Old New World: tortillas, a love story

tortillas, folded in a clean kitchen towel to steam

I've made an awful lot of tortillas this month for Vegan MoFo, but when I was a novice tortilla maker a few years ago I had no idea what I was doing. I'd eaten my fair share, but that's a different matter.

Tortillas in the pre-contact Americas were always made of corn, so that's what I've been making as wheat did not make it's way to the New World until the early 16th century when the Spanish brought it over. The Maya sometimes added in pumpkin or squash seeds to the masa, but most common was a plain tortilla, called wah and its thicker relative, pim. Tortillas came in many forms for the Aztecs; there are passages in the Florentine Codex that refer to tortillas made of a "white flour" or "white and hot tortillas" but these were made of corn, not wheat. Finely ground corn is much paler than coarsely ground, and there were many colors of maize - including white. According to the Franciscan friar Bernardo de Sahagún: 

"The tortillas which the lords ate every day were called tononqui tlaxcali tlacuelpacholli, meaning white and hot tortillas...ueitlaxcalli, meaning large tortillas; these are very white and very thin, and wide, and very soft...other tortillas called quauhtlaqualli; they are very white, and thick, and large and rough. They also ate some buns that were not round, but long, which they called tlaxcalmimilli...Another kind of tortillas they ate were called tlacepoalli tlaxcalli, which were in layers, and they were dainty food...there were also many kinds of tortillas for the commoners."

I feel like it's a pretty huge omission to not detail the "tortillas for the commoners," but I'm glad that Sahagún was so enthusiastic and mostly encyclopedic. I haven't made most of the kinds he describes, but I get by. If you're nervous about making tortillas, there are a few things I've picked up along the way; to start, here's the basic recipe I use for reference - you've seen it a few times this month.

tortillas 

makes 12

  • 2 cup masa harina
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cup water plus more if necessary

Place the masa harina in a large bowl and stir in the salt. Add water and knead until the dough is firm but pliable. Form 12 balls of dough and cover them in the bowl with a damp  towel for 1 hour. 

Heat a flat pan over medium heat until drops of water dance and evaporate when flicked. Press between wax paper on a tortilla press or roll out into circles, then cook for about 2 minutes on each side. Fold stack of tortillas in a clean towel to steam for about 10 minutes.

homemade tortillas, imperfect and bumpy and tasty

notes 

If your dough is too crumbly, add water. If it's too sticky, add more masa. Do both a tablespoon at a time until you have a dough that is pliant, only slightly tacky, and does not crack. 

Make sure you form spheres, not ovals and not the somewhat "spinning top" shape used to make dumplings with thicker bellies. Your tortillas will roll out more evenly.

If your tortillas crack when they are rolled or pressed out, you need to add more water. Remove the cracked tortilla and add it back to the rest of the masa before you add more water to the entire batch. 

If your tortillas stick and pull apart on the wax paper when they are rolled or pressed out, you need to add more masa. Remove the sticky tortilla and add it back to the rest of the masa before you add more masa to the entire batch. 

I use a well-seasoned flat cast iron pan to cook tortillas. You can use a well-seasoned larger cast iron griddle if you have one to cook more than one at a time.

Patience is important; if you flip the tortilla too soon, bits of masa will stick to the pan and will eventually burn if you don't gently scrape them up quickly. 

Try, if you can without too much calamity, to burn the heck out of at least one tortilla so you get a feel for how hot is too hot, and how long is too long. You'll also learn when to turn the heat up or down with experience - I usually turn the heat down a bit for the last few tortillas as the pan gets very hot. I habitually undercooked my tortillas so they were still raw in the center before I accidentally burned one.

Cooked tortillas aren't perfectly smooth; in fact, you can tell when the first side is done by the small bumps that form. 

You'll soon get a sense for when to flip the tortilla, by the way it smells and the way the color changes. I tend to flip it the first time when the edges just start to curl up and remove it from the heat to steam after it has puffed up a bit, slightly inflated with air.  The tortilla will deflate when it is removed from heat. If you flip the tortilla too early, it's okay to flip it back.

Make sure you leave some time before serving to steam the tortillas in a clean kitchen towel. This helps the tortillas become flexible and soft. I do at least 10 minutes. I also turn the stack upside down when I finish the last one so that the hottest tortilla is on the bottom, steaming upward.

