In this week's "Food I'd Like to Cook" column, Karla Helland explores the innumerable culinary joys of a simple tortilla.
When I travel, my packing list always includes piquant groceries. The ever mutable and shrinking luggage allowances have led me to weigh the value of red chile pods against a dressier pair of sandals.
Last July, when my family and I were flying to Vermont, we watched a Department of Homeland Security officer snap blue plastic gloves on his hands and pull five pounds of a “substance of interest” (warm tortillas) from my carry-on bag. In the past, the feds have seized my Aroma coffee, stone-ground polenta and absinthe (sigh), so I wasn’t giving up this personal comfort item without a little hokey groveling. “We’re going fishing back east and we need these for fish tacos,” I explained. “Do you want me to eat one to prove that it’s food?”
The Albuquerque TSA officer almost expressed approval at my bag’s contents.
The corn tortillas I was packing came from Alicia’s Tortillería, located at 1314 Rufina Circle, where Alicia Lozoya and her family have it down. Freshness trumps all in the flavor game, and these delicious circles are light, pliable, fragrant and hot when you take them home.
True, the temperature in the shop runs a little warm. The tortilladora automática is firing away for most of the day behind the counter display of chicles and Mexican candies. Alicia (above) and her husband, José, brought the corn tortilla machine up from Ciudad Juárez in 1997, when they opened the shop. This esteemed and patinaed machine squeaks as the chain-mail belt conveys the tortilla dough through the heat for a perfectly calibrated amount of time.
Corn tortillas begin as masa harina, a flour ground from dried corn kernels adulterated by a lime solution. The chemical process of liming changes the corn’s flavor, lightens the color and denatures the protein to a more nutritious and digestible form. (I once substituted masa for corn flour in a cornbread recipe; the result was a snack with a dense and soft texture, similar to a tamale, but too heavy as a bread.)
At Alicia’s factory, the tortilla-making process begins in a 10-gallon mixer. The dough is simply masa moistened with water. As the Lozoyas’ daughter Ali says, “That’s all you need. No salt or lard.”
Ali’s husband, Javier (above), hoists this heavy substance to the hopper, where the machine portions and spreads it to the desired 1/8-inch thickness in a die. After the raw tortillas spend a few minutes in the oven, Alicia’s youngest daughter, Anna (below), nimbly stacks and packages the hot discs rolling off of the line.
When I buy tortillas from Alicia’s, the first thing I do is open up the plastic package to let the steam escape. I eat one in the car with the same reflex that pounces when toasted nuts are near me.
For tacos and enchiladas, a quick toast on the open flame of a gas stove adds a charred dimension to the flavor of the finished dish. The contrast between elemental carbon and sweet masa is delectable.
miles from home, we enjoyed tacos filled with fried Yankee pike, red onion,
cabbage and green chile. The verdict: It was a meal worth taking a frisking.
All photos by Karla Helland.