Monday, August 10, 2015

A simple, tiny taco tome.

(L) Our beautiful flea-market machacadora. (R) Pinto beans. © Ryan Schierling
This is a story about a humble taco. It’s a bit of a love story, where homemade corn tortillas are concerned, and where my love for anything made of masa harina was born. These tacos reach back deep into the earliest grasp of my childhood food memories.

My mom grew up in southern California, but as it would happen, the craft of making homemade tortillas was learned as a young working mother in the Pacific Northwest from our neighborhood bread baker and all-around food-geek, Mrs. Cooper (who, impressively, milled her own flour at home!) Using masa harina, water and a sturdy cast-iron tortilla press, we made these delectable little homemade tortillas on a pretty regular basis when I was a kid. It was great fun to roll the masa dough into little balls and then smash it between the waxed paper or plastic on the press. Then there was the trick of peeling it off the plastic (usually a deconstructed large zip-bag) without it breaking into pieces in my young hands, and onto the cast-iron griddle they went. 
It was a team effort and family activity all its own, with a delicious payoff.

The toppings were always just this simple – refried beans, shredded cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce and (if you felt like it) a little bit of old-school grocery-store taco sauce. Simple and honest. For me, the flavor of beans and cheese on fresh corn tortillas is about as comfort food as it gets. The lettuce adds a cool contrast and a bit of crunch.

There’s plenty of fancy to go around these days. Always a new take to be found on an old recipe or the temptation to take two perfectly good food items and wrangle them into a mind-bending knot and call it "fusion cuisine." But every time I feel like I might be over-complicating my food experience, I think of these tacos. They don’t need “more” to be better. In fact, what makes them so delightful are the plain and clear flavors. A little crema or drizzle of a favorite sauce would be delicious, too, but these tacos truly do not require any of those things to be wonderful.
 In a world of "bolder, spicier, more complex!" these are gentle, simple and straight-forward.

Years ago when I introduced this decidedly un-fancy taco to Ryan, he created his own un-fussy rendition which is completely in the spirit of the one I grew up enjoying. It is topped only with refried beans and a bit of pico de gallo (a quick mix of tomato, onion, jalapeño, lime, cilantro and salt). I especially enjoy his version with an extra toasty tortilla – uhm, a tostada – for that extra bit of crunch.

There is really no recipe here, it’s mainly a matter of being able to follow a few easy instructions typically found on a package, but I’ll outline a few tips and techniques with respect to the handling of the elements that I enjoy.

Fueled by nostalgia and a bottle of old-school taco sauce. © Ryan Schierling

While it is possible to find fresh masa (para tortillas, not tamales) in specialty stores around town (or even make your own), a bag of masa flour is easy to find and keep on hand. Just follow the instructions on the bag for the ratio of water to flour and roll into balls that are soft but not sticky. Cover them with a damp towel or plastic wrap while you work so they don’t dry out before pressing. Cooking on a dry (not oiled) cast-iron skillet is ideal. If your set-up allows, it is advisable to start the tortilla on the first side at a lower temperature for about 30 seconds – then flip over onto a much hotter skillet, then flip again on the hot skillet when the first side shows a bit of color. If the conditions are right, you’ll get a tortilla that puffs up a bit before you take it off the comal. (Don't get hung up on technique here, though. These will be tasty thick or thin, heavy or light.) Stack them in a tortilla warmer, or on a plate under a piece of plastic wrap to keep them moist.

Refried beans

Follow the recipe on the bag of pinto beans. I generally prefer the longer soak method, but the quick method works, too. I always use distilled water for both soaking and cooking to ensure a good result, especially with our Texas water. The only extra things I do are add a little more water than called for, about half of a chopped onion per pound of beans and some olive oil to the pot when cooking. Add salt at the end to season, after the beans are tender. What we don’t use in the first day or two, I like to freeze in 2-cup containers until needed.

 When ready to make refritos, I lightly sauté a clove or two of garlic and sometimes a bit of chopped onion in a small cast-iron skillet, then about 2-3 cups of beans with broth. I use our trusty machacadoro (wooden bean masher) to smash the beans and a wooden spatula to stir them periodically. It looks like a lot of broth at first, but the smashed beans thicken it up and the result is a nice mix of creamy and spreadable beans with whole-bean pieces. Keep the skillet low and be careful to not overcook at the end, as the liquid has a tendency to evaporate quickly and it’s preferable to serve when ready rather than have to add water to rehydrate later.

(For more detailed recipes and instructions for making tortillas or refried beans, I would highly recommend Rick Bayless' cookbook Authentic Mexican.)


I like a nice medium or sharp cheddar for these. Grating your own cheese is really worth it for these little guys, as pre-shredded cheese from a bag never has the same nice texture.


Iceberg, thinly sliced. Don't judge – it's my nostalgia.

Hot sauce
If your "back in the day in the USA" looked anything like mine, you'll know what I mean by old-school taco sauce (pretty much mild La Victoria taco sauce as you would find in most  stores today). We've moved on to more interesting things in the hot sauce department, but sometimes you just have to go back and revisit the classics. 

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