Wednesday, 16 December 2009


Everyone is familiar with the quesadilla of cheese and some other fillings, sandwitched between two flour tortilas and grilled. I have been served quesadillas like this, with just a cheese filling, as a snack in some of the bars here in Mexico, however I'd like to deal with quesadillas made with corn masa or with corn tortillas.

The Cheese
A good melting cheese is important.The mexican equivalent of mozzarella is Oaxaca cheese, which has a similar texture and also comes in a ball, but it is made from a long ribbin of tightly wrapped cheese. It is white and becomes stringy and rubbery when meltedmuch like mozzarella.

The classic filling seems to be just cheese, however I also like to use chicken or tuna. Tuna is especially nice in a quesadilla made using tortilla. 

Using Corn Tortillas
This is the easiest method of all and one I often see employed by colleagues here, a corn tortilla is warmed enough to make it flexible, filled then folded over and grilled.

You need little or no oil, the tortilla will take quite a pounding on the grill before it burns and it becomes crunchy with a slight chewiness.

Using Masa
Quesadilla made with masa are very different from those constructed from prepared tortillas.

The procedure is as follows: Press the masa into a tortilla, lift it from the tortilla press and remove the plastic from one half ot the tortilla. Fill the tortilla using the plastic to hold it, then fold over and seal the edges of the escalope formed using the plastic.

The quesadilla can then be fried in an inch of hot oil.

These have more in common with a pasty than they have with the common idea of a quaesadilla, the masa is light and crunchy on the outside, soft inside and then meets the melted cheese. They are not as oily as one would expect them to be - the oil does need to be kept quite hot, but not smoking, the masa brown quickly and if the oil is too hot the outside will have browned before the cheese has melted or the masa on the inside has cooked.  The quesadilla needs careful handling while cooking, they are very fragile, it's a good idea to turn onto the uncooked side (I am assuming thery are being fried in an inch of oil rather then deep fried) promptly to make a complete crust around the outside to make then easier to manipulate in the pan.

There is a temptation to make a relatively thick tortilla however this gives a rather heavy, stodgy quaesadilla.It is better to press the masa to a normal thickness and to work carefully.

Some recipes add both baking powder and lard to the masa. The lard makes the tortilla flaky and the baking powder adds lightness. The end result is certainly nicer, althought the idea of adding lard to something about to be deep fried.....It also seems like a lot of elaboration for something which is just a quick snack.

I have tried these cooked in corn oil, olive oil and soya oil.

Corn oil would be the traditional choice, it is fairly neutral tasting and works very well. Olive oil works well too but can't hold the heat as well as the corn oil. There is little difference in taste whether corn or olive oil are used.

Soya oil is popular here, if the quantities on the shelves in the shops are any indicator. I think the taste is revolting. The quesadilla cooked in it had a very unplesant off-putting smell and taste.

Grilling using Masa
There are also recipes where the masa is cooked on a comal rather than fried in oil. The procedure here is to cook one side of the tortilla then filling and floding over and sealing the edges of the uncooked side together.

I really can't see the advantage of this method. The resulting quesadilla has neither the crunchy chewy texture of on made from a prepared tortilla or the oily comfort food appeal of a fried one.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Tortillas Revisited

I've been trying the Tortillas made with both blue and yellow corn and also with the standard white Massa Harina.

Tortillas made with the blue massa harina certainly are pretty, they are a slatey grey colour rather than blue and they have a coarser texture than tortillas made with white massa. I can notice no difference in that taste. Diana Kennedy is very sniffy about tortillas made with either blue or in particular yellow corn. She is probably being somewhat absolutist about blue tortillas as they are unusual and pretty however when it comes to the yellow corn I have to agree with her. There is something off about the smell of yellow tortillas, they have a musty unpleasant smell, there is no difference much in the taste or texture, but I would see no reason to to ever select yellow tortillas instead of white.

Based on subsequent experiences with white massa de harina I think some of my earlier comments require slight modification, specifically on the use of warm water and resting the masa dough before pressing and cooking.

