Talking tortillas

When it comes to tortillas, anything goes.

They are the vessels for virtually every ingredient of the Mexican larder, always at the ready for scooping up stews and building tacos, for pressing into flat, cheesy empanadas or frying into crispy tostadas, which are then piled high with everything from ceviche to shredded chicken and salsa.

An elemental, unleavened flatbread that traditionally is little more than finely ground maize flour, water and salt, tortillas are to Mexican cuisine what pita bread is to the Middle East and injera is to Ethiopia. On street corners and restaurants of our southern neighbor, you always see the ubiquitous tortilla lady, shaping balls of dough with her hands, then pressing them into disks that are griddled like pancakes and stacked warm in a lidded basket or bowl.

But, tell me, por favor, do you know anyone who makes tortillas at home?

Most people fall back on the mass-produced discs you can find at any grocery store. The problem with such tortillas, whether cooked from corn or wheat flour, is they are often tasteless.

With that in mind, and with Cinco de Mayo close at hand, we set out to learn how to make hand-crafted, from-scratch tortillas. And for this tortilla-throwing tutorial, we sought out Chad Clevenger, executive chef at Alma Cocina, one of the city’s best and most inventive Mexican restaurants.

At Alma Cocina, Clevenger creates tortillas many ways, using as his base everything from common Maseca corn flour to Oaxacan blue corn to fresh masa made with nixtamalized corn. In spring, he even crafts green tortillas made of fresh ramps.

His tortilla fillings aren’t too shabby, either.

One of his most popular is tinga: a tangy chorizo-and-chicken stew concocted from house-made sausage and seasoned with chipotles and a bit of balsamic. Clevenger scoops the tinga onto small, crispy tostada shells and dollops them with pico de gallo, queso fresco and his own Mexican crema.

He also serves delicious tacos stuffed with everything from fried cod to pork belly to veggies.

On the day we showed up at his Peachtree Street kitchen, the chef was crafting tortillas the old way, using a simple press of the sort you can buy at Latin-American supermarkets, and showing us his various colorful versions.

Here’s the thing about making a tortilla by hand: It’s not hard, especially when you learn a few of the tricks Clevenger has up his sleeve. It just takes a little practice and lots of time.

Start with Maseca, which is easy to find at grocery stores. Add water and salt, and shape. Clevenger likes using a ripped apart resealable plastic bag to keep the tortillas from sticking. He also suggests spritzing the plastic lightly with cooking spray.

Maseca dough dries out quickly, so keep it covered with a clean kitchen towel and add a sprinkle of water if the dough starts to crack.

If you find yourself like me — too cheap to buy a tortilla press for occasional use — you may use a cast-iron skillet to do the mashing. When I tested the technique, I didn’t have resealable bags, so I used regular old plastic wrap, which worked like a charm — thanks to the cooking spray.

Another tip from the chef that you won’t find on a package of Maseca: Cook the tortilla at medium to low on the first side. (This helps set the dough without torching it.) Then flip it and finish it at medium to medium high.

Though your kitchen may not boast anything like Clevenger’s fancy plancha with adjustable temps, you can simulate his process by using two skillets or griddles, preferably cast-iron. That’s what I did, and it worked like a charm, especially after the pans were quite hot.

If you want a crispy shell, you’ll need to fry the tortillas in hot oil. You can also bake them. But honestly, fried tastes better. Especially when you load your crunchy, edible plate with the bounty of spring, like the tostada Clevenger masses with roasted cauliflower and red peppers, pickled red onions and smoky-nutty salsa macha.

Mexican food is famously bright, slathered with condiments and loaded with flavor. Perhaps that’s why tortillas often get short-shrifted. Maybe that oughta change. Why shouldn’t the containers be as satisfying as what’s inside?

Tortillas 101

Alma Cocina executive chef Chad Clevenger walks us through the process of making tortillas from scratch. Use this photo step-by-step as you would a recipe.

1. Place 8 ounces (about 2 cups) of Maseca and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in a large mixing bowl. Mix well with a fork to combine. Pour in 12 ounces (1 1/2 cups ) water. Mix well to form a ball.

2. Shape into 12 golf-ball size balls, about 1 1/2 ounces each. Place on a plate and cover with a clean kitchen towel to keep from drying out.

3. Lightly spray two pieces of plastic wrap, or a resealable plastic bag that’s been ripped in two, with cooking spray. Place a ball of dough between the plastic sheets. Place on the tortilla press, and press down to flatten. (Tip: if you don’t have a tortilla press, you may use a heavy iron skillet to flatten the dough.) To remove the pressed tortilla from the plastic. Place covered tortilla in one hand. Slowly peel off the top sheet of plastic with your other hand. Then gently slide tortilla into the palm of your hand, being careful to keep it from tearing.

4. Place pressed tortilla on a lightly oiled griddle. Cook until the dough is nicely browned and begins to puff up, about 2-3 minutes. Flip and cook to brown the other side, about 3 minutes. (Tip: Clevenger suggests cooking the first side over low to medium heat. This helps set the dough and decreases risk of sticking or over-cooking. Then flip it and finish over medium-high to high heat. If doing this at home, use two griddles, flat skillets or large casket-iron skillets.

5. If your recipe calls for crispy fried tortillas, fry in a hot oil until browned and crispy, about 2 minutes per side.

Tortilla tutorial

Once your tortillas are made, mix up fillings to put in them. Chicken tinga is easy to make and delicious as soft tacos. Spring Tostadas with Roasted Cauliflower, Refried English Peas and Salsa Macha are a bit more time consuming but worth it for the crunchy texture and crazy-good flavor. They are also vegetarian, vegan if you skip the dairy.

Chef Chad Clevenger’s Chicken Tinga Tacos

At Alma Cocina downtown, Clevenger serves his spicy chicken-and-chorizo filling called tinga on small, crispy tostada shells. Here, he spoons it onto tacos, garnishing with classic condiments of the Mexican repertoire: pico de gallo, Mexican crema, crumbled queso fresco and chopped cilantro. Don’t feel like you have to use all of these condiments, but taking the time to chop up a little pico de gallo is well worth the minimal effort. To make chipotle puree, simply get a small can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and run them through a blender or food processor.

Chef Chad Clevenger’s Spring Tostadas with Roasted Cauliflower, Refried English Peas and Salsa Macha

As an alternative to traditional refried beans, the Alma Cocina chef uses refried English peas for this vegetarian dish. The smashed legumes are then spread on a crispy, fried tortilla and topped with roasted cauliflower and red peppers, salsa macha, pickled red onions, queso fresco and cilantro. Feel free to mix and match condiments to taste, and if you can find fresh or frozen fava beans, they’d be a great substitute for the peas. Skip the cheese for a vegan dish.

Salsa Macha

This oil-based salsa is made with dark, smoky peppers, and the use of toasted sesame seeds and almonds gives it a nutty flavor. You will have a good bit more salsa than you need for the recipe, but you will find that it’s wonderful on everything from grilled meat and chicken to veggies and eggs. Just store it in container with a lid.

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