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Tortilla Tactics

Ever give much thought to the popularity of corn tortillas? Did you know that they have become so popular in the US, that they now outsell bread. The simple corn tortilla has long been the staff of life for the native population in Mexico and points south. Corn?the major staple of the Americas, evolved somewhere north and east of Mexico City and is thought to be a sophistication of grass. The corn in tortillas is softened with a long soak in ground lime and water, thus creating posole, the Mother process for the corn.

It is then ground into masa, which when mixed with warm water and a bit of salt is fashioned into corn tortillas, which are the basis for making all manner of items from corn chips, such as totados, fritos, doritas and the like, as well as being a major ingredient in dishes such as enchiladas, tacos and casseroles. Masa is not to be confused with corn meal. Corn meal has not been treated with lime, which destroys the fibers in the corn kernels, allowing the masa to stick together when moistened. Corn meal simply will not stick together. Good fresh masa is critical for fresh, corny tasting tortillas. The masa should smell like fresh corn, not like rancid fat, which can happen when the masa has been stored at temperatures above 70 degrees for extended periods.

Corn tortillas are simple, nutritious and make a great substitute for bread. A very simple snack that is so healthy and amazingly delicious is to just tuck some stewed pinto beans into a tortilla and top with chile salsa or pickled jalapenos. And with freshly made tortillas?it is amazingly good. We always have them for breakfast during my weekend and week long cooking schools. You can bake your own corn chips or tostados in a 425 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until crisp.

Sprinkle with whatever you like, fresh ground cumin, sprinkles of lime juice, red chile, or fresh garlic granules. Or, have fun thickening your soups with tortillas. They make a healthy, terrific taste in most any vegetable or broth based soup. Once mastered, home made corn tortillas are great fun to make and taste so fresh and corny. Mexican native women fashion the tortillas between moistened palms?it looks so easy, however it takes years of practice to be as good at it as they are. Most find it easier to use a tortilla press and waxed paper to press the balls of masa between.

If you do not have the time or desire to make your own corn tortillas, then select commercial tortillas without dark spots for the freshest corniest taste. And for eating out of hand as a bread or around a filling for a soft taco, take the tortillas and heat briefly on a hot surface such as a griddle or a grill. For making tortillas, the masa must have the correct amount of water.

The dough should not be so moist that when made into a ball and gently pressed between the palms, it sticks to the palms. If too moist, stir or knead in a bit more masa. If too dry and the masa gets cracks in the surface, then just add a bit of warm water and work into the dough and retest by making another ball.

Have fun making tortillas. It is a great family fun time. Here's my favorite Corn Tortilla recipe-- Corn Tortillas ---- The Mayan's of ancient Mexico worshiped the god of corn and believed that man was created from corn dough, or masa, meaning that eating food made from corn was a special or even sacred experience. These tortillas are to be served warm as bread, or fried to become the basis for tacos, tostados, or other dishes. They can be frozen for up to six months.

Yield: 12 (6-inch) tortillas 2-1/2 cups Pecos Valley Spice Co. masa from white, yellow or blue corn 1 teaspoon salt About 1-1/4 cups hot water 1.In a medium-size bowl, combine masa and salt, and make a well in the center of the mixture. Mix in the water and stir until a firm dough is formed.

Finish mixing with your hands. The dougn should be firm and springy to the touch, not dry, crumbly, or sticky. 2.

To test, roll a small ball of dough and flatten it between your hands. If cracks form, add more warm water; if it is too moist and sticks to your palms, add more masa. For the best-quality tortillas, the dough should be easily handled. 3.

Preheat a comal or well-seasoned skillet over medium high heat until it is very hot. Pull off one ball of dough at a time about the size of an egg. Keep remaining dough covered with plastic wrap.

Roll each ball until round, then place it between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap. Flatten in a tortilla press or with a rolling pin or the bottom of a cast-iron pan. Trim the edges, if you wish, to get a round shape. 4.

Place the tortillas, one at a time, on the hot ungreased surface and cook 1 or 2 minutes on each side, or until they have brown specks and become "dry" on the surface. Stack them as they cook, and wrap in a warm towel or napkin. Blue Corn Tortillas: The dough for blue corn tortillas normally must be more moist.

However, if you still have trouble rolling and baking them, add to 1 cup white or yellow masa and more warm water to make the dough easier to shape into tortillas.

Jane Butel offers an on-line course, "All About Chiles" through her cooking school, which is hosted by the University of British Columbia. This course presents an indepth chile education. Additionally, she operates a full-participation weekend and week long vacation cooking school, a mail-order spice company featuring her cookbooks,and conducts culinary tours and team-building classes.

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