Monday, 24 September 2012

First Res Hall Food and Culture Programme (for the Academic Year): De-Stressing Tortillas

About an hour or so after the second In Kitchen Practicum of the academic year ("Courageous Cooking Class: Fermented Foods"), Saturday's foodie day continued with my first residential hall food and culture program of the year. Working with two resident assistants, we aimed for an interactive program that could focus on easily replicable recipes for students (in this case, seniors), and settled on making tortillas by hand-- a rather therapeutic and de-stressing process that requires nothing more than flour, fat, salt and water.

Around the world, it seems that the portability of food is made available by at least one flour-based item. In the Philippines and the Asian market, egg and spring rolls come to mind; for the French, I'd argue for the crêpe; in Spanish gastronomy and South America in particular, we're talking a Spanish version of thin pancakes: the tortilla, as so called by the Conquistadors (from torta, meaning "cake"). Now, I'm pretty sure most students (and I'd certainly include myself in that group) have very little access to (by source and/or time for the homemade preparation of) nixtamal, the traditional corn treated with a lime water soaking to make masa (the "backbone of Latin cuisine"); nor do we have easy access to a metate or comal, but we certainly had a large table for rolling out dough and a baking sheet for a makeshift flat cooking surface!

In search of a diversity of tortillas, and cognisant for a search for healthier options and a desire to use whole wheat flour, I settled on adapting from this site. I was also looking to create a simple enough recipe for students (or anyone for that matter) to remember that didn't require needing to use butter, milk, or baking powder, as I've done in the past, all of which could be relatively expensive ingredients and/or difficult to store. [In the future, I'll have to test out this recipe which emphasizes the use of lard.] At its core, we just need to remember 2 c flour, 1/4 c fat (here, vegetable shortening), a pinch of salt and 1/2 c warm water. Simple enough, no? As for the flour, the aforementioned site offers three alternatives we used (and we made two batches of each): 2 c all-purpose flour (apf); 1 c apf, 1/2 c corn meal and 1/2 c white whole wheat flour (w3f); and 2 c w3f. I should note that throughout this process, I encouraged the students to approximate the amounts rather than to be so focused with exact measurements.

To begin, I first preheated the oven to 350°F, got a pot of water boiling (then kept at a non-boiling, medium heat) and demoed how to make the tortillas. For the easiest res hall-friendly preparation, put into a bowl your flour, vegetable shortening and salt, and use your fingers to mash everything together until you essentially get a mixture similar to slightly damp sand. To this, add your warm water (from the pot of hot water) and use your hand to combine the water and dry mix until you get a self-holding mass of dough. Onto a clean table, lightly dusted with flour, turn out your dough and knead until the dough resembles modeling clay (closer though to the consistency of Play-Doh ®). If, when you pull the dough apart, it crumbles, add a touch more water or shortening (be courageous enough to experiment until you get the right consistency). Leave the finished dough to rest under a damp [paper or cloth] towel for at least 20 minutes before rolling it out; when you get to that stage, break each ball of dough into smaller pieces (about the size of a golf ball), knead it a bit more with your hands until it's nice and pliable and use a rolling pin to shape the dough as close to a circle as you can get. The easiest way to do this is to, again on a lightly floured surface, roll from the inside outward, turning your dough as you shape it. Simply rolling the pin back and forth will only redistribute the dough into its more or less original shape. While the tortillas are being shaped, heat up an inverted baking pan by using the heat from the stove top (I would not recommend this for gas stoves); if you've got an electric griddle, that'd work just as well, or even a large, flat pan. When the tortillas have been shaped, transfer them to the (caution: HOT) pan and leave it on there for about 30 seconds and then flip it over. Do be careful because any longer and your tortilla would better be served as a chip!

Okay, so in actuality, you also need something to fill your tortillas and while you can definitely economise by investing in less than $7 worth of ingredients to make many dozens of tortillas, it's the filling that costs money and where you can challenge yourself to stick to a budget. For this program, Katie and Jo-Jo (the RAs for the res halls of this program) went all out and bought about 6 lbs of flank steak which I found out was already cut in strips and about 6 lbs of chicken breast (clearly, the carne was the bulk of our food budget), 3 red and 3 green bell peppers, a head of lettuce and a lot of shredded cheese. And so, while everyone else alternated in kneading and shaping the dough, a few of the students helped to prepare and cook these fillings. Very simply, all of the bell peppers were julienned (i.e., cut in long strips) and put into a hot sauté pan with about 1/2 c water, salt, ground black pepper and about a tablespoon of dry taco mix to be cook covered on med-lo heat (essentially steamed until tender, about 20-25 minutes).

While this was going, the steak was cooked in minimal oil and about 2-3 tbsp taco mix with salt, ground black pepper and about 1/3 c water. Eventually, the chicken which had been cut into strips was also cooked with the same ingredients as the steak, but only after getting them in the oven to speed up the defrosting process. I'll note, too, the lettuce had also been shredded at some point in this process.

As all of this was going on, I quickly pulled together a chocolate cake batter which I adapted on the spot between earlier reading this recipe and the list of ingredients on the back of my Hershey's dark cocoa powder container. Because of the tortilla theme we were going with, I also aimed to make this a spiced chocolate cake; since chocolate with chili couldn't be found, the spice mix was also winged after checking out recipes such as this one. I began by first melting a 3.5 oz bar of dark chocolate (70%) in a metal bowl over the pot of water that was being brought to a boil (the water of which was used for making the tortillas). Once melted, I stirred in about 2 tbsp dark cocoa powder off the heat and, stirring with each addition, added 1.5 c light brown sugar, 1 c hot water (again from the pot that had the boiling water), 1 3/4 c all-purpose flour, 1 c whole milk, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt, 2 scrambled eggs, 1/2 vegetable oil, and 2 tsp vanilla extract. To finish up the list, I also mixed in 1/2 tsp Asian five spice, 1 tsp cinnamon and 1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper. Thoroughly combined, this went into a round baking dish and into the oven for about half an hour. Ah, and to serve this, I challenged everyone to quenelle their choice of ice cream-- espresso chip or vanilla bean.

So, with all of this shared, if ever a tortilla crisis (an unfortunate reality abroad) hits the U.S., or you want to have a truly hands-on dinner, share in the tortilla culture and consider making tortillas from scratch at home! For the complete album, click here.

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