There's really nothing like a fresh, warm, homemade tortilla - and, once you get the hang of it, you can make more than a dozen in less time than it takes to pick up takeout!

a stack of tortillas

Old New World: Mayan ha tsikil kab

ha tsikil kab

The literal translation of ha tsikil kab is "squash seed honey water." Ha is water and kab is honey.  Tsikil, squash seeds, were an incredibly important part of the day-to-day Maya diet -  it is thought that the oil from squash seeds was the main source of fat for the pre-contact Maya! Squash seeds were also a frequent offering to agricultural deities, as was honey. These candies, combining those two important foodstuffs, are still made today. In this adaptation I use corn syrup instead - I thought it was a fitting substitution for the honey in a sweet from a society that also valued corn highly.

pumpkin seeds about to be pan-toasted

ha tsikil kab

makes about 36 candies

  • 2 cups pumpkin or other squash seeds
  • 1 cup corn syrup

First, toast the pumpkin seeds, either in the oven for about 5 minutes at 350 or on the stovetop until most are golden.  Place the seeds in a pot and add the corn syrup. Bring to a simmer - you'll be able to hear it hiss even if you can't quite see it - and stir constantly for about 5 minutes.  Drop tablespoonfuls onto wax paper and let cool. Store in a closed container.

ha tsikil kab, cooling on wax paper

notes 

I do use corn syrup here - something I have never purchased before! I used an organic non-GMO kind, but you could also try agave nectar, which is something that was known and used at the time. The Aztecs made a similar sweet of squash seeds "stuck together with cooked syrup" that was most likely cooked down maguey syrup.

Work quickly as the corn syrup gets tacky fast and will start to leave thin threads.  Use two spoons, one to scoop and one to help release the candy from the first spoon.

However tempted you might be to lick the spoons, don't. They will be hot and sticky! 

You might recognize the sikil in tsikil from sikil pak!  I'm not sure why it's spelled differently in this sweet application.

Recipe adapted from Mayan Cooking: Recipes from the Sun Kingdoms of Mexico by Cherry Hamman and America's First Cuisines  by Sophie D. Coe.

 

ha tsikil kab

Old New World: Mayan ts'anchak bi chay and pim

ts'anchak bi chay, toasted and chopped pumpkin seeds, pim

The leaves from the chaya tree were used for both food and medicine by the pre-contact Maya and apparently every family grew a tree whenever and wherever they settled. If you do happen to come across a chaya tree, keep in mind that the leaves are toxic when raw; cook them for at least 20 minutes. Since I don't have a chaya tree, I used kale in this simple, naturally vegan dish. Ts'anchak means "boiled" - as in the "boiled squash" dish from last week - and though "boiled kale" doesn't necessarily sound tasty, it is. You can serve this either as a soup with the broth, or as I did: removed from the cooking liquid and served as a vegetable with a spicy sauce and fresh corn pim in addition to the garnishes. Pim were slightly thicker than modern tortillas, about as thick as three corn tortillas stacked; you can try making them that way if you like.

kale, a substitute for chaya

ts'anchak bi chay 

makes 4 servings

  • 1 bunch kale
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 dried chili peppers
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin or squash seeds
  • 2 limes

Wash, stem and chiffonade the kale and place in a large pot with the water. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until kale is tender, about 8 minutes. 

While the kale is simmering, toast your pumpkin or squash seeds until golden brown, then destem and toast your chili peppers, separately, in a heavy skillet (I use a small cast iron pan). Let cool, then chop the pumpkin seeds finely and set aside in a small bowl. Grind the chile peppers with a mortar and pestle or a molcajete  and set aside in separate small bowl. Quarter the limes when serving. Garnish the kale with the pumpkin seeds, chile peppers and lime or set out the small bowls of the garnishes along with the kale and pim.

 

pim 

makes 6

  • 1 cup masa harina
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup water plus more if necessary

Place the masa harina in a large bowl and stir in the salt. Add water and knead until the dough is firm but pliable. Form 6 balls of dough and cover them in the bowl with a damp  towel for 1 hour. 

Heat a flat pan over medium heat until drops of water dance and evaporate when flicked. Press between wax paper on a tortilla press or roll out into circles, then cook for about 2 minutes on each side. Fold stack of pim in a clean towel to steam for about 10 minutes.

 

 pim, chile poblano sauce, toasted and chopped pumpkin seeds

notes

If you have a spice grinder, feel free to use it to grind the pumpkin seeds and the chile peppers. 

You can substitute 1 TBSP crushed chile pepper if you don't have access to whole dried chile peppers. If you don't have a spice grinder be very careful to grind the dried and toasted chile peppers very finely, otherwise the larger chunks of chile pepper may burn!

You can also substitute spinach, chard or any other seasonal green. Greens do cook down significantly, so keep that in mind. 1 bunch of kale cooks down to about a cup.

I actually stem my larger greens first just by pulling out most or all of the tough center rib by hand, then I rinse and chiffonade them. 

