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Put More Tortillas on Your Table

Published May 9, 2023

Ideas and hacks, plus some fun ways to use masa harina

That’s right. This is a challenge issued to all, in my quest to make every tortilla and chip that you eat a little better, and then to bring that same unparalleled corn flavor to dishes where it may not seem to have any business. At first. 

Since I was raised in a California tortilla-eating culture, not a tortilla-making culture, today’s ideas and recipes are a mix of traditional and non-traditional techniques, both learned and invented. We’re hoping this opens the door to some  discussion about tortillas—and by extension masa and masa harina.

Think of this newsletter as a wee taste; no one will ask you to start mixing dough and pressing your own tortillas. (We’ll save that for another day; if you’re curious now, check this out!) But maybe after reading this, you’ll know just enough about masa harina – the flour used to make tortillas – to add a bag to your shopping list. And if you’re already a masa enthusiast, there might be something new for you here, too.  The sections below will provide more details, including a bunch of links at the very end. 

And with that, here we go:

  • Seared Vegetables with Tortilla Chip Crumbs 

  • Bake-and-Break Oven-Fried Tortillas

  • DIY Fried Taco Shells

  • Masa Harina Slurries and Roux

  • Masa Flatbreads

  • Tortillas and Masa Out in The Wild

Seared Vegetables with Tortilla Chip Crumbs

You know how awesome Roman-style vegetables are–when you take cauliflower, artichokes, or broccoli, cook them seared and soft, and sprinkle with lots of fried breadcrumbs. Now imagine that with crushed tortilla chips. And let’s say carrots; they’re sweet and pretty. Ditto the choice of blue corn chips. You can always take a different path with, say, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, or even eggplant, and use white or yellow corn chips. Throw in some fresh or dried chiles and finish with cilantro and lime and we’re clearly not in Rome, except the technique remains the same.

And just like cracker and potato chip crumbs (yes, I’m guilty!), tortilla chip crumbs work in all the same ways as breadcrumbs do.

To make this recipe more of a meal: Cook a pound or so of shrimp, or sliced squid or chicken on its own first; remove it from the pan; then follow the recipe and stir it back in with the crumbs at the end. Or add 4 to 8 ounces chopped smoked chorizo with the carrots and brown along with them. Or toss in 2 cups cooked (or 1 small can) drained giant limas or black beans along with the crumbs.

Bake-and-Break Oven-Fried Tortillas

Six reasons why you shouldn’t buy a bag of chips but make your own instead:

  1. You decide what fresh corn or flour tortillas to eat as chips.

  2. The level of work, attention, and cleanup is minimal.

  3. You can make small or large batches.

  4. They’re never greasy.

  5. You control the salt.

  6. You control the crunch.

DIY Fried Taco Shells

Photo: Romulo Yanes

Corn or flour tortillas — your call. Of course, you can buy pre-shaped corn shells but has anyone ever seen ready-to-eat flour taco shells? There’s the excuse we all need to pour some oil in a skillet.

Masa Harina Slurries and Roux

Sure, I sometimes thicken soups and stews with flour or cornstarch–but only when I am assured that there is absolutely no possibility of a raw flour taste. Making slurries and roux with masa harina is more straightforward, since the process that distinguishes this corn flour from cornmeal and true corn flour—nixtamalization, which makes dried corn more digestible and nutrient-available—is almost like par-cooking, so there’s no danger of that raw taste. And masa harina leaves a haunting flavor of fresh corn tortillas in its wake.

The links below will help you dive deeper into this versatile ingredient. (Once we’re back into soup-stew-gumbo weather we’ll also post some recipes.) Meanwhile, full corn ahead in summertime fare. I can totally see slurry working in a summer gazpacho instead of dried bread. Or harina roux in a bright tomatoey ratatouille or gumbo. Just now our editor came up with the idea to spike guacamole with masa harina. I ran to the kitchen and discovered all you need to do is add a spoonful to the lime juice before adding, whisk to dissolve into a slurry, and stir it right in. Perfect enhancement for anytime you’re using guac as a salsa with fish, shrimp, or chicken. Good one, Doc!

Masa Flatbreads

Here’s a little lagniappe for sourdough bread bakers. What would happen if you leavened basic masa—the dough made from masa harina and water, with or without fat—with starter and let it ferment for several hours before shaping? I gave the notion a try with 100 grams whole wheat starter (mine was from the fridge), 200 grams masa harina (I had a red corn variety from Masienda), and 200 grams water. 

Even though the dough was much stiffer than our usual Bittman Bread loaves, it was noticeably inflated after 10 hours at room temperature. But not exactly what I would call poofy. I generously oiled my hands to shape flatbreads about 3/4-inch thick, then let them sit on parchment for an hour or so while I got a gas grill going. Note that I didn’t salt the masa; some recipes call for it, though the one on my bag of masa harina did not, so the dough actually had the pure, sweet taste of corn.

Onto the grates they went, some directly over the flames, others at varying degrees of indirect heat. Direct cooking, whether on a grill or a hot skillet or traditional griddle called a comal (we love the one Masienda made with Made In), is definitely the way to go. It takes only a few minutes each side to cook through, just long enough to get some charring in spots.

The results are more masa than bread (as if you lightly leavened sopes or picaditas) with only a slight puffing and chewiness. I’m definitely doing this again, probably with some fat in the dough, and this time wrap the disks around a spoonful of filling and flatten it again, as with pupusas or tlacoyos (see below). Let us know if you try anything like this over the summer!

Photo courtesy Masienda

Tortillas and Masa Out in The Wild

Here are some recipes, ideas, and deep dives on my shortlist to explore more and try:

Sopes Recipe (mexicoinmykitchen.com)
Scroll down for a terrific workaround if you don’t have a tortilla press.

Picaditas from Sonia Mendez Garcia
Great-looking web site of recipes and stories.

Masa Harina Recipes | King Arthur Baking
There are a ton of sweet and savory treats here.

Read about Jorge Gaviria’s Book, Masa
Scroll down a bit.

Sourdough Masa Pizza Crust from Butter for All
This idea blows me away.

Tlacoyos Recipe from Mely Martinez of “Mexico in My Kitchen” 
Thickly made tortilla, folded around a black-bean filling and griddled. This version looks fantastic! (And easy.)

Curly and His Abuelita Make Pupusas
Super-sweet video and the recipe is top of my list to try. The curtido—cabbage salad—on the side looks worth making on its own, too.

Tigua Indian ‘Bowl of Red’ Recipe – NYT Cooking
A spin on Texas Red chili, thickened with masa harina in a roux-ish technique.