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June 27, 2022

Tortillas y Tacos

By Sand Pilarski

When I realized that Bernie was the man I wanted to marry, I offered to make him a special meal, a meal drawn from my cultural heritage -- a meal designed to make him find me indispensable for the rest of his life: tacos with home-made tortillas.

In a sense, my family was my matchmaker, for I learned how to make tortillas from my cousin Ramona, who could not believe that my mother had never learned from her mother. (Ramona did not understand that my mother had all the kitchen skills of a cat when she first got married and only reluctantly and bitterly learned the rudiments of my father's aunt's Scotch-Irish-German cooking.) When Ramona's father, my Uncle Emilio, found out that I was to learning to make my own tortillas, he made me a rolling pin from an unfinished broom handle, sanded smooth. Maybe ten inches long, it's perfect for rolling, hands sliding across the top instead of holding handles at the side as with conventional pins. I remember Uncle Mili every time I use that roller, which is also terrific for pie dough, home-made noodles, or biscuits. My Aunt Esther (who was from Sierra Leone in Mexico) used to regularly roll out 400 tortillas in an afternoon for the parties they threw. Uncle Mili said that he had to make new rollers for her frequently, because she wore them out. I bow to her expertise, and remember her every time I finish rolling one batch.

Never once since I learned how to make tortillas more than thirty years ago has anyone said, "No, let's have something else" if I suggested tacos with home-made tortillas.

Tortillas

3 cups of unbleached flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup water

Mix flour, baking powder and salt with a fork. Then cut in, a tablespoon at a time, the vegetable oil. Finally, add the water in dribbles, mixing with the faithful fork again. (After 30 years, I got lazy and bought a Cuisinart. Sooooo much less effort.) Mix the dough until it holds together well when pinched, and as with many doughs, the less you mess with it, the better it turns out. Knead it a little, just to make it all hold together.

Now let it sit and think about life, the universe, and everything while you find your rolling pin. When I smoked, I let the dough rest for the space of a cigarette. Now I figure five minutes is adequate.

Cut the mound of dough into three with a sharp, dry knife. Put two aside and making a snake about two inches thick, cut the snake into pieces about 1 1/2 inches each. Roll each gently into a ball.

Now you're ready to start rolling and baking tortillas. I use a griddle set to "Sear" -- about 375 degrees. If you're just beginning, a slightly lower heat will do just fine. When the tortilla looks sort of bubbly and lumpy, (like a pancake would) then you flip them over. Don't let them get crunchy; a few light brown marks are okay. As they come off the griddle, stack them, and when they're all done, flip the stack so that the moisture distributes evenly. Eat them soon -- they have no preservatives, so they don't keep well. I usually figure to get about 15 tortillas per batch. It will vary depending on how thick you roll them (thick makes great flatbread for gyros) and how large a ball of dough you roll out.

On rolling: practice makes it a lot easier. My first tortillas were shaped like Rorshach blotches and uneven in thickness. I've never been able to get them perfectly round, but no one has ever said, "Sand, I'm not going to eat this one, it's crooked on this side."

I keep a small can with dry flour beside me as I roll; I flour the rolling board, the rolling pin, and my hands before I start. I'll replenish to keep my surfaces dry as the process unfolds. Each ball of dough gets pinched by hand until it is a fat little pizza-shaped object. (Keep turning it as you pinch.) Then press it out a little on the board with your hands, and then set to with the rolling pin, flipping the tortilla and keeping it lightly floured as you go. Aim for 1/8 inch thick. When you're reasonably happy with the shape and thickness, pick it up and slap it back and forth between your hands to shake off the excess flour, and flop it onto the griddle.

Sweating and swearing, you've completed the rolling and baking-on-a-hot-rock stage. Relax, have a margarita, the rest is just fun. You now can wrap your favorite meats, cheeses, and condiments in the tasty tortillas and stuff yourself senseless.

Meats to try: Ground or thinly sliced beef, chicken, turkey, lamb -- seasoned with chili powder, onion, peppers, salt, cumin, tomato sauce, salsa -- mix or match, it's all about you now.

Cheeses to try: Monterey Jack, Cheddar, Colby; queso cotija if you're lucky enough to find it. My mother said they used Romano when she was a child, and I suspect that was because after moving to the US they couldn't find cotija.

Add-ons: Sour cream, guacamole, refried beans, lettuce, salsas green or red or casera, chopped scallions, onions, slices of tomato, or jalapenos.

You can figure on a meal being two tacos per person, but usually it ends up being four, because they're too good to stop. One of the first times I cooked for Bernie's family, I watched with horror as my new oldest brother-in-law ate thirteen of them. Whoa!

Over the Top: Take the soft flour tortillas from the griddle, add a couple tablespoons of the cooked meat, and secure them like clamshells with two toothpicks each and then fry them in oil until a little crispy. If you plan on doing this, plan also on making extra. It was this little touch that forced Uncle Mili to buy Aunt Esther a commercial taco-frying rig that could make 30 at a time.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-06-12
1 Reader Comments
Lydia
07/15/2011
08:03:23 AM
Everytime I read this recipe I think, "Gee I really need to make these" then I think..."But who would be eating them but me? eeek!"

One of these days!
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