Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Corn Tortillas!

by Andy
Have you ever taken something that was simple and inexpensive to buy and then invested many hours and a little money in order to do it yourself? Sometimes the payoff is not just the thing itself, but more a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Every Tuesday night we make tacos. It usually is a pretty simple meal to prep. Heat the beef, rice and beans. Make some guacamole. Shred cheese and lettuce. And dump out a couple jars of salsa into a bowl. And we are ready! We also heat up some store-bought tortillas. Usually we use some flour tortillas and some corn tortillas and the students make little burritos. The students love Taco Tuesday. So do I.

So why did we go and mess with a good thing?

Too much popcorn. That's why. Every year as a project with Class H we plant a few rows of popcorn. We plant in the Spring and then in the fall the class comes out to harvest and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Only for the past couple years we have had excess popcorn. We have popped a lot, sold a lot, and gave bunches away to students and staff, but we still had a few bushels left this Spring.

And then one day on a chance visit, our friend Kurt handed me a homemade corn tortilla that he made himself from cob corn. It was incredible! It brought back memories of trekking in the mountains of Central America and eating stone-ground corn tortillas - fresh from the farm. I was really hooked when Kurt said that his friends had done taste tests and discovered popcorn yields the best tasting tortillas. Light bulbs went off in my brain.

After grilling Kurt and then checking in with Digna at Lake County School, I had my shopping list. We needed pickling lime, known as "cal" in Spanish. We needed a hand-crank mill - either Corona or Estrella. And then we needed a hand-operated tortilla press. As luck would have it, all three products were found inexpensively at the Mexican grocery store on Bloomington and Lake. We were in business!

First we shucked the popcorn off about 10 cobs. Then we winnowed it outside. Then we brought the corn to a boil with a couple tablespoons of lime. We simmered it for ten minutes and then soaked it overnight in a ceramic bowl. In the morning we rinsed the kernels to remove the lime and then we were ready to grind the corn (the process of soaking in lime is known as "nixtatamalization," and it softens the corn and makes vital nutrients available). We had to set the mill just right, but soon we had excellent wet corn meal spinning out. The "masa" (corn dough) was now ready to form into balls and then press into flat tortillas. We used a plastic bag to protect the tortilla press from getting sticky with dough.

The tortillas cooked easily on the commercial griddle we have at the Homestead. But they were liable to fall apart. We deduced that although the popcorn makes tasty tortillas, there probably is too much germ and not enough starch - or something. So then we tried the popcorn "masa" half and half mixed with instant tortilla mix (found locally under the name "MASECA"). This was perfect! We had tortillas that stayed together, but still had the nutty whole-grain goodness of the Land School popcorn. And they were very good, in the same way that homemade bread is better than store-bought bread. This year we are growing a few new varieties of corn to try in tortillas.

Oh, and by the way, home-ground corn meal makes the very best corn bread too.

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