  • Using warm water does seem to make a difference, it seems to take less warm water than cold to produce a dough, it also seems to produce a smoother dough.
  • Also dough that is rested the dough for 20 minutes or so before pressing does seem to have hydrated and relaxed more than when used immediately.
I have been trying various recipes for casadias lately, and should have a post ready next week, I had planned to tackle tamales next after that, but honestly I'm overdosed on masa lately and I think I'll leave the tamales aside for now and work on soups next.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

More Adventures in Salsaland

I have three new salsa recipes I tried lately to discuss. First I revisited the Salsa de Tomatillo recipe, this time using grilled tomatilloes instead of poached, second I knocked together a Salsa de Chile Pasilla from Diana Kennedy's book and finally a Salsa De Tomates Asado; a tomato salsa, this time based on grilled tomatoes.

Salsa De Tomatillo Cocida
As I was making the initial version of the tomatillo salsa based on poached tomatilloes I was anxious to try the version of this sauce made with grilled tomatilloes and a charred anaheim chili (the one that looks like a gangly green pepper) which I had seen as the basis of a number of recipes. I imagined it as being similar but with a smokier charred taste. While that is true, there is certainly a more complex taste, I think now, after making it, that the difference comes more from the addition of the anaheim chili than from how the tomatilloes themselves are treated.

I started by halving about a half dozen tomatilloes and putting them onto a hot comal. I think this would be more successful if the tomatillloes could be roasted or grilled, however not having a grill (very odd, it's a nice big gas oven, but no grill), that variant will have to wait until I have more reason to turn on the oven than a half dozen tomatilloes.

I also put a serrano chili on the comal with the tomatilloes and at the same time dropped the anaheim over an gas ring and charred the outside as best as I could.

The tomatilloes got about five minutes each side untill they were softened and they went into the blender with the serrano and the anaheim, which had it's charred skin rubbed off and was seeded and deveined. There was no need add water to the blender as the tomatilloes were soft enough. A handful of corriander, salt and pepper and you are ready to blitz to a rough purée. I then added about a half of a small onion that had been sweated untill translucent and was just starting to catch.

It was more like the salsa with the poached tomatillies than I expected. While there was a slight grilled flavour what was more obviously different was the anaheim, which has a quite acidic taste. Cooking the onion also gives a rounder less insistent taste.

Salsa de Chile Pasilla
I had been looking to move on from the tomato and tomatillo based salsas to the salsas based primarily on chili which are more typical of what I have seen served here in Mexico so far.

My first attempt at this was a Salsa De Chili Passila De Michoacan which I took from The Art of Mexican Cooking. I am a bit hamstrung here by having absolutely no frame of reference to judge success of failure with this salsa, and by having to use techniques that are still not at all intuitive to me, however I think I am going to call this one a miss.

It's a dark brown sludge sitting in the fridge, in a cup, which I fear, when I finally admit total failure and toss the sauce, may never be white again.

The recipe calls for three passila chilis to be lightly toasted in oil for about five minutes until just crisp. The passilas are removed and two tomatilloes are fried in the oil until soft; another five minutes or so. The passila, the tomatilloes, a clove of garlic and 3/4 of a cup of water are blended to a "textured puree".

In the same oil in the pan 1/4 of a small onion is fried until translucent, the purée is reintroduced to the pan, seasoned and reduced until thick.

I think the biggest mistake I made here was to toast the chili to fiercely, allowing it become bitter. There is definitely a bitter, caprylic note to the sauce. I also think I allowed it reduce too much as I can't imagine how the thick paste I ended up with would actually be served.

I've been looking around online and there are another couple of versions of this salsa that look a little more bulletproof than the one I tried, I think I'll have a go at some of them before revisiting this fiasco.

Salsa De Tomates Asado 
After the couple of batches of the Salsa Mexicana I wanted to try a tomato slasa again but this time based on grilled rather then raw tomatoes.

The recipe I used is almost exactly as outlined here.

The tomatoes are charred on the comal along with the chilis, I used cherry tomatoes that were at their very peak and were on the point of turning. I also threw a couple of unpeeled cloves of garlic on the comal to soften along with the tomatoes and serranos.

The grilled tomatoes are blitzed along with the garlic, the flesh and seeds of a seranno (I grilled two but used only one, the second being on hand if needed), some diced onion, plenty of seasoning and some oregano.

