nixtamal, the dough that forms the base of tortillas, sopes, huaraches, tlacoyos, gorditas and countless other Mexico City street foods. Nixtamal is made from dried corn that's soaked in a mixture of water and a mineral called calcium hydroxide. The mineral, which can be white and powdery or rock-shaped depending on where you buy it, adds important nutrients to the corn and better enables our body to digest it. Upon contact with the kernel, the calcium hydroxide pulls at the kernels' hard outer skin, which eventually sloughs off and makes the corn smoother and easier to grind. Because of the fluctuating price of corn -- and the unpredictable nature of a Mexico City mill, which may or may not have the nixtamal ready by the time customers want or need it -- many tortillerías in the capital now use packaged nixtamalized corn flour, like Maseca or Minsa. When I lived in DF, I'd always ask before approaching a new tortillería: "Es de maiz maiz, o Maseca?" If they replied "Cien por ciento maíz", I'd buy there. A lot of people are increasingly worried about processed nixtamal flour completely supplanting real corn tortillas someday. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where I stand, considering that Maseca and Minsa both provide cheap, quick alternatives (and nutrients) to families that may not have time to make their own tortillas daily. I prefer the taste of real corn tortillas, so I seek them out. Most mills in Mexico City still use thick discs made of volcanic rock to grind the corn, so that adds an extra layer of flavor. The last time I was in Mexico City, I passed by the mill and caught a quick video of the grinder in action. A trickle of water from the faucet makes the dough come together into a solid mass. The bicycle wheel in the bottom-left corner of the frame shows how the workers distribute the masa to fondas and taquerías throughout the neighborhood.One of my favorite places in the Centro Histórico is an old corn mill on Calle Aranda. It's one of the few places left in the neighborhood that still grinds dried corn into
It's been 17 days since I had a corn tortilla, and finally, today, I gave in. I bought these Mi Rancho tortillas because they were the best I could find. (I'm in San Diego visiting my Dad this week.) They did not contain wheat or a long list of weird chemicals. (By the way, what's up with corn tortillas containing wheat? That's so strange, especially with so many people who are gluten-free.) I thought it'd be fun to start a series of American corn tortilla taste tests, so here are my thoughts on this one. Pros: Loved the phrase "real tortillas are made from real corn" on the package. I also liked that the color was a nice, normal yellow, and not paper-white and gummy, like the other packaged corn tortillas I've seen. The smell wasn't too off-putting either -- it was mineral and slightly bitter, like leftover cal-water. Cons: Very chewy, even after a thorough heating on the comal. The taste doesn't much resemble corn (it's got that bland, floury taste that comes from tortillas made from masa harina), and I would not enjoy eating a plain one sprinkled in salt. OVERALL: Not corn tortilla perfection -- does it exist among the packaged thousands? -- but not bad. I would buy these again if homemade was not an option. If you have a favorite corn tortilla brand, let me know. My Nixtamatic doesn't arrive until early March.
I'm still not an expert at making corn tortillas without a press, but I was in awe of this woman at the Mole Festival in San Pedro Atocpan. Her name is Bertha Reyes Romero and she was the quesadilla-maker at one of the restaurants. Her hands worked so fast that I asked if I could take a video, and she said yes.
When I was a kid and my brother and I were really hungry, my mom used to whip up this quick tortilla-egg thing. She'd tear tortillas into pieces and fry them in a little bit of oil, and then crack in some eggs. She somehow fried the tortillas exactly how I wanted -- not too crispy and not too soft. Finding one of these tortilla pieces in my bowl (the tortilla-egg thing was always served in a bowl) always felt so surprising and good. I've been thinking a lot lately about these comforting, informal dishes we ate as children and how much of an impact they make. My mom hasn't made the tortilla-egg thing for me in years, but I still think of it every now and then and sometimes whip up my own version. I know now this dish is called migas, by the way -- my mom told me that years later. (I still call it the tortilla-egg thing because old habits are hard to break.) This morning I had old tortillas I wanted to use up, so I cut them into pieces and fried them. Added some roasted red peppers and fresh peas, and poured in a bowl of beaten eggs. The result was good, but the tortillas were too soggy. If you want them really crisp, I think you have to keep it simple: just tortillas and eggs. What do you remember eating as a kid that made you feel good? Migas with red peppers and peas Serves 3 Ingredients 1 teaspoon oil 4 corn torillas, cut into pieces 1/4 cup (heaping) chopped onion 1/2 whole roasted red pepper, cut into squares 1 cup (heaping) peas 6 eggs, beaten For garnish: Cotija cheese More roasted red peppers Salsa Directions Heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add corn tortillas and stir to coat. Cook until crisp, stirring occasionally, about five minutes. Add in vegetables and stir quickly, cooking until peas turn slightly tender, perhaps 2 minutes. Sprinkle some salt to taste. Pour in eggs and turn heat to low. Cook until eggs are scrambled. Garnish with cotija cheese, more roasted red peppers and salsa.
