Much like my oldest daughter, my parents always commented that even as a child, I was first and foremost ‘the observer’. They would take me to a playground, and I would spend most of the time observing my peers as they clambered over the equipment with abandon, falling or failing multiple times until they finally mastered a skill. I however, hated the idea of practice; the acceptance that I would fail over and over again with no end in sight. So instead, my practice came through the detailed observation of others, rather than attempting the skill myself. I observed, rather than participate, then eventually when I finally mustered the confidence would most often achieve the skill. It was an incredibly frustrating practice for my parents, watching me actively avoid physical participation. I was still actively engaged and processing, as we all later came to accept, but I’m sure they worried about my social skills, my ego, and even my sheer physical abilities.
It has taken me years of intentional effort to attempt to rewire what has always been my instinct: to observe until I could assure myself I would avoid failure. As it turns out, failure is impossible to avoid. But ironically, overcoming this instinct takes tons of practice. The joke is on me.
As I’ve mentioned here before, the last few years have left me with a reinvigorated interest in New Mexican cuisine and culture, as I find myself daydreaming (and scrolling through Zillow), imagining what it might be like to live or at least visit there again. The tourism board hit the nail on the head when naming it the “Land of Enchantment”. Enchanted, I am.
After spending a minimum of six months working myself up mentally to the task of making my first batch of homemade tortillas, I finally completed the task a few weeks back. Corn, and specifically blue corn, is a foundation of both cuisine and culture in New Mexico. According to my research, blue corn was originally grown by the Hopi tribe, in Northern New Mexico and Arizona, later adopted by Spanish settlers out of necessity, due to their own imported crop failures. Not only a staple food and successful in food growing alongside squash and beans (known as the “three sisters”) corn also has deep symbolic meaning in Native American culture. Given both the age of pueblo history in New Mexico (Acoma pueblo is said to be the oldest in US history, dating back to the 12th century) as well as the percentage of population stemming from Native American background (2nd largest in the country), it is no surprise that practically every piece of New Mexican cuisine or culture, touches a history or practice involving corn. Blue corn no less, has become synonymous with distinctively New Mexican cuisine, given its Northern New Mexico agricultural roots.
Whilst researching blue corn itself, I came across an article from the New Yorker in 1987, where journalist Susan Benner, sums up the experience more succinctly than I ever could. She says;
“I had never seen the stonelike shadowy surface of a blue corn tortilla against the pale soft green of chili sauce, the white of sour cream. The colors and textures seemed as Southwestern as adobe. Blue corn tortillas are coarser, grainier and crumblier than those made of yellow corn, and this tortilla fell apart on my tongue. That night I felt as if I were eating earth – not dirt, but food that was somehow connected to the richness of earth.”
The Land of Enchantment has a fierce hold on all who come across it.
Though still in need of work when it comes to technique, here is the recipe I used for my own blue tortillas, drawing on both the large Hispanic culture in New Mexico with the use of the tortilla, the Pueblo culture with the grain itself, alongside the back of my package of Blue Corn Masa Harina from the Cool Chile Company here in the UK.
Blue Corn Tortillas from Cool Chile Company
Combine 250g masa harina with 330ml hot water to form a dough. Leave covered for 15 minutes. Knead in more water if necessary; the texture should be like soft clay but not sticky.
To form the tortillas, pinch off a piece of dough and roll into a ball. Have a little pot of cold water nearby to dip your fingers into when rolling if the dough feels dry. 15g balls make 8-10cm tortillas, 25-30g balls make 12-15cm tortillas.
Place the dough ball between two sheets of plastic (a plastic bag cut into 20cm squares works well), and roll out into a 3mm thick circle with a rolling pin or use a tortilla press. Peel off the top piece of plastic, then place the uncovered side of the tortilla in your palm and carefully remove the other piece of plastic.
Heat a frying pan (without any oil) to medium then gently place your tortilla in it, so as not to trap any air. Cook for 15 seconds, or until the tortilla releases itself from the pan, then turn over and cook the other side for 30-45 seconds. Turn once more: the tortilla should puff, but you can help it along by gently pressing the edges when you see a bubble forming.
Have a folded clean tea towel ready on the side. As you cook each tortilla tuck them into the tea towel to keep warm.