Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Spring skiing. Stewart Cirque, Toiyabe mountains, Nevada.
I rarely look back on my days as a community college faculty with any fondness, but I’m realizing I learned a very important behavior during my tenure: How to deal with bureaucracy.  Negotiations to sublease a workspace for Luce’s Gluten-Free Artisan Bread are proceeding smoothly - between the leaseholder and me, that is. The red tape, on the other hand .... Well, let’s just call it amusing. (Example: Luce’s was originally formed in Washington state. Our insurance agent there now tells us his company is not licensed to do business in New Jersey. In the meantime, we’d written the lease using the phrase “all risk”, which now it turns out is a Washington phrase and must be replaced with “all peril.”) It’s a good thing I know how to laugh.
The offshoot is, things are taking longer to organize than I’d hoped. (Surprise!) In  the face of this I’m doing what all strong men do coping with regulatory travails. Taking a vacation!
Mount Bachelor, Oregon, in May. Lotsa snow!
This is actually my wife and my long-postponed ski trip to Mount Bachelor in Bend, Oregon. 
To those of you sweating over the spring’s first hot spell and saying, “Huh?!” or mentally referring back to ski trips that were deep powder wallows, I say Don’t knock spring skiing if you haven’t tried it.
Coming at you. Soft corn on Granite Peak, Nevada.
Climbing on tele skis.
East Humboldt Range, Nevada.
My love of sun-warmed corn snow goes back to the ’80’s, shortly after I took up Telemark skiing and realized, thanks to that sport’s boot-binding, which allows easy uphill travel, the whole mountainous world was my oyster. I began climbing up and skiing down New Jersey’s forested hills (scars on my forearm attest to the steepness of the learning curve) and outgrew these slopes just about the time Leslie and I decided to get married. My “Bachelor Party” was a 5 day ski-camping trip - on Mount Baker, Washington in July - led by the North American Telemark Association. Up there, on the slopes of a mountain almost touching the Canadian border, the sun rose at 4 AM and set at 10 PM, the days were 75 F and the snow - tons of it - was soft as kitten fur but fast as rink ice. I was hooked.
Paul (right) and I and our goal. East Humboldt Range, Nevada
However, it wasn’t until I took an avalanche awareness course with a ski buddy Paul, who I met for the first time on that Baker trip, that I grasped the #1 reason to appreciate warm-weather skiing: it’s one helluva lot safer. 
Snow is more stable in the spring. The freeze-thaw process sinters it - reducing unstable layers and gluing the whole mass together while adhering it to the underlying ground. This is not to say that spring snow avalanches are impossible - they do happen and they do kill people - but they are rare.
Paul and I wanted to ski the biggest mountains we could muster. However, since we both lived on the East coast, that meant travel to sites where we had no intimate knowledge of climate and weather. Thus we’d be rolling the dice every time we got on a steep snowpack. Combining this uncertainty with the arch discomfort of winter camping plus the drudgery of climbing through deep snow led us both to opt for spring.
Memorial Day. East Humboldt Range, Nevada. Yes it was cold!
Which is not to say that spring skiing is all Bermuda shorts and suntans. Mountains can be damned cold in May, particularly at night, and the sky can dish out all sorts of ugly weather. I’ve had my share of dodging thunderstorms, shivering despite a down parka and waking up to snow all over the tent. But all in all, when it comes to ski expeditions, spring is the only way to go.
(For those of you wondering, “Hey, where’s the food in this post?”, have faith. There’s a recipe at the end.)
Racing a thunderstorm. Granite Peak, Nevada.
Fast forward to Leslie, who hates being cold but loves the slip and slide of her skis on the white stuff. Our trip won’t be an expedition. I’ve burned her too many times in the back country: a 6 mile trek into Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains in January to spend 4 days in a cold yurt; thrashing through a brush-choked slope in New Jersey; trying to coax her down a 45-degree terror-ledge on Hinckey Summit, Nevada. Etc. 
Instead we’re aiming for the relative comforts of a chairlift and groomed runs. And food. That’s one thing about Bend, Oregon - lots of terrific food.

