Mexican cuisine combines the traditional indigenous foods of the Aztecs and Mayas, like chocolate, corn, tomato, avocado, beans and chile peppers, with the meats, rice and garlic brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores.
By Reed Hearon
Virtually every recipe in this book (La Parilla) ends with the instruction, "Serve with plenty of fresh, hot tortillas." The corn tortilla plays a fundamental role in Mexican food, even more so than bread does in country French food. It not only finds a central place in every meal, but it also defines dishes like quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, and, in one form or another, all of those items that Mexicans call antojitos and most of the rest of us think of as Mexican food.
Just as connoisseurs of great pasta or bread insist on an artisanal product, Mexicans seek out the best tortillas. In Oaxaca there are three different sizes, ranging from small white blonditas to giant, wafer-thin tlayudas. The finest of these are tortillas a mano, handmade tortillas.
Tortillas in Mexico almost always mean corn tortillas. Flour tortillas are a relatively recent import from the United States, their popularity driven by the low cost of inferior grades of flour dumped into border markets and by their ability to keep and ship well. While flour tortillas can be delicious, they are nutritionally suspect and do not complement the flavor of most Mexican food. I think of most flour tortillas in the same way I think of commercial presliced white breads-convenient but not much else.
Making your own corn tortillas at home is as easy as going to a tortilla factory (every medium-sized U.S. city now seems to have one) and buying fresh masa para tortillas and pressing it out between two sheets of waxed paper with a small rolling pin or a hand tortilla press. The tortillas are then cooked dry on a hot griddle or frying pan until they brown on both sides and puff slightly.
But if making your own tortillas is not in the picture, don't despair. Commercial corn tortillas can be very good. Look for the whitest ones (which indicate less lime used in processing the corn and, hence, a more delicate flavor), and make sure that they are fresh. Buy tortillas, just as you would bread, from a source that sells a lot of them. They should be very soft and flexible in their plastic bags. If you are lucky, you will see telltale beads of water in the bags, indicating steam from the cooling tortillas. They may even be warm. And, just as you would bread, they are best used the day they are made.
To reheat tortillas, you need an intense source of dry heat. The best way is on a griddle or iron skillet preheated until very hot over medium-high heat. The tortillas should be individually warmed on each side until they color slightly. As they are warmed, stack them and wrap in a clean, dry cotton towel. Keep them covered until you are ready to use them. If you wish, the towel may be wrapped in foil and kept in a 200 degrees F oven for up to an hour to keep the tortillas warm. Tortillas may also be heated directly on the grates of a grill. The procedure is the same and they pick up a nice smoky flavor, although they are prone to burning.
Make eating tortillas a habit. They are low in calories, high in fiber, and delicious with all sorts of food. Just remember, serve them hot and as fresh as possible.
La Parilla: The Mexican Grill
By Reed Hearon
Photographs by Laurie Smith
Chronicle Books, 1996
Price: $19.95, paper
Reprinted by permission
from La Parilla
from Kate's Global Kitchen
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