeast starts to bloom.

The good news is, it’s supposed to look this way. The better news is, you should start to smell that yeasty, bready smell as the yeast wakes up. I always get ravenously hungry at this point because it’s a Pavlovian and that smell triggers my nom response.

Add the flours, salt, and Tablespoon of olive oil, and stir it all together.

I am new to the dough hook and it has become my favorite thing, particularly because I have some mild carpal issues in both wrists. Inverted yoga positions are pretty much off the table for me at this point, but I digress. What is this device that wants to help knead on my behalf so I may enjoy homemade baked goods without crippling myself? I’ll use it!

Anyway. Knead for five minutes or so by hand, or two minutes or so if by hook, on speed 2. Remember, you’re looking for a fairly smooth ball. If you’re using the mixer, it’s pulled away from the sides of the bowl and if you’re kneading by hand, it stays generally together and doesn’t want to remain attached to the table. Don’t be afraid to add flour as you’re mixing if it’s too sticky. It should still have a little bit of stick, and a pretty good amount of elasticity. Put your ball of dough in the proofing bowl you have waiting, that’s coated in olive oil.

Cover with a plastic wrap or towel and place your dough in a steady-temperature, draft-free spot in your home for one hour. It should double. Also the smell will likely drive you insane with hunger. Or is that me, again?

At the end of that hour, start heating your oven to 450°F (230°C) and of course, if you proof in the oven take the dough out before preheating. Put your baking sheet in the oven to get hot, too. The mystical bread reaction that creates the pocket requires a very hot oven, which will turn the moisture in your dough into steam and cause the signature puff. So you want everything–the oven, the baking surface–to be as hot as you can get it. You can even use a pizza stone with your baking sheet if you’d like, but I always find them hard to manage. That’s just me. You do you.

Take your big puffy mound of risen dough, deflate it a bit, and turn it out once more onto your floured work surface. Cut it into 8 relatively equal chunks (I tend to gently roll mine into kind of a log and cut in half, and then cut the halves in half, and so on) and roll them into a ball. Try not to fold the dough together, because then you’ll get folds on the insides of your pockets. Then roll them all out into rounds about 1/4 inch thick, and try not to roll them thinner than that or they won’t puff properly while they cook.

When your oven is hot, put your pita rounds on the baking sheet. I usually bake them off three at a time, and they don’t need any oil or anything on the sheet. Just lay them on so they don’t overlap each other, and close the oven door. Four minutes, or maybe five later, you’ll have beautiful, fresh, hot pita. Set them on a cooling rack and bake off the remainder. Eventually, you’ll end up with a glorious stack of bread that, if you’re anything like me, won’t last more than a few days in your house.

I’m not kidding when I say I am going to make a fresh batch of these as soon as I finish this post.

And what can you do with these pitas? Enjoy them with hummus. Top them with sauce and cheese and enjoy personal pizzas. We served them stuffed with a lentil salad a la Yotam Ottolenghi, and it was…

…extraordinary.

Enjoy the pita! Have fun in the kitchen! Flatbreads and pancakes are your friends, especially when they’ve been around for 4,000 years or so.

Homemade Pizza Crust

Is there a mightier flatbread than pizza crust? Is there one that is loved more universally?

I don’t think so.

Most of us love pizza. I love pizza, and it’s pretty safe to say I never don’t want it. During the coronavirus shutdown, though, it’s been…not as easy…to get our hands on the pizzas we want. At least, it hasn’t been that easy in central PA. Thankfully, now I have The Pancake Project and can explore the world of pizza to my heart’s content.

I grew up in New Jersey so my comfort food pizza is built on a nice thin crust. Strong enough to support toppings, flexible enough to fold and eat, delicious enough to keep eating until there ain’t no mo’. And thin crust means it’s diet pizza*, right?

*There is no such thing as diet pizza.

Here’s what you need:

  • 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons instant or other active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 1/3 cups water, room temperature
  • Olive oil, for greasing

[Get a .pdf file for crust directions here]

[Convert to metric measurements here]

Here’s what you do:

Select a nice big bowl that you’re going to use to proof your dough. Pour enough oil in it to coat the bottom of the bowl, and set it aside.

Put all your dry ingredients–flour, salt, sugar, yeast–into a mixing bowl. Whisk them together, and then add water. The water should be room temperature or slightly warmer, and no higher than 100°F (37°C); if it’s warmer than that you will most likely kill your yeast, which will make for non-rising bread and what would the point of this be, then, really? Mix all of this together and turn it from the kind of bubbly slush you will initially see, into a nice, round, smooth ball. As you can see from the photo, I started with a spoon, but it didn’t last. I finished the dough thanks to my (impeccably clean) hands, which really are the best tools for getting in and working dough. Just don’t overwork it; get it into shape but don’t have to knead it or anything, or you’ll toughen up the dough. It should be relatively dry, not sticky or tacky.

Then put your ball o’ dough into your proofing bowl, and roll it through the oil until it’s entirely coated. Cover the dough with a towel or some plastic wrap and put in a draft-free space. I proof in my oven–obviously unheated, of course.

A word about my kitchen towel: Among other things, I teach SilverSneakers classes at a local YMCA, and I don’t mean to brag but my students are the best. One of those students gave me this towel for Christmas, and it was embroidered by her 90-some-year-old mother. Her mother (I bet you see where this is going, don’t you?) passed away not long after the holidays, so I have one of the last items she ever made. I will treasure this towel forever.