The New York Times had an article on spaghetti tacos awhile back. Did you see it? It was about how popular spaghetti tacos have become among kids. The tacos are exactly what they sound like, by the way: spaghetti noodles and tomato sauce, stuffed inside a tortilla. It got me thinking about all the stuff I used to put in tortillas as a kid. We didn't always have bread in the house, but we always, always had a package of flour tortillas in the lunch meat drawer. One of my favorite after-school snacks was a hot dog wrapped in a tortilla. Or a slice of bologna in a tortilla. Loved a tortilla with a smear of crunchy peanut butter, or layered with Kraft singles and microwaved until the cheese bubbled out the sides. These days, my tortilla preference has switched to corn, but I still eat corn tortillas with peanut butter all the time. Sometimes I even add a little jelly. (PB&J in a tortilla! Yes, I'm fully admitting that's weird.) I'm curious: What is your favorite odd filling to put in a tortilla? What about when you were a kid?
A few weeks ago, my cooking class instructor gave us our first major homework assignment. For the July 29 class, we were to bring one kilo of nixtamal, or dried corn that's been soaked in a mixture of water and slaked lime. (Slaked lime is known in Spanish as "cal.") We could either soak our corn the night before class or do it Thursday morning. But the corn had to sit undisturbed for eight hours. Luckily I already had my corn -- I'd bought a kilo at the Central de Abastos about a month ago, before my cooking course even started. I didn't have time to make the corn Wednesday night. So at 9 a.m. yesterday, I padded into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, in my pajamas. I took out my corn from the pantry and poured it into a bowl. I tweeted that I was about to make nixtamal. And of course I took a few photos. I rinsed the corn under the faucet and shuffled the kernels with my fingers. And that's when I spotted them: tiny black bugs, about the size of bread crumbs. My stomach dropped. There were bugs in my corn. ...
Just so you know what caliber of dish we're dealing with here, I served these to Alice as leftovers last week. She took a few bites and said: "Lesley. I think this is the best thing you've ever made in Mexico." I'm sure it was the quintoniles. And the homemade tomato-based enchilada sauce. I didn't explain this very well in the other post, but quintoniles really like a lighter version of spinach. You don't get any of the bitterness. None of the squeaky texture across your teeth. Just mild, mellow flavor. They're like the Dazed and Confused green, just wanting everyone to relax and enjoy themselves. This veggie combination came about somewhat randomly. Somehow, all the stars aligned and everything I hoped to happen, did: The enchiladas were hearty and light at the same time; sweet and salty; toothsome from the corn, and lightly fried tortillas. Not to get all weird-bohemian-girl on you, but I felt a sense of time passing as I ate them. Like, suddenly it became very clear that the pre- and post-Mexico me had morphed into two different people. This is because I have a little bit of a history with enchiladas. In my 20s, when I lived in Texas, enchiladas were one of my "go-to" dishes. I'd dip the tortillas in canned sauce, blanket them with cheese and bake them. Sometimes I'd wear an embroidered Mexican blouse as I cooked, just to let people know, you know, that I was Mexican-American. People would ooh and ahh when the dish came out of the oven. I'd think: I am so proud of myself for serving real Mexican food from scratch. And here I am today. The two things I'd always wanted -- to live in Mexico, and speak Spanish -- have happened. I know more about Mexican food than I ever thought I would, and most of what I truly enjoy is nothing like the cheese concoction I used to make. (My favorite Mexican dishes don't have any cheese at all.) I still wear my Mexican blouse, but just because I like how it looks, not because I want to express any overt cultural connection. Really, I'm just more confident in myself. And my cooking. Funny how one bite of food can stir up all that, no? Here's the recipe. ...
When I was growing up, my mom used to heat up tortillas by placing them, one at a time, on our stove's gas flame. We usually had flour instead of corn, and she'd put one on the flame and then go away for a few seconds. When the air started to smell like charred toast, she'd come back and flip it. One side of the tortilla would be covered with black, burned splotches. "You burned it!" I'd tell her. She'd say: "I like them that way." I used to think eating burned tortillas was weird. But lately, I've started leaving my corn tortillas on the flame just a little bit longer. The burned parts give it this smoky, carbony taste, and it makes the tortilla a little crisper, without turning it into a tostada. Here in Mexico, our stove has a comal between the burners. I used it once to heat up my corn tortillas, and I'm kind of ashamed to admit that I didn't like it too much. The tortillas came out too soft. Not enough burnt parts. How do you like your tortillas? And how do you cook them?
