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The Daily Poetry Movement

One of my grandmothers was a black sharecropper who picked cotton in the south as a child. She moved up north and was very poor living in detroit. There was never a law against black child labor, just white child labor. My whole family gathers to talk about her good cooking. In her memories as a child she may had only had half a can o' peaches for a week to eat.
What to do if you really want to make tortillas from scratch

If you were truly to begin from scratch, you'd get some white corn grain and set it to low boil in a covered pot with some slaked lime or wood ashes. You can get this in Mexican open-air markets by asking for "cal," or "tequisquite." Much of the language employed to talk about corn, tortillas, and the process of making tortillas, is based on the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and I'll mention these terms as we go along. The process described above will loosen the "skins" (pericarp) of the kernels, and you'd find most of these skins floating at the top of the steep liquor next morning. This alkaline solution has the side effect of making bound niacin in the corn endosperm soluble, and therefore available as a nutrient (this is important to folks who depend on corn as their staple source of nutrients; in Mexico annual per capita consumption of tortillas is about 410 lb., or as you can see, a little over 1 lb. per day, and in rural areas it is estimated that tortillas provide about 70% of the caloric intake).

You would discard the supernate and the steep liquor itself (called "nejayote"), then wash the remaining "naked" kernels (consisting mostly of pure starch) and embryos ("germs," where most of the oil is concentrated). However, if you wanted to avoid this whole process and start from this point on, you could look for 'hominy' in your local grocery store, since this is precisely what hominy is.
Next, you'd get hold of a grinding stone utensil (known in Mexico as 'metate,') and you'd begin slaving over the corn grain with a pestle and a jug of water by your side. In the course of grinding the grain you're homogenizing and gelatinizing the starch, protein and germ, and also somewhat dehydrating it; however, you must add water continuously to make the resulting mixture pliable. When you are done, you'll have a dough that you will work into small balls from which you'll shape your tortillas. These spheres are known as "testales." This step takes between half an hour to an hour, depending on how many tortillas you are making. If you would want to dispense with this step, then use the Maseca flour mentioned above. This is essentially the dough in dehydrated state, ready for you to rehydrate and shape your tortillas.

Shaping and cooking the tortilla is a key step, and the one where the greatest skill is involved. What you are trying to do is create as thin and round a patty of the dough as possible. As you work it, you will be further dehydrating the mixture. The trick is to lose only so much water in this step and in the next, which involves baking both sides of the tortilla for 30 to 60 seconds on a hot griddle, so that the resulting product has a specific water content when done (about 40% moisture, which is crucial), making it soft and pliable. The tortilla should puff as you bake it, but if air bubbles form in the dough as it bakes, or if is too wet and pasty, or too dry and burns, or is toasted as it bakes, then the resulting tortilla is ruined. As you can imagine, Indian women who mass-produce tortillas three times a day don't stop to think about baking time or moisture content, they have simply developed the knack to know when the dough is ready and how much baking to allow. Also, it is no easy matter to form a round tortilla in the limited amount of time you have between grinding/kneading the dough, patting it out, and having to lay it on the griddle before it dries excessively.