But first, a picture show:
The endless climb + the morning's tracks. Henry Mountains, Utah.

Me heading downhill. East Humboldt Range, Nevada.

Yet another thunderstorm. East Humboldt Range, Nevada.

Leslie on top of Mount Bachelor, Oregon.

Steep. Stewart Cirque, Toiyabe Range, Nevada.

Lunch run. Hinckey Summit, Nevada.

Now about that food.
We have a ritual in Bend: eat at the brew pubs, eat Mexican, have ice cream every night, try one place new. The Mexican place we enjoy most is called El Caporal. It’s a chain, but that doesn’t stop their camarones el diablo from being excellent. And that doesn’t in any way impede them from having terrific hand-made corn tortillas. Which I know are hand-made because there is a woman sitting in the center of the restaurant slapping them out, hour after tedious hour.
I happen to think that Mexican corn tortillas, properly made, are one of the world’s best breads. The trick of course is making them properly - with the right corn, prepared the right way, by someone who knows what they are doing, with flawless cooking technique. The best tortillas I’ve ever had were not actually at El Caporal, but in a place outside El Paso, Texas called the Little Diner. Supposedly the chef there hand-grinds her corn daily. The results were such a perfect food they made me tear up in ecstasy. Wrapped around pig fat and spices, they are joy beyond joy.
I’m going to be brazen and put my own tortillas somewhere between El Caporal’s and Little Diner’s. Mine are not nearly as well-shaped or consistent, but I’ve cadged a few tricks about corn and process that make them pretty damned tasty. 
First, the corn:
Tortillas can be made with just about any corn. Last winter I did a test, grinding into flour as many varieties as I could find (including popcorn), making tortillas and tasting them with Leslie. We blinded the test against a pre-packaged masa, which is what most restaurants and home cooks use. Compared to the top of the taste mountain, this (commercial masa) ranked a poor 4th. Two varieties tied for first place: blue posole corn from Purcell Mountain Farms, and white mote (hominy) corn from the local supermarket. Given the proximity of this latter, it’s what I use.
A note: I live in a very Hispanic neighborhood, so all the local stores carry mote corn. Ironically it is Peruvian, not Mexican - but it still tastes best. 
To prepare the corn is simple enough - you soak it, then grind in a food processor. However to do this right means advance planning, plus one ingredient that may be hard to come by: Mexican Calc. This is calcium carbonate - lime. It spikes up the flavor while at the same time making nutrients available. You can find it in the Mexican food section of some supermarkets. If you can’t locate it don’t sweat; your tortillas will still be excellent. But if you can obtain some, do; it is cheap and a little goes a long way.
Here’s how to make great tortillas:
Place one cup of dried white mote or blue posole corn in a microwave-safe bowl. Add an equal weight of water (this won’t be a full cup but about 2/3 cup. Use a scale or rig a ruler as a balance beam). Nuke for 2 minutes, or just to boiling. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon calc. Allow to cool. Cover and let stand for 8 to 16 hours.
Using a slotted spoon, remove corn to food processor. Pulse to grind coarsely, then add the soaking water and process continually until smooth - about 2 minutes. You may have to stop the processor and scrape down the interior surfaces from time to time.

Form the dough into a ball. This is the tricky part. It should just hold together enough to allow you to pat it into a pancake shape but not be so moist it sticks easily to plastic. I keep a reserve of commercial masa on hand in case I get the dough too wet, and if it is too dry I wet my hands while dividing the dough into smaller balls (see below). Return dough to bowl and cover. Allow to stand while you heat a dry skillet or sheet of plain metal to @ 500 F. 
Divide the dough into golf-ball-sized balls. Flatten by slapping back and forth between your hands (true Mexican style) or use a tortilla press, flat plate, cutting board or other implement, pressing against your work counter. If you do it this way you’ll want to put the balls of dough between two layers of plastic bag. Get the tortillas about as thick as a banana peel, then slap onto the hot surface and cook @ 1 minute per side, turning only once. Hold in aluminum foil and serve warm.

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