Recipe slightly adapted from Mayan Cooking: Recipes from the Sun Kingdoms of Mexico by Cherry Hamman.

 

ts'anchak bi chay, toasted and chopped pumpkin seeds, pim

Old New World: Hopi fresh corn stew

Hopi fresh corn stew topped with green chile sauce

My sweetheart is crazy about corn. As soon as it shows up at the farmers markets, we eat as much as we can: grilled and topped with lime and chile elote-style, baked in the husk with just a little salt, raw and mixed into cold salads. We roast and freeze the rest for winter use. This Hopi fresh corn stew was a big hit - my sweetheart even packed the leftovers for lunch the very next day, which is a rare thing indeed.

shucked corn cut off the cob

Hopi fresh corn stew 

makes 4 generous servings

  • 1 TBSP sunflower oil
  • 8 oz ground or finely chopped seitan (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste (I used 1/8 tsp salt and a few grinds of pepper)
  • 2 ears of green or fresh yellow corn
  • 2 cups of summer squash (about 2 small round ones), cubed
  • 2 cups water or vegetable broth+ 2 TBSP water, divided
  • 1 TBSP cornmeal

Shuck the corn and cut the kernels off the ears. Heat oil in a pot over medium heat. If using seitan, brown for a few minutes and then stir in salt and pepper to taste. If not using seitan, add the corn and squash, stir, then the salt and pepper and stir again. Add  water, adding more if necessary to cover the vegetables, cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add the 2 TBSP of water to the 1 TBSP of cornmeal and stir until smooth, then add to the stew and stir. Simmer uncovered 5 minutes and serve.

Hopi fresh corn stew simmering

notes

Green corn is traditionally used here; if you grow it or can find it, use it. Otherwise fresh yellow corn works nicely as a substitute. Cut the kernels off the cob into a large bowl by standing the ear on the pointed end in the bowl, holding the stem like a handle. I like to gather the husks at the stem end and twist them around it to make for an easier grip. Use long downstrokes. No muss, no fuss; be sure to watch your fingers.

Add other seasonal vegetables with similar cooking times if you like. 

Wheat is an Old World crop that was not brought to the New World until the early 16th century to what is now Mexico; seitan is obviously in no way authentic for a pre-colonial dish but I was curious as to how it would work as a meat substitute here. It added a nice savory taste and a hearty texture but I don't think the stew would suffer if it was left out. Be sure to use vegetable broth instead of water if you leave the seitan out, though, for a richer taste than water alone. Tempeh or pinto beans would also be nice if non-traditional additions. 

Top the stew with blue corn dumplings, green chile sauce, or both.

Recipe adapted from Hopi Cookery by Juanita Tiger Kavena. 

 

Hopi fresh corn stew topped with green chile sauce

Old New World: Mayan k'um yach'

k'um yach' 

This past weekend was the first weekend we had rain in Oakland in a long while - and just in time for the first day of fall. Also this past weekend, my sweetheart surprised me with a pretty ghost pumpkin - so clearly I had to make some kind of pumpkin stew to celebrate. K'um yach means "mashed pumpkin" in Maya; yach' is the word for something that is mashed or kneaded and k'um, as I learned last week, means "pumpkin." This is a wonderfully fragrant, spicy and rich naturally vegan dish cut through with a citric brightness. Perfect for the first days of fall.

surprise ghost pumpkin

k'um yach' 

makes about 5 cups

  • 3 pounds pumpkin or winter squash
  • 6 cups water, plus extra as needed
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 2 hot green chiles like jalapeños
  • 2 limes

Rinse, peel, seed and chop your pumpkin into 2 inch segments. Place the pumpkin in a pot with the 6 cups water and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until very tender, adding water as necessary to keep the pumpkin covered. While the pumpkin is simmering, seed and chop the jalapeños,  juice the limes and chop the parsley. Drain if necessary and mash in the pot with a sturdy fork. Mix in the parsley, chiles and lime juice, stirring well.  Serve hot, garnished with a few leaves of parsley.

peeled and chopped ghost pumpkin, about to be simmered

notes

The original recipe calls for the squash to be simmered cut into pieces with the skin still on; out of habit I peeled it first. Feel free to try simmering it with the skin on, draining and peeling it after it is tender, then returning it to the pot to mash.

You can save the squash seeds to plant or to use in other recipes. 

The original recipe also calls for cilantro, which I always replace with parsley as I have a serious genetic distaste for cilantro. Feel free to use cilantro if you like.

Recipe adapted from Mayan Cooking: Recipes from the Sun Kingdoms of Mexico by Cherry Hamman.

 

k'um yach