Experienced Indian women in Mexico are a wonder to watch as they do this using nothing but their hands (no flat surface) as they pat out perfect circles between their palms. If you wanted to avoid this step, then you'd go buy a "tortilla press," which is a couple of round metal or wooden sheets that you press by means of a lever. You place a doughball on one of the sheets, press, then cut off the dough extruded from the press, leaving a round sheet of dough inside the press; OR you could go buy 'industrial tortillas' in the frozen foods section of your grocery store.
There is no industrial tortilla that can compare with the freshly baked and ready-to-eat article, as you might expect. To facilitate the mechanization of the process, a number of compromises are made. Most industrial processes begin with a flower base such as Maseca, create large batches of the dough, pass it through rollers to create the flattened cake, then actually cut out a perfectly round tortilla, which is then paraded through several series of conveyor belts, passing through an oven, and then open ventilated space to allow for cooling and water loss, before packing in plastic bags which are then frozen and shipped. The weak link in the whole process is that tortillas don't last in storage and lose their flavor in a hurry when aged/frozen. The main reason is that their oil content leads to them becoming sour, and the freezing process used in the US leads to water condensation on the tortillas themselves, which always makes them pasty and mushy when you try to use them again at room temperature. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal (May 10, 1996) indicated that the world market for tortillas is worth about $5 billion U. S. According to this article, even though Mexicans consume about 10 times as many tortillas per capita as U. S. consumers, the Mexican tortilla market is still dominated by small "tortillerias." In Mexico, packaged tortillas account for only 5 percent of sales. However, large flour-producing industries, such as Maseca and Bimbo, are predicting that "the end of tortilla subsidies in Mexico will transform the Mexican market, giving an advantage to U.S.-style marketing of plastic-bagged tortillas in supermarkets."
Now then, let's say that you've either made or purchased your tortillas and are ready to make your enchiladas. This is a dish whose name means that you've "chilified" some tortillas. "Chili" is derived from the Aztec name for what you call a "chile pepper," the fruit of various species of plants of the genus Capsicum. Following is a recipe for enchiladas that I give with some hesitation. It was collected from rural Indian women near the vicinity of Puebla, Mexico, and the instructions are sparce and most useful for cooks of whom great familiarity with Mexican cooking can be assumed (Recetario de Maiz, Colegio de Postgraduados, CEICADAR, 1990. Translation and all errors of same are my fault!)

RED ENCHILADAS (Enchiladas Rojas)
18 tortillas
8 dried red chilis (chile ancho, translator's note: Capsicum annum)
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1.5 cups cheese (translator's note, in US try Monterrey Jack or Muenster)
2 pepper seeds (translator's note: black pepper, or Piper nigrum)
1 stick cinammon
2 cloves
Radishes to suit
1 lettuce head
Cooking oil
Salt to suit
Dice onion and shred cheese
Clean and rinse chiles, grind together with clove, cinammon, garlic, pepper and salt.
Fry tortillas and dip in sauce prepared above, fill with cheese, roll, stack on tray and garnish with lettuce.

Of course, if you wanted to dispense with the trouble, you could go buy frozen enchiladas in the frozen foods section of your grocery store, and then you are time ahead, but culinary experience far, far behind.
Two more related items for your interest. First, the recipe for tortillas as given by Indian women themselves (from above cited work), then a brief lexicon of words related to the tortilla making process.

4.25 pecks of white corn (Translator's note: 5 "maquilas")
100 grams (Translator's note: about 3.5 oz) limestone
Metate (Translator's note: stone mortar and pestle)
Tortilla press (Translator's note: _anyone_ can make a tortilla this way ;)
Plastic sheets of slightly larger diameter than tortilla press
Cook corn in a can or pot with water and limestone (Translator's note, this takes hours, and is typically left overnight)
When the corn skins can be peeled remove from fire and add more water.
Cover and allow to "steam cook."
Rinse corn and grind to make dough.
Mix well and make small dough balls. Place on tortilla press between plastic sheets to avoid sticking. Press tortilla and bake on griddle.
Turn twice and remove when "puffed."

Now then, if you're going to be looking at recipes involving tortillas, there are a number of words that are certain to come up. Following is a basic lexicon to help understand these:

