Every evening was a magic evening in the household of Mrs. Rede, who lived across the street and made fresh flour tortillas for dinner every day, in her kitchen that smelled of cumin and peppers, and in which hung a captivating Aztec calendar that enticed me with pagan charms.
There was no rolling pin anywhere in sight. She would mix up the ingredients (recipe? What recipe?) and let them rest in a bowl in the shape of balls.
As dinner hour approached, she would flatten them with her hands in some special way and put them on an iron griddle one by one, and place them each in a plate with another plate on top. They were always there — flat, fresh, slightly toasted but always moist — in the middle of the table, free for the taking and stuffing, by anyone, anytime, and they were always perfect.
Can you imagine?
How many of us have attempted to make tortillas? Many many. But we don’t have the mastery that is necessary. You can spend an hour and come up with a decent result but at great expense of time and energy. And why do it when there are so many wonderful and seemingly authentic brands of tortillas on sale at the store?
But now let us face the tragedy. As good as these store-bought tortillas look in the package, they never quite make it to the table in a form that seems right. You can turn them into enchiladas of course. But that’s no great thrill. What you really want are burritos: a clean package that forms around the insides in a way that conforms to the ideal of the Rede’s house or a great Mexican restaurant.
But here’s what happens. You try to wrap stuff in them, and they begin to sort of crack in strange places. Yes, you can roll them like a carpet but that’s sort of silly. (Don’t get me started on so-called wraps and “roll ups.”) There’s the option of placing them in the microwave, but that just creates a warm version of the same problem. You can place them on a griddle, but that just creates a hard exterior and can even make the cracking problem worse.
It turns out that there is a way around this problem, and forgive me if you already know of this. Maybe I’m the last person on earth to discover this, but just in case, I’m going to lay it all out here.
My discovery began with a visit to one of those fast Mexican food stops, the kind where you stand behind the counter and order the ingredients of your choice. I ordered the steak burrito. They took out a tortilla and put it into some magic steam machine for a few seconds, which made it pliable, stretchy, and cooked. Then they added ingredients and packed them in tight. They snapped it closed to create a neat and clean packet of joy.
Ah, so steam is the secret! But how can you do this at home? I lost sleep one night thinking this through and finally it hit me.
The next morning, it was breakfast burrito time, using a new technique. I pulled out a large pot and filled it one-third full of water (hot water, to save time). I set it to boil hard. On top of the pot, I set a pie-cooling rack. Really anything will work: a pizza pan with holes, a cookie cooling rack, anything that will hold something solid and let steam through them.
Once the eggs, salsa, and cheese were completed in the pan next to the pot, I set my first store-bought tortilla on top of the rack and let the steam rise. Wow, it works! I left it there for about 15 seconds, flipped it over, and did the same, and took it off. What I had here was a tortilla transformed.
Now I added the egg-cheese mixture, turned the sides in, and rolled it up. The folding action at the end was a snap. It adhered together on all sides, like it was meant to be shaped that way. The whole package cooled in a couple of minutes and it was ready to eat. No crumbs, no folds, not tears, no leaks. It was perfect!
Oh Mama Rede, have mercy on me for not making my own! I would never presume to attempt to recreate your nightly wonders! But with the aide of commerce and a bit of kitchen ingenuity, we may finally have a system that comes close to replicating that ideal you created for all of us who had the pleasure of watching your hands at work!
The tortilla: from promise, to tragedy, and back again.