“If you were going to live on a deserted island, and you could only bring one type of cuisine with you, what would it be?”
This is a question that my husband periodically asks me, either because it’s one of those days where he wants to annoy the hell out of me (he knows that choosing just one is like having to choose a favorite child!), or because he actually really wants to know.
But how can anyone choose between the inspiring culinary traditions of Japan, Thailand, France, India or Ethiopia, for example? Each so very different, yet equally appealing.
Invariably, though, authentic Mexican food often makes the cut, or at least the top 5.
Every time we go to Mexico, I am reminded of how much I love the culture and the food. The Mexicans are among the kindest and most life-loving people that I have ever met. And the food! There’s something about authentic Mexican food that nourishes all my senses. Not the “Tex mex”, bastardized version (nachos, burritos, fajitas, etc.) that is too often found in North American restaurants, mind you, but real, traditional, Mexican food that respects the culture it came from. That Mexican food is enchanting. Dishes such as chicken mole (chicken in a thick sauce most often made of unsweetened cacao, chiles and spices), asado de boca (a red chile pork stew), pickled red onions, horchata (a sweet rice drink) or xocoatl (a spicy cacao drink), among many others, represent the variety and true beauty of Mexican cuisine.
An important ingredient in Mexican cooking is masa harina, the corn flour commonly used to make tortillas.
To be honest, I have always been wary of corn flour. Most of the corn grown in the United States is genetically-modified and heavily sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate (the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup), which has been implicated in countless health issues (see this Scientific American article). Corn is also heavily subsidized by the US government, which means that it is grown in astronomical quantities and there is often a large surplus of the crop. To get rid of this surplus, corn is added to as many foods as possible as a cheap filler, or sweeteners (mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup).
Because of all this, I have always considered corn a dirty crop and one best left off our tables.
So, imagine my surprise when I learned that masa is not just any corn flour. It is actually a traditional flour that is still prepared today in ways that maximize its nutritional value and improve digestibility. You see, in order to make masa, dried corn needs to be cooked in lime water (which removes the kernels’ skins and softens the dough) before being dried and ground. This process is called nixtamalization, and the beauty of it is that it releases the corn’s vitamin B3 (niacin) content, which would otherwise remain bound up in the grain. It also improves the amino acid quality of the proteins in the corn, greatly enhances its digestibility and reduces the toxins that can be found in moldy corn.
So you see, not all corn is created equal, and the right kind can take its well-earned place at our table on occasion. However, we still need to buy masa that is not genetically modified.
The only way to ensure a truly healthy masa is to buy it organic. But organic masa can be very difficult to find. I once ordered some online from Gold Mine Natural Food Co, but I found it difficult to work with and the tortillas I made with it were unusually brittle. So now, I simply use non-GMO masa from Bob’s Red Mill. Even though it is not organic, Bob’s Red Mill masa is not genetically modified (as specified on their website), except for the possible cross-contamination from other fields, which is, sadly, too prevalent but will be the topic of another blog post.
Corn tortillas are traditionally made from masa harina and water only. I like a little more taste to them, so I add a little sea salt and melted ghee. Try it both ways and see what you prefer. If you’d like to keep the recipe vegan, use melted coconut oil instead of ghee.
The easiest way to shape tortillas is to use a tortilla press, such as this one from Norpro. Alternatively, you could shape them in your hands, just know that this is more difficult, and the tortillas will most likely be uneven and much thicker. But, it certainly can work in a pinch!
Do not limit yourself to the toppings listed here, and don’t worry if you don’t have everything on hand. Use any vegetables that you would like, or you can also add grilled meats or fish to the mix if that strikes your fancy. Experiment and enjoy creating new mixes.
Love and health!
- 1 1/2 cups masa harina
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons ghee (or coconut oil), melted
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 bunch asparagus, woodsy ends sliced off, chopped into bite-size pieces
- 2 nopales (cactus), thorns and bruises sliced off, chopped into bite-size pieces
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 large heirloom tomatoes, diced
- 2 avocados, chopped
- 2 spring onions, diced
- 1 spring garlic, white parts finely chopped
- 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- black pepper, to taste
- microgreens, for garnish
- 1 whole egg, room temperature
- 1 egg yolk, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
- 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/4-1/2 jalapeño pepper, roughly chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- pinch freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- Place the egg, egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard powder, garlic, jalapeño, sea salt and black pepper in a high speed blender. Blend on low-medium until combined, about 5 seconds.
- With the motor running on medium, then medium-high, very slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the aioli is thick and creamy, about 1 minute.
- Store in a small mason jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. It will continue to thicken.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the masa, and sea salt. Add the water and melted ghee and mix well. Line the bottom of a tortilla press with unbleached parchment paper. Reserve another piece of parchment paper the same size for the top. Using about 2 tablespoons of batter at a time, roll the tortilla batter into balls and set aside on a plate.
- Line a plate or platter with parchment paper. Add one ball at a time to the center of the bottom of the tortilla press. Top with the second piece of parchment paper, and press down gently with the top of the press, just enough to flatten the tortilla (do not press too hard, or the tortillas will be spread too thin, which makes them very difficult to work with and prone to breaking). Lay each tortilla on the plate (use parchment paper to separate multiple layers).
- Preheat a large sauté pan or griddle on medium. Melt a little ghee (or coconut oil) and cook each tortilla until nicely golden, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Keep warm inside a kitchen towel.
- Fill a large sauté pan with about 1/4 inch filtered water. Add the asparagus, bring to a boil, and cook, covered, until fork tender, about 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness. Transfer to a cutting board. Chop into bite-size pieces.
- Drain and dry the pan used for the asparagus. Preheat on medium heat. Melt the coconut oil, and add 3/4 of the onion and 3/4 of the garlic. Cook until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the nopales with a pinch of sea salt. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about 7-9 minutes. Right before the nopales are cooked, add the asparagus and black beans to the pan, just for reheating. Add the tomato mixture for a few seconds, as well.
- Serve the tortillas topped with some of the filling, a dollop of jalapeño aioli and some microgreens.