So. Into your proofing area (oven, cabinet, protected corner of your counter space) it goes! And don’t touch it for two hours, even if the smell of blooming yeast starts to drive you wild with hunger. At the end of the two hours, turn your dough out onto the pre-floured countertop, cut in half, reshape into a nice little ball, and cover again with a towel for about ten minutes. They will rise again, slightly, and poof out anew. Once that happens, they are ready to use.

At last! This is where the fun begins! When you’re ready to cook your dough into a delicious crust, preheat your oven to 450°, and put the oven rack on, ooh, probably one step away from your heating element (up if you’ve got an electric stove, low if yours is gas).

Make sure your workspace is ready for a large piece of dough to be rolled out. Toss a light layer of cornmeal (if you have it; if you don’t, it’s not critical) along the bottom of your roasting pan to help prevent the dough from sticking as it bakes into crust. To roll the dough out, I took two pieces of waxed paper and taped them together in the back, and dusted the untaped side with flour. Then I rolled the dough on top of the waxed paper.

Why on waxed paper? Because that allowed me to invert the waxed paper, lay the dough down on top of the pan, and peel the paper away.

Plus, it made cleanup a breeze.

Trim any overhanging dough and re-smoosh it into the corners and wherever there is a spare spot. Then get a brush and some oil, and lightly oil the dough. This will help prevent your dough from absorbing too much sauce and getting soggy, and I swear to GOD this works and it has changed my life forever.

Add sauce, and then your choice of toppings. Remember, the general idea as far as sauce goes is that less is more, because you don’t want a soupy pizza. And the beauty of a pizza is it can be a way to use things that you need to get rid of. Our sauce was the remainder of a batch I made for spaghetti a few nights before, we had a ton of provolone that we over-bought at the grocery store, the shallots were on hand, and can you ever go wrong with shallots? (Answer: No.) As for the seitan chorizo (or, fauxrizo, as I like to call it), that was in our freezer and just begging to get used. Oh! And the romano. I always have a wedge of hard cheese in my fridge. It comes in handy at times like this.

Put the pizza in the oven and let the magic happen. We checked this beautiful creation at 15 minutes, and then left it in the oven for another seven. When we took it out, browned and crisped and a little bubbly, we topped it with the baby arugula that needed to be eaten before it went to the dark side (again, fridge-clearing and non-wasting).

And then oh. Oh, my.

It was thin, it was chewy in the right places, crispy in other spots, delicious, not soggy, easy to make and easy to use. No wonder this is such a popular flat bread-based meal. And bonus! I have another batch waiting for me in the freezer. All I have to do is defrost.

Feta-Honey Griddle Bread

I have often had the idea, when thinking of the ancients, that their food was, you know. Meh. Probably kind of boring, the equivalent of eating a bowl of wallpaper paste with some weak beer. And I know that’s not true, logically. They figured out how to cure olives! (Which is no small feat, I tell you.) They invented wine! They ate cheese! Since at least the 8th century B.C., cheeses like feta were in process, and some of that? Went into a griddle bread.

This recipe, for bread made of flour, honey, and feta cheese, rocked out with some oil in a hot pan, dates from about the second century B.C. I found a variation of this recipe that uses rice flour and feel free to go for it if you have gluten issues. I made my bread with regular AP flour.

Here’s what you need:

  • 4 oz. feta cheese
  • 2 Tablespoons of honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup flour (plus additional flour for rolling)
  • Oil for the griddle/frying pan

Here’s what you do:

Put cheese, honey, and salt in a mixing bowl and mash them all together. It takes a little work to smash down the feta, but perseverance does the trick.

Add the half-cup of flour and mix until a ragged dough starts to form. This won’t take very long. Turn it out onto your work surface, that you’ve already dusted with flour.

Knead, just for a few passes. It should come together pretty quickly and smooth out into a nice round ball. Bonus if you can get the dough to look like it’s smiling at you.

I can’t unsee it.

Wrap your dough in plastic and let it rest for twenty minutes. You can just leave it on the countertop; you don’t have to put in a proofing spot or the fridge or anything. Just let it sit.

After twenty minutes, unwrap the dough and cut it into twelve equal-ish chunks.

And roll them out into thin discs about 3 inches in diameter.

To cook, put them in a medium-hot pan with a little olive oil, and fry until golden and delicious. They should only take about a minute or so per side, so don’t go wandering off.

And there you have it.

The recipe that I worked off of suggested serving them warm with an additional drizzle of honey (which sounds amazing) or wrapped around something savory, like…roasted asparagus.

Bonus recipe: Roasted asparagus!

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Take one bunch asparagus and snap off the woody ends. Place the asparagus in a roasting pan and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and the seasoning of your choice; today, I used herbes de Provence. When the oven is ready put the asparagus in for 20 minutes. While it’s roasting, toss a handful of pine nuts (if you have them) into a dry pan and toast on your stovetop until they are golden-toasty and even more deliciously nutty, and then remove them from heat lest they start to burn. Which they will do, easily, so don’t walk away while they’re toasting. If you don’t have pine nuts that’s fine, your asparagus will be perfect anyway. And that’s it. When the 20 minutes are up, remove the asparagus from the oven, wrap a few stalks in a piece of feta-honey griddle bread, and enjoy.

OMG THAT’S HECKIN’ GOOD.