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Wrapped Up in Corn

June 15, 1995|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most of us buy machine-made corn tortillas packed in cold, stiff, flat stacks inside antiseptic plastic wrap.

Imagine instead tortillas shaped by human hands and grilled slowly to perfect brown-speckled doneness. Stuffed loosely into a sack while still too hot to touch, they overpower you with lush, mellow corn aroma. And you can't resist tearing into them at once.

So where do you get such tortillas? On the back roads of Mexico? Of course. I remember the meaty, plate-size tortillas that came with lunch in a small town in Oaxaca. But you can also get them right in the center of Los Angeles.

Over in Pico-Union, the tortillas can be glorious. We bought some from La Adelita Food Co. No. 1, where you choose between super-thick Salvadoran-style or thin Mexican tortillas. While we waited, a young woman moistened a pile of dough and kneaded it until the texture was just right. Then she shaped tennis ball-sized lumps into circles, pressing each on a round of blue plastic to gauge the size. These Salvadoran tortillas were so thick it took some time to cook them through on the big black grill.

Meanwhile, we could study the bins where dried corn, soon to be ground into masa , was soaking. As we watched, the production line geared up, and thin, everyday tortillas came flopping off a conveyor belt to be counted and packed by hand. Our handmade specials cost six times as much, but they were worth it. We demolished them quickly in The Times Test Kitchen, tearing off thick strips that we wrapped taco-style around avocado chunks, adding a bit of crumbled ranchero cheese and a dash of hot sauce.

Tortillas are indeed addictive. Every so often a letter comes from someone who has moved away and absolutely has to have them. They write from Norway, Indonesia, Malawi and the East Coast of the United States. And they plead for a recipe that will enable them somehow to reproduce the tortillas they remember.

Well, it's no easy job. I tried making tortillas once, only once. I cooked dried corn with a chunk of white lime (calcium oxide), which in Mexico is called cal , until the skins loosened. After rubbing these off, I ground the corn on a metate-- a well-used grinding stone that had come out of central Mexico after the revolution of 1910. Muscles aching and brow feverish, I ground and ground and ground. The lump of dough that I produced was too coarse for tortillas, a Mexican friend said. Possibly, it would do for tamales.

There is an easier alternative--commercial instant masa flour. All you do is add water, then press out the tortillas between sheets of plastic inside a tortilla press. A visitor from Mexico City, cooking in a friend's kitchen, used a heavy saucepan as a press, and that worked well too.

Tortilla lovers seem to divide into two camps: those who insist on corn tortillas, and those who prefer flour. Flour tortillas are traditional for burritos, but sometimes they invade realms normally dominated by corn tortillas, like enchiladas. And both types are used for quesadillas.

If you're avoiding fats, corn tortillas are definitely the better choice. They contain no added fat, whereas authentic flour tortillas depend on lard or shortening for tender texture. On the other hand, corn tortillas are often fried to make chips, taco shells, tostada bases and taquitos or to soften them for enchiladas. So perhaps it comes out even.

The recipes to the right and on H8 employ corn tortillas only. They come from Mexican-Americans and from restaurants in Mexico where corn, along with beans and chiles, is a staple food.

TORTILLAS DIPPED IN BLACK BEAN PUREE (Enfrijoladas)

Graphic artist Nancy Zaslavsky of Venice has lived in central and southern Mexico. She's compiled the recipes of cooks in those regions in a book, "A Cook's Tour of Mexico," due out this fall. The recipes include Oaxacan black beans--frijoles parrados--and enfrijoladas, which are tortillas coated with beans instead of enchilada sauce. "Oaxacan black beans are always soupy," Nancy says. "Never let the liquid boil away." ENFRIJOLADAS Frijoles Parrados

Chicken broth

1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil

12 corn tortillas

16 white onion slices

1/2 cup ranchero cheese, dry cottage cheese or farmer cheese, crumbled

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

Puree Frijoles Parrados and thin to heavy cream consistency with chicken broth. Heat oil in heavy skillet. Place each tortilla in hot oil 10 to 20 seconds on each side. Tortilla should remain pliable and not crunchy.

Holding by upper edge, dip each tortilla in bean sauce. Place on plate and fold in half, then in half again to make triangle. Repeat with remaining tortillas, placing 2 on each plate. Spoon additional sauce over tortillas, top with onion slices, cheese and parsley. FRIJOLES PARRADOS

1 pound dry black beans

6 cups water

2 sprigs fresh epazote or 2 tablespoons dried

1 medium white onion, cut in half

Juice 2 small limes or 1 large lime

Salt

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