You can wrap just about anything in a freshly made corn tortilla, hot off the comal or griddle, and it'll be wonderful.
In 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 about anywhere.
I was in a serious carnitas phase: I’d fallen in love with Diana Kennedy’s version in her landmark cookbook “The Cuisines of Mexico.”
A few 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 scandalized.
She 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.
With 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.
The conversation seriously deflated me and I lost some of my joy for tortilla-making.
That’s 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.”
“A 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.”
Well, 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.
Once again, I’m hooked. Let’s get this taco party going!
Quick taco fillings
So, what to fold into those warm, handmade tortillas?
Have a 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 chili, a little salt, a big squeeze or three of lime).
Set 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.
For the fillings, let your imagination go:
▪ Pick up a rotisserie chicken at the supermarket.
▪ Stop by your favorite barbecue joint and buy some sliced brisket or pulled pork.
▪ Use 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 salsa.
▪ Boil 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.
▪ Pick up some shelled and deveined shrimp from the supermarket and toss them on the grill or grill-pan. Or grill fish fillets.
▪ Leftover braised short ribs make great tacos, too. So do leftover stews (beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken), pot roast, chops, leg of lamb.
Makes 12 tortillas
Recipe from “Cooks Without Borders”
1 cup masa harina
1 1/8 cup warm water
In a 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.
Place 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.
Roll a 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.
Use a 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.