Thursday, May 12, 2011

This World Is Flat

Cinco de Mayo may have come and gone, but in my kitchen any day of the year can be an excuse for that most delicious of Mexican treats, corn tortillas.
Bora women making yuca flatbread in the Peruvian Amazon
Simple, nutritious, gluten-free and fast (well, at least the cooking part is fast), tortillas are one of those staple foods that not only built a civilization but continues to please today. They're of course a flatbread, which puts them in the company of ancient food, right there with yuca bread (found in the Amazon and parts of Africa), rice wrappers (Southeast Asia) and Injera (Ethiopia). Making flatbread won't overheat your kitchen, so they're a perfect summer food. Since most evolved when humans' only cooking appliance was an open fire, they're perfect for barbecues too.

My corn tortilla recipe is non-traditional, adapted to my tastes and the foods I pair them with. Right now that pairing is with fresh-foraged morel mushrooms simmered in cream sauce, but corn tortillas are also great with spicy chicken or pork, plain ol' beans, or shredded cheese. I'm lucky to live in a Latin neighborhood, so moté corn and maseca flour are easy to find. If you can't locate these, try raw popcorn and fine ground cornmeal. They'll work but won't quite have the same flavor bouquet.

Morel mushrooms

Note: Mexican lime is a white powder - calcium carbonate - and not a green fruit. It can also be skipped, unless you plan to make corn the #1 food on your menu every day of your life. Then you'll need the lime to prevent pelegra - but that's a different story.

Charles Luce's Tortillas:

1 cup white moté corn, whole kernel
1/4 - 1/2 cup maseca flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp Mexican lime
2 Tbls unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

Directions: Place the moté in a microwave-proof bowl, Cover with water so corn is about 1/2 inch below surface, then microwave on high for 2 minutes, or until water just comes to a boil. Remove from microwave and stir in the Mexican lime and salt. Allow to stand at least 2 hours. (Moté can remain at room temperature as long as 2 days.) Kernels will swell as they absorb water and become fringed with bright yellow - a chemical reaction to the lime.

Pour moté into a food processor. Wrap a kitchen towel over the processor top to prevent splash-out (and muffle the sounds) and process 30 seconds to 2 minutes, or until the corn is ground into a mixture that has fine white paste as well as BB-sized chunks. Add butter and pulse to blend. Spoon into a large bowl.

You will want this dough to be dry enough to form balls that don't collapse yet moist enough to not crumble when flattened. Use masaseca and (if necessary) water to achieve this, mixing these ingredients into the moté dough with a fork. When dough seems right, form into a large ball and cover with a damp cloth. This dough can stand on your kitchen counter a day or two or be used immediately.

Heat a dry, heavy cast iron griddle over a high flame. The ideal temperature is around 500 F, so if the griddle has been used with fatty foods your smoke alarm should sound.

Meanwhile, break the dough down into golf-ball size pieces and roll each between your hands to form balls. You may need to dampen your hands. Place each ball between two sheets of plastic wrap and press down with a tortilla press, flat cutting board or skillet back. (If you use one of these two latter devices you'll need a rolling pin to finish flattening the tortillas.) Peel the plastic away and fry each tortilla 1 minute, then turn with a spatula and cook the back side another minute. Stash in a folded cloth towel until ready to serve, but serve within 15 minutes for best flexibility and flavor.

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