TORTILLA - Name given by Spaniards to the corn-based flat-bread they found in use in Mexico. This literally means "smallish and flattened," (for instance, it is what a Spaniard would call an egg omelette). Native names differed, but in three major languages it was: TLAXCALLI (Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue), YET (Zapotec), WEJ (Maya).
CENTLI - Nahuatl for "corn." Ordinal number meaning literally "first," ETL (bean) is second, etc. Used as particle when distinguishing varieties of corn (as in cacahuaCENTLI, tepeCENTLI, etc.)
METATE - From Nahuatl "Metatl." Stone mortar used to grind corn. Made from basaltic stone. It turns out to be an essential part of the tortilla making process for a number of reasons. One is that as a soft volcanic stone, the basalt wears easily and actually helps to disrupt ungelatinized starch by becoming part of the dough, in small minute particles. This is so essential for the making of good dough that even in modern industria processes, the corn is ground with basaltic stone grinders. Second, this incorporated basaltic stone is thought to account for the excellent dental health and hygiene shown by Indians, whose teeth are cleaned abrasively as they eat tortillas.
NIXTAMAL - The "naked" corn grains, or "hominy" remaining after removing kernel skins in alkaline bath.
NEJAYOTE - The steep liquor in which corn grains are bathed to remove skins.
TONEUHCAYOTL - From Nahuatl: "our flesh," the dough made from the ground corn, known also by Spanish name "MASA." Reflecting both tha this was the common starting point for a number of essential staple foods (tortillas, tamales, etc.), and also the belief that human beings were made by the gods from corn dough (which I personally find more flattering than being made of dirt, as the myth of another small tribe elsewhere would have us believe 
TESTAL - From Nahuatl: "testalli," the dough ball from which tortillas are patted out
COMAL - From Nahuatl: "comalli," the clay or metal griddle on which tortillas are baked
TENATE - From Nahuatl: "tenatl," the basket made from woven dried leaves that is used to keep tortillas warm after baking and before consumption

I am also looking for recipes to prepare other type of tortillas, for example the nacho one, or the burrito one.
These aren't really "other types of tortillas." Nachos, for instance, are unknown in Mexico. The closest thing might be a "totopo" or perhaps a "tostada." A totopo is a tortilla that is made with salt in the dough and is then baked dry, rather than pliable. This toasted tortilla was made specifically for travellers, as it keeps without spoiling. A tostada is a thoroughly post-conquest confection (Indian cooking before the conquest did not include a number of ingredients/procedures that are now closely associated with "Mexican food," such as frying, cheeses, etc.) You make tostadas with a coarser dough than for tortillas. You make "chips" by shaping the dough and then deep-fat frying it. Deep-fat frying is a way of quickly dehydrating a food. Coarser dough allows for water vapor to escape the dough quickly and so minimizes air bubbles in the resulting "tostadas." These corn chips are pretty oily things, and this is essentially what Frito-Lay and similar outfits have invented and christened "Nachos" in the US.
A burrito is a taco made with a wheat flour tortilla. A taco is our "sandwich," in other words it is a generic food item made by rolling up any ingredient that you please within a tortilla, just as you consider anything you slap in between two slices of bread to be a sandwich. That stiff concoction made with a greasy "saddle" shell that you call a taco in the US is a purely industrial invention unkown in Mexico. When the "tortilla" is made from wheat flour, producing a thick, white flat-bread, then the taco you make from it is a "burrito." Wheat flour tortillas and burritos are specific to northern Mexico and are unknown and/or disliked in central/southern Mexico, where corn rules. If you ask for a burrito in the latter region, you'd be asking for a four-legged beast. This wheat-flour tortilla is a post-conquest confection (the Spaniards introduced the wheat crop) and is probably based on imitation of the corn version, though this wheat flat bread is similar to Mediterranean flat-breads, such as "pita" bread. In fact, in southern Mexico, this wheat-flour flat bread is known as "arab bread."
For futher information on this topic see the FAQ on BURRITOS on this same subdirectory.)


love those aztec and mayan consonant clicks 04.May.2004 06:42

There's a rice flour equivalent to a tortilla (maybe the writer here knows it) I've only tried once, it's something else to see from someone experienced. The dough is made to a sticky consistency and pat into a perfectly round ball. One hand rolls the ball over a hot plate, placing a thin layer of dough. The other hand, using chopsticks, removes the patty and puts it on a stack. It only takes a second of time or so for each. It results in a semitransparent cake, thin enough it doesn't have to be flipped.
A Japanese omlette similarly uses the thinnest layer of beaten egg and water onto a hot plate, brushed thin with oil. It only takes a moment, flipped, and stacked on a cold plate. The layers of egg cakes are rolled-up sushi style and cut. I think this is considered couture, but I'm not sure.
It's also considered healthy because the quick cooking time doesn't take from the nutrients and, with the grain or seed, doesn't break down the starch as much as overcooking, which can give you a sort of energy boost more into the day.