Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's another mystery!

What's in the photo? I won't keep you in suspense -- let's just say that, contrary to what the AP article said, tortillas are not "unbelievably simple to make." Scott saw me take this picture and recommended that I not include it if I ever write a cookbook! But hey, I thought somebody might get a smile out of my -- what should I call them -- corny pancakes!

I was probably 12 years old when I visited a little hut in Guatemala and watched a lady demonstrate how to make a tortilla, beginning with the corn that had to first be ground. I have only a vague recollection of the process, but I have a much better memory of how "authentic" tortillas are supposed to taste. (Side story -- The homemade tortillas were often undercooked and doughy in the middle. I thought I had to choke them down like that until I observed a local pastor hand his (practically raw) tortilla back to be "toasted." The resulting tortilla resembled a gigantic corn chip and tasted delicious!)

The tortillas I find in the US, even in Latino markets, are nothing like the shaped-by-hand, thick corn tortillas I remember from Guatemala. I knew better, really, but when I read an article in the newspaper on how simple it is to make your own, I just had to try it. After procrastinating for the better part of a year, I bought Bob's Red Mill masa harina flour, which is not quite like grinding my own corn, but I figured it was as close as I could get. I then wrote "Tacos" into my menu calendar for the week and deliberately did not buy any tortillas so I'd have to make them myself.

I followed the directions exactly and got a very dry dough. Maybe that was the problem -- I don't know. I put in the maximum amount of water recommended and it still seemed dry. Then I shaped the tortillas and tried to keep them from falling apart as I fried them in a cast iron skillet on the stove. Not quite the open fire I remember, but again as close as I could get. The resulting tortillas looked so awful that I called Scott and asked him to pick up a package on his way home from work! Still not brave enough to actually taste my attempts, I cleaned up the counter and floor from all the crumbles of dough that Munchkin had spread everywhere. At least he had fun.

Sometime during dinner, I finally got brave enough to take a bite and was pleasantly surprised that the tortillas didn't taste nearly as bad as they looked. They were awfully dry, though. Scott couldn't believe I saved them, but I couldn't throw them out knowing how precious corn is in Latin America right now. I choked one down one the next day for a snack and the rest are still sitting on the counter, ten days later. Maybe if they dry out any further they'll turn into corn chips.


Joyce said...

Donna, I remember the tortillas we had in Honduras as being rather thick, too. I watched the women make the right consistancy sort of by feel, and then cook them on an open fire. I had had soft tortillas, of course, here in the States, but these were definately thicker. I wonder if the flour you bought was the difference, or if you just need to experiment more with the feel of the dough, and not worry so much about the recipe.

I don't know about you, but I was surprised at how "not Mexican" Central American food is. At the orphanage we were always have things like spaghetti, and the kids seemed to find that typical. Maybe it's the influence of the British that were down there that makes their diet different.

Donna said...

Hi Joyce,
I think you're right about both the flour and consistancy. I don't know how they could turn out the same when I'm using dried flour instead of grinding up the corn into a paste with a mortar and pestle! But it was worth a try.

I remember a lot of "Mexican" food, but it certainly didn't resemble Taco Bell. In a Mexican jungle I was once served a soup that was broth with a chunk of meat in it, still on the bone. I was given only a tortilla for a utensil and I never did figure out how to eat that soup!

Where did you go in Honduras? I've been there, too.

Joyce said...

We flew into San Pedro Sula and then drove to Azaqualpa (sp?). That's where we have built a children's home in partnership with First Baptist of Marshalltown, IA. It was built to respond to the immediate needs after Hurrican Mitch, but has grown and evolved since then. Mike and I have been there to help, as has our daughter.

Donna said...

Small world. I helped build a school in Tegusigalpa (sp?) in partnership with a Presbyterian ministry. Thanks for your comments.