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.

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.