Even though we were only in Monterrey for two full days -- and we were sleep deprived pretty much the whole weekend, having woke up on Saturday at 4 a.m. to catch our flight, and then lying awake most of that night due to a rock concert outside our door -- we managed to get a pretty good feel for regio cuisine. (A regio is the Spanish name for someone from Monterrey.) I felt like I was in Texas a lot of the time. Tortilla baskets came with flour, not corn, tortillas. Waiters served chips and salsa as soon as we sat down, most places. The salsa reminded me of what you'd get at Mexican restaurants in San Antonio -- something mouth-puckeringly tangy and watery. Some places served it warm. We tried cabrito, or roasted goat, because that's the regional specialty. El Rey de Cabrito -- heralded by guidebooks as the city's best -- was a short walk from our hotel. A row of skewered, roasted animals sat in the window, in case you might have forgotten what you'd be eating. The goat breast we got looked great, covered in a crackly brown skin, but it was a little too chewy and tough. I expected more for $200 pesos. (About $15 USD.) My favorite spot ended up being Fonda San Francisco, a tiny, casual spot in the suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia. Our cabbie got lost on the way there, but it didn't matter in the end because we were the only customers, despite it being Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. (Everyone arrived after 9, fueling my lingering confusion about when, exactly, Mexicans eat dinner.) The menu had been painted on a chalkboard, and it included things like pork in plum-guajillo chile sauce, salmon gorditas, and sesame-seed enchiladas. I wanted all of it. Unfortunately -- damn you, stomach, for getting full on chips and guac at the Barra Antigua -- I wasn't extremely hungry. So we ordered three plates, in half-portions: fried goat cheese with strips of nopal; enchiladas in peanut sauce, and the pork in the plum-guajillo sauce. I'm not the hugest nopal fan, but the goat cheese, which had been seared to deep-golden brown and doused in some type of honey vinaigrette, went perfectly with the tangy strips of cactus. We gobbled them up, and then sopped up the sauce with the restaurant's thick, homemade corn tortillas. It was the pork, though, that left me a little breathless. It was covered in a thick, deep-purple compote, and it fell apart as I scooped it onto my plate. I took a bite and felt my eyes light up, catch fire. I closed my eyes and desperately tried to record what I was tasting. Sweet... smoky... jammy.... what was this? I took a picture of my plate, but of course it came out horribly. And I didn't want to keep taking pictures. This was the type of dish where you wanted to sit, eyes closed, and stay in the moment. Crayton surprised me. He'd been eating his pork in silence, when he said: "I know this sounds weird, but this reminds me of smoking a cigar. But in a good way. You know? Doesn't it have that smoky, tobacco taste?" I nearly fell out of my chair. Wasn't that supposed to be my line? And then I felt a twinge of pride. I've trained him well. IF YOU GO Fonda San Francisco: An intimate fonda with a creative, traditionally Mexican-inspired menu. Los Aldama 123, Col. San Pedro Garza García (81) 8336-6706 Cafe Infinito: A dark, romantic spot in the Barrio Antiguo with great thin-crust pizza, and an affordable wine list. Jardón 904 Ote., in the Barrio Antiguo (81) 8989-5252 Barra Antigua: We hit this Barrio Antiguo sports bar for beers and bontanas. Highly recommend the chips and guac. (Unless you're dining at Fonda San Francisco later, in which case, I would try to save room.) Ave. Constitucion 1030 Ote., in the Barrio Antiguo (81) 8345-4848 El Rey de Cabrito: Great norteño ambience, with its roasted meat in the window and kitschy decor. The food is pricey and somewhat mediocre, but if you're dying for cabrito, it'll do. Avenida Constitucion 817, in the Barrio Antiguo (81) 8345-3232
Back when Crayton and I were still dating, when I'd just gotten the cooking bug, I proposed (not that kind of proposal) that I whip up a Sunday brunch. We could have eggs. And cajeta pound cake. And these little things I'd just read about in a newspaper article: bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese. This was circa 2002, I believe. Or maybe 2003. All the years have started to run together lately... In any case, my friend Michelle came over to be my cooking co-pilot, and we cut and seeded jalapeños, and took turns stirring the liquid cement-like pound cake batter. (This is when I realized the handiness of electric mixers.) Everyone loved it all -- but it was the jalapeños that captured everyone's heart. They were smoky, and creamy, and just a wee bit spicy. You could eat four before you even know what you were doing. It was a jalapeño hypnotic state. Since that day, I've made the jalapeños pretty much every year, usually at manly inspired events such as The Super Bowl. On Saturday, I made them for So Drunk in the August Sun Day, which is a holiday Crayton and his friends came up to honor sitting outside and drinking. We popped the jalapeños on the grill and they were a huge hit. Seriously, if you want a go-to appetizer -- and you have friends who are not vegetarians -- this is pretty much it. On Sunday we also threw 'em in tortillas, because we live in Mexico and we roll like that. It was quite good. Recipe below. ...