This was a big hit. In fact I had a meal planned with spinaich and poached chicked but as soon as this salsa was finished I wolfed half of it with tostadas and finised the rest with the poached chicken and some tortillas. I think I will certainly be making this on a regular basis.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Salsa Mexicana (Pico de Gallo)

Some more on salsas....

I have yet to get to the Salsa Tomatillo with the roasted tomatilloes, however I made a salsa with regular tomatoes which I picked out of Diana Kennedy's book 'The Art of Mexican Cooking'. I found it interesting as it is very different from the Salsa I would normally make.

Firstly, my own version:
Chopped Tomatoes - generally about 2/3 chopped by hand and 1/3 blitzed.
Lime Juice
Some toasted and ground cumin
Salt and Pepper

So far, so normal. I like to blitz some of the tomatoes to give the salsa a slightly soupy base, but I  dislike when the Salsa is completely liquid - as you often find in Mexican restaurants, especially in the US - so for that reason I chop the majority by hand. The cumin is slightly unusual, not every recipe will include it, however it is not entirely unheard of, and as long as you are sparing it is an unobtrusive yet pleasant addition.

However, far more unusually, I like to add quite a bit of olive oil and finally some fish sauce.

The olive oil gives the salsa a richness that you wouldn't get with just the juice of the tomatoes and I am in the habit of always adding a small quantity of fish sauce to any vinaigrette. Somehow it seemed appropriate in this case too. A small dash will brighten the flavour of the salsa magically and won't be separately identifiable.

Now contrast this with Diana Kennedy's Salsa Mexicana (Pico de Gallo):
3/4 Cup Finely Chopped Tomato
1/3 Cup Onion
1/3 Cup Coriander
3 Serrano Chilis
3 Tbsp. Water

Very simple and clean. She suggests leaving it to rest for a half hour before serving and using it the day it is made.

In practice I found it pretty difficult to distinguish between 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup of chopped coriander, however I tried to keep as close to the proportions suggested as possible (it would seem more important to get the relationship between the key ingredients correct if one is without the huge ensemble cast of extras in my version above!). Secondly while I did use serranos, they were pretty big ones, so I reduced the quantity to two, seeded and with the pith removed.

On tasting I found the absence of any garlic to be biggest surprise. At first it seems like a note missing from the scale, but I must say I like this sauce's simplicity and freshness. It is certainly not weighed down with unnecessary ingredients.

Perhaps it's time for me to re-asses my own recipe.

Salsa de Tomatillo

I particularly wanted to tackle this as the tomatillo is a new ingredient for me.

They have a papery husk and are a bright green colour. They are related to the gooseberry which makes sense when you consider the husk, and the flavour certainly has some of the quality of a gooseberry, even though their size and appearance when the husk is removed is exactly that of a green tomato.

Recipes for tomatillo salsa come in three main varieties; raw, cooked and finally the roasted.

Raw Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa De Tomate Verde Cruda)
Typically the raw variety calls for about a half dozen tomatilloes, onion, garlic, coriander and chili (generally 2 serrano chilis for that quantity of tomatilloes). This is then blended along with a small quantity of water -enough to get the blending started easily - and seasoned with salt pepper and some lime juice. Alternately the diced onion could be added after the tomatilloes have been blitzed.

This gives a very vivid bright green salsa with a very interesting fruity taste. It is not at all like the more common cooked variety which has an earthier taste more reminiscent of vegetable than fruit.

It is suggested that this salsa is best eaten on the same day as it is made. While this may be true, I found it kept very well in the fridge (I kept it in a zip-lock bag) and I was surprised at how well it kept it's colour, it is still the same vivid green almost two days later. One issue though is that the salsa does have a tendency to separate slightly and it is not possible to keep the same smooth consistency as the cooked salsa.

I used the flesh of two serrano chilis. There seems to be no fixed rule as to whether jalepenos or serranos are used. The flesh of two serranos I used in this salsa was somewhat wimpy, however for the raw version of the salsa I think it is important, not to hide the fruity flavour of the tomatillo with too much heat.

