can wrap just about anything in a freshly made corn
tortilla, hot off the comal or griddle, and it’ll be
that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.
another lifetime, when I was in my 20s and living in L.A., I
made fresh tortillas all the time. I had a cheap aluminum
tortilla press and a cheap aluminum comal (tortilla
griddle); I’d picked up both in a Mexican grocery. You
could buy a bag of masa harina (dried powdered masa) just
in a serious carnitas phase: I’d fallen in love with Diana
Kennedy’s version in her landmark cookbook "The
Cuisines of Mexico," and I’d make that with salsa
verde cruda and guacamole and a big pot of pinto beans to
serve on the side.
years after that, in the early ’90s, I lucked into meeting
Kennedy, and we got into a discussion about corn tortillas.
I’ll never forget her expression when I told her I was in
the habit of using masa harina to make mine: I might as well
have told her I was a regular at Taco Bell. She was
insisted that masa made from nixtamal — corn kernels
cooked in a solution of lime (calcium oxide) and water —
was the only legitimate masa. I knew all about it from her
book, but when I’d gotten to the part of the two-page
process that said, "Meantime, crush the lime if it is
in a lump, taking care that the dust does not get into your
eyes," I stopped reading.
Kennedy, I tried to defend my position, arguing that
tortillas freshly made from masa harina are way better than
anything you can buy at the store. "Better to buy masa
at a tortilleria in your neighborhood," she countered.
But I was living in New York City at the time, and there
were no tortillerias anywhere near my ’hood.
conversation seriously deflated me (this was my Mexican
cooking hero!) and I lost some of my joy for
why last summer when a review copy of Alex Stupak’s
cookbook "Tacos: Recipes and Provocations" landed
on my desk at work, I was delighted when it fell open to the
following: "In Defense of Masa Harina."
warm tortilla prepared with harina may not hit the same
celestial notes as one made with fresh masa," it said,
"but it is still an absolute revelation if all you’ve
ever tasted is reheated, store-bought tortillas. There’s
irrefutable value in that, so I stand by it."
of course, I’ve tasted many a fabulous tortilla made from
fresh masa, but I still think the ones made from masa harina
(all you need to add is water!) are pretty darn good. And
once you get the hang of it, making them is easy — easier
than making pancakes, in fact, because the dough is just
harina and water.
again, I’m hooked. Let’s get this taco party going!
cup warm water
large bowl, pour the water over the harina and stir with a
wooden spoon until the masa is moistened, then knead it
together until it holds in a ball. It should be moist but
not sticky; it shouldn’t stick to your hands. If it’s
not moist enough, add a little more water and knead again;
if it’s too moist, add a little more harina and knead.
Cover with a damp towel.
a two-burner griddle over both burners, or use two cast-iron
pans. Heat one over medium-high heat and the other over
medium heat for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, cut a large
piece of plastic: I find the very thin crinkly grocery bags
from the supermarket work best. Fold it in half, open your
tortilla press. You want it to line the bottom, with the
fold lying against the press’s hinge, with the other half
covering the top.
ball of masa about the size of a golf ball (maybe a wee bit
smaller) and put it in the center of the bottom of the
press. Making sure the plastic will sandwich the ball, close
the press and pull the lever down gently. Open the press,
lift the plastic with the tortilla, open your palm, lay the
tortilla flat in your palm, peel off the plastic, and place
the tortilla on the less-hot part of the griddle or less-hot
pan. Cook it for 15 seconds.
metal spatula to flip it over onto the hotter side of the
griddle or hotter pan and cook it for 30 seconds. Flip it
again, still on the hot side, and cook for another 10
seconds, then flip a final time and cook 10 seconds more, at
which point it may puff a bit. Place it in your tortilla
basket if it’s to be eaten immediately or very soon, or
better yet, in an insulated fabric tortilla warmer, which
can keep it warm for more than an hour.
Cooks Without Borders
what to fold into those warm, handmade tortillas?
couple of good salsas on hand, like an easy-to-make roasted
salsa verde, a store-bought salsa roja or homemade pico de
gallo (diced onion and tomato, chopped cilantro, minced
serrano or jalapeño chile, a little salt, a big squeeze or
three of lime).
out bowls of any or all of the following: lime wedges,
guacamole, crumbled queso fresco, sliced avocado, cilantro
leaves, sliced radishes, chopped olives, chopped white
onion, sliced scallions, sliced or diced cucumber.
the fillings, let your imagination go:
up a rotisserie chicken at the supermarket.
by your favorite barbecue joint and buy some sliced brisket
or pulled pork.
leftover steak. Toss it in a hot skillet or grill pan, then
slice it in medium-rare strips for bifstek tacos. They’re
great dressed with chopped onion, cilantro and any kind of
some pinto beans for vegetarian tacos. Just soak beans
overnight, drain, cover with water, toss in half a peeled
onion (or a whole one), a couple cloves of unpeeled garlic,
fresh thyme or oregano (optional), dried or fresh bay leaves
(optional). Bring to a boil, lower heat, then simmer till
they’re tender. Add salt to taste when they’re done.
up some shelled and deveined shrimp from the supermarket and
toss them on the grill or grill-pan. Or grill fish fillets.
braised short ribs make great tacos, too. So do leftover
stews (beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken), pot roast, chops,
leg of lamb.