Saturday, August 02, 2008

Homemade Corn Tortillas at New England Culinary Institute

It's a dream come true. After so many years of marriage to a Mexican, I finally learned how to make corn tortillas from scratch. Not from my mother-in-law, but from the splendid guidance of the New England Culinary Institute while on vacation in Vermont. During this hands-on workshop, I joined four others to create two different summer salsas, tomato (red) and tomatillo (salsa verde) using vegetables we roasted in the broiler before whipping together in the food processor. One of the tricks was to roast the garlic cloves right in their skins and peel afterward, as well as keep the seeds in the jalapenos. (Note: I made the recipe a few days later with a girlfriend, and nearly seered our tongues on the mixture. Next time, I'll definitely omit the seeds).

An added suprise, and so far from my home in Chicago -- was to meet Chef Courtney Contos, who led the workshop and made it a memorable experience for all. She serves as the Director of Culinary Activities for people like me, who only take one or two classes at the institute. This Greek and Irish lass turns out to be part of a restauranteur family that goes way back in Chicago -- who ran the famous Chez Paul, as well as subsequent establishments by the names of the Flying Frenchman, Maison del Lago and the Royal George Theatre Cafe. Chef Courtney was balanced, knowledgable, friendly and helpful, letting us participants get our hands into everything and guiding us with the most proficient and deeply solid aire. You know she knows, but she let us find out for ourselves. What a gal!

What are corn tortillas? Nothing but corn masa, which is a ground corn flour and lime mixture, and water. The trick to making the perfect tortillas lies in just how much water, and of course, in the actual making. Golf ball size pieces of masa go into a cast iron tortillas press, but not before a ziplock baggie is cut on three sides to serve as a helpful sleeve to prevent sticking. What a revelation! Press the ball softly between the sleeve and the press, open, but don't flip, just turn the sleeve 45 degrees and repeat a couple of times. Peel off the raw tortilla carefully, and toss all at once into a heated cast iron pan. No oil necessary. Let bubble a little, check the corners, turn over and flatten with an egg spatula. No time at all on the other side, then slip into a folded towel to keep warm as your delicious stack rises. We ate every last one of them -- then and there! So good. And the salsas were to die for. I can't tell you the recipes. You have to go there and create them yourself. I highly recommend this workshop that takes place at the Inn at Essex in Essex Junction, Vermont, near Burlington. They also have week-long boot camps on various topics, such as natural foods. ◦

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