If you've ever been in Mexico or Central America, you know that the corn tortillas you can buy in a U.S. store bear very little resemblance to the real thing, made from whole, dried corn kernels treated with lime (the mineral, not the citrus fruit), then ground and cooked the same day. Freshly-made tortillas are vastly better than the store-bought alternative. And they're fun to make.
You can't just grind corn into meal and make tortillas; it won't stick together properly. You need to treat the corn with lime first, a process called nixtamalization. Actually, the meal made from untreated corn is inferior nutritionally to nixtamalized corn. The lime makes certain B vitamins more available, improves the availability of the corn's amino acids, greatly increases its calcium absorbability and content, allows you to remove the indigestible husks, improves the texture for tortillas, and improves the taste (Whew!).
To grind the corn, you'll need a grain mill (available at Lehman's), or a food processor. The grain mill is, by far, the better tool. A mill is expensive to buy, but a worthwhile investment - You can use it to grind all kinds of grains, nuts and even dried fruit, for filling pastries. And it will last a lifteime. Authentic, handmade tortillas are made from nixtamal ground on a large flat stone "metate". Once the corn is ground and made into a dough, it's called "masa".
If you have no grinder, you can purchase masa harina, made from masa which has been dried and ground into a flour. You simply add water to make the dough. Its only drawback is that the flavor is decidely inferior to the masa made from freshly nixtamalized corn.
Homemade tortillas are especially fun to make with kids. Our 7 year old can grind the corn with a little help and press the tortillas all by himself.
To proceed, grind the nixtamal (corn) reasonably fine. Grind twice - once with the grinder plates set to produce a very coarse grind to crack the kernels and once more with the plates set close together to make the flour. The second time through, you'll have to use a piece of wood to apply pressure to keep the meal feeding into the grinder. (If you're using masa harina, it's already finely ground.) You can experiment with the degree of fineness. Some people enjoy their tortillas more coarsely ground than others.
Put the ground corn (or masa harina) in a bowl and add just enough water to make a pliable dough. Be careful -- it's easy to add so much water that it becomes runny. Knead the dough until it's smooth, then break it into golf-ball sized pieces. Roll each piece into a ball.
Place the cut open plastic bag on a flat surface (table or countertop). Place a piece of dough in the center of one side of the bag. Lay the other side of the bag over it, so the dough in sandwiched between them. Now put the heavy pot on top of the "sandwich" and press to make the dough should spread out into a round patty about 1/8" thick or less. Alternatively, you can press them by passing them back and forth from one hand to the other. This makes a thicker tortilla, but adds to the sensory delight of the process.
To cook, preheat the cookie sheet on the stove or over a fire until a drop of water dances on the surface. Peel the tortilla off the plastic and drop it onto the hot tin. when it starts to smoke, flip it with a spatula. If it sticks, the tin is not hot enough; red hot is too hot. Tortillas don't turn a uniform brown like pancakes. They tend to be spotty. As long as the tortilla is heated through, it's done. Line the basket with a cloth napkin. Drop in the heated tortilla, and fold the flaps of the cloth to cover it. Add each new tortilla as it is cooked.
Serve immediately, tortillas are best when fresh and hot. Serve with Salsa, Guacamole, Red, White, and Green Supper, Instant Tofu Jambalaya, or Summer at the Sea-side Soup. There's no need to make a taco out of every tortilla you eat; just tear off a piece and dip it in salsa, or use it as a scoop for beans, etc.
To make preparation easier, you can divide up the process to make it fit your schedule better: Cook the corn up to 8 hours before washing. Grind up to 2 days after washing. Cook up to 24 hours after making the dough. You can also reheat tortillas the next day. Just be sure to refrigerate any time you don't move immediately from one step to the next - cooked corn doesn't keep for long, even with refrigeration. For a quick snack, place a leftover tortilla on a baking sheet. Spread with cooked beans and sprinkle with salsa, and top with grated cheese. Bake till the cheese melts and serve.
A lot of work, for a simple, peasant bread? yes, but the results are stunning, and the pleasure of having created such a delicious, wholesome food from scratch is a satisfying feeling, indeed.
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