Cooked Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa De Tomate Verde Cocida)
The more common version of the salsa requires that the tomatilloes be poached first, along with the chili, until they are soft. This should take just a few minutes, certainly less than ten. The tomatilloes will change colour becoming a much duller green gloden colour. The cooked tomatilloes are then blended with the chili, garlic, coriander, onion and seasoned.

This time I used jalepenos which I poached along with the tomatilloes, the flesh and seeds of a single jalapeno were more than enough heat for a quantity of about six tomatilloes.  

It should not be necessary to add any water to the blender, the tomatilloes and chili will be soft enough to pulse easily. After the tomatilloes chilli and garlic have been blended to a rough purée add the finely chopped onion and the coriander and season, as before, with salt pepper and lime juice.

Occasionally you will see a recipe for tomatillo salsa which calls for sweated onion to be added rather than raw finely diced onion. While this would fit with the softer velvety texture of the cooked tomatilloes, it seemed like more trouble than I was prepared to go to. Another occasional ingredient is some ground cumin. While I normally add some cumin to a tomato salsa, the vast majority of recipes fora tomatillo salsa omit it and I would agree, I'm not sure it adds anything.         

Roast Tomatillo Salsa
There is also a subset of the cooked tomatillo salsa recipes where the tomatilloes are either roasted, grilled or charred on a comal. These recipes also commonly call for a large chili such as a poblano or anahiem be charred and added to the salsa.

I have yet to try this version of the sauce, however I have a couple of poblanos and some tomatilloes set aside especially for this purpose and I'll do a seperate post on this version of the sauce sometime soon.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Tortillas De Maiz

Where better to start!

My first trip to Mexico was a couple of years ago now (and I don’t mean that as a coy way of saying I’ve been coming here since 1955 – it was actually that, about two years ago) and coming from Ireland where a tortilla was either something Spanish related to an omelette or potatoes - I was never, and still am not certain - or a flour tortilla, the corn tortillas were a new experience.

Massa De Harina.

I’m going to skip over the whole standard nixtamalization preamble. Look it up here if you are genuinely interested, suffice to say that massa de harina rather than being a type of flour is actually dehydrated dough which you reconstitute, which I think is unusual. At some point in the future I will try using fresh masa, although if you are waiting for me to nixtamalize some dry corn and make my own masa, I’d suggest you don’t hold your breath.

Most recipes seem to work off a quantity of 2 cups. This was rather more than I would care could eat myself and I have based everything on a single cup of masa de harina. This yielded enough dough to produce six standard size tortillas of about 6” or 7” diameter, however I prefer to divide that quantity of dough into eight parts, each giving a ball of dough slightly smaller than the golf ball size which is generally suggested. This produces a slightly daintier tortilla about the size of the palm of your hand.


The conventional wisdom calls for a quantity of water less than the amount massa de harina by volume. I disregarded this advice on my first attempts, using about an equal volume of water, based on the mistaken belief that I couldn’t get a dough to come together without using more water than was suggested, and also based on what I saw the various videos on youtube of people making tortillas, where the dough seems very pliable. The problem with a very wet dough is that it is very difficult to manage after it is pressed. I found it very difficult to get it into the comal without tearing or without leaving bumps and folds in the middle, it also has a distressing tendency to stick to the plastic you use to line the tortilla press.

The best way seems to be to make a crumbly mixture and then add water a tablespoon or less at a time until the dough comes together into a single mass. The objective should be to add only enough water to bring the dough together in a ball. It should not be so dry however that it can’t be pressed without radial cracks forming in the tortilla. As a rule of thumb I would suggest not as firm a plasticine yet not as loose a putty and definitely slightly drier than you would think normal.

There is a second problem if the dough is quite wet. You will find pockets of steam forming under the tortilla and it will cook unevenly leaving doughy spots where it was lifted from contact with the heat. The firmness and comparative lack of water in a drier stiffer dough prevents this from happening.

You will see warm water suggested in some places. I can’t say I noticed any difference whether warm or cold water was used.


I used a good pinch of salt. Comparing my completed tortillas both to commercial brands and to the ones produced in the local tortilleria, mine seemed to have more salt, and were none the worse for it. In fact they had a much brighter, more pleasant taste.

Resