Mexicans are serious about corn. There are dozens – possibly hundreds – of varieties in a blaze of different colours. Elote (“Mexican street corn”) is massively popular everywhere in Mexico and way beyond its borders, but perhaps the most important thing that Mexicans do with corn is to make it into tortillas, and the list of things you can make with a corn tortilla is nearly infinite.
You don’t really bake a tortilla as such: rather, you dry-cook it in a ceramic pan called a comal. But I’ll stretch a point to include it in this series, because the archetypal Mexican dough-based food is the tortilla and the archetypal thing you can do with a tortilla is to turn it into tacos. As to what you put on/in your taco, Mexican restauranteur and chef Gabriela Cámara asserts that you can really put anything you like. Having watched a bunch of her videos on masterclass.com (it’s a great site, albeit not cheap), I’ve had a go at a considerably simplified version of her recipe for a Mexico City street dish called tacos al pastor.
Before moving on to the fillings, let’s consider the tortillas. We’re making and cooking tortillas de maíz (corn tortillas). To do this, you need to start with the flour, which Mexicans call the masa. Making your own masa is non-trivial: you have to start with a process called nixtamalisation – soaking the corn kernels in lime before grinding them. I wimped out of this, not least because I wouldn’t have expected to be able to find the right quality dried corn. Fortunately, there’s good quality masa available from Mexican online grocers – I used Harina PAN. It comes in two colours – white and yellow: so far, I’ve only tried the white, but I have a packet of yellow which I’ll try some time.
To get your tortillas properly thin and absolutely evenly flat, you should really use a tortilla press – which I don’t have, or at least not yet. To cook them traditionally, you should really use a comal, which I don’t have either. So I’ve had to improvise. To flatten the tortillas, I’ve put a ball of dough between sheets of plastic (cling film doesn’t work, according to Cámara) and pressed it between a heavy wooden chopping board and the butcher’s block on my kitchen worktop. I can get them down to about 3mm thickness that way, and I’ve then stretched them a bit more with a rolling pin. For most people, the likely replacement for a comal will be a skillet: I happen to have a ceramic pan which was bought as a Tarte Tatin dish which seems to do the job fine – since a comal is a clay item, I figure that this was a close equivalent.
After that lengthy preamble, it turns out that making tacos is really quite easy. In the selection of side dishes/fillings, I particularly like the salsa verde. The quantities here served six people.
You’ll most probably need to get some of the ingredients from a specialist Mexican store: those will be the masa, the chipotle peppers, the tomatillos and the refried beans (and possibly the jalapeño peppers).
Marinating the pork (start this the day before)
- 900g pork fillet/tenderloin (probably two fillets)
- 160g chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
- Juice of 1 orange
- 2 tomatoes
- Chop the pork fillet into bite side pieces (perhaps 1.5cm cubes) and put them into a bowl. Any bigger and it’s going to be even harder than usual to get a taco with any form of structural integrity.
- Blitz the tomatoes and add them to the bowl with the orange juice and the chipotle peppers.
- Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.
The Salsa Verde Cruda
- 767g can tomatillos
- 20g onion
- 30g coriander leaves
- 30g lettuce leaves
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 avocado (around 150g)
- Green chilies to taste – I used two small medium heat finger chilies
- Salt to taste
Put everything into your food processor and blitz until you have a very smooth paste. Add water as necessary to get the texture right – you want something more like whipped cream than like toothpaste. Adjust the amounts of salt and chili until you like the taste.
The onion salsa
- 600g onions
- 10g dried oregano
- juice of 1 lime
- 40g olive oil
- Chilies to taste – I used three fresh jalapeño peppers, but you can use habanero or Scotch bonnet chilies if you want to up the firepower. (If you’re doing that, use gloves).
- Halve the onions lengthways and slice thinly.
- Slice the chilies.
- Mix the other items, then put the onions and chilies into the mixture to marinade. Make sure that you turn them many times to ensure that everything is coated in the marinade.
- 1 pineapple
- 30g butter
- salt to taste
- Peel the pineapple and remove the eyes.
- Cut the pineapple into quarters and remove the toughest part of the inside stem. Cut each quarter into small bite-sized chunks.
- Heat butter in a skillet, add the pineapple and give it a generous sprinkling of salt.
- Fry, turning all the pieces occasionally, until nicely caramelised on all sides.
Cooking the pork
- Heat a griddle or skillet. Depending on its size, you will probably need to do the pork in two or three batches.
- Transfer pieces of pork from the bowl to the skillet, shaking off most of the marinade. You can also transfer some of the whole chipotle peppers.
- Cook the pork, turning occasionally. Make sure it’s cooked through, but try not to dry it out such that it becomes tough.
- Optionally, pour the remaining marinade into your skillet, cook for a few minutes to reduce and pour it over the pork.
- Keep the meat warm while you make your tortillas.
Making the tacos
The quantities here are for two 60g tacos each, which worked out about right for us. It’s a simple one-to-one ratio of masa to water, so multiply by whatever you want.
- 360g masa harina (see above)
- 360ml water
- Start heating your comal (or skillet or improvised substitute) on your hob – basically, you want it as hot as you can get.
- Put the masa harina and water into a bowl and mix until you have an even dough.
- Divide the dough into balls (in this case, 12 of them) and cover the bowl with a tea towel to stop the dough drying out while you make the tortillas.
- Place a ball of dough between two sheets of plastic (a re-used plastic bag works fine) into your tortilla press – whether purpose-built or improvised – and flatten the ball of dough to a disc. Finish it off with a rolling pin if you have to. Cámara says the ideal tortilla is about 3mm thick, but I felt that was a bit thick and aimed for 2mm.
- Peel the tortilla off the plastic and place it on the hot comal. Cook for a minute or two on each side – the tortilla should be thoroughly dried out and if you taste a piece, there should be no residual taste of raw flour.
- Repeat for all the tortillas, keeping them warm and covered.
To repeat what Cámara says, you can put anything into a taco. As well as the pork, pineapple, salsa verde and onion salsa, I went for sweetcorn, refried beans (proper ones from the Mexican grocery, as opposed to the distinctly indifferent supermarket-bought stuff) and some green salad. But truly, use whatever you feel like.
The idea is to put lots of items of filling into your taco and fold it into a U shape, in the hope that it will stay in one piece as you lift it to your mouth and take bites out of it. However, no-one I know has ever succeeded in doing this with any taco – home made or commercially bought: structural integrity just isn’t part of the programme. So I predict that you will suffer an epic failure and the collapse of your taco. But that’s all part of the fun – just remember to lean forward so it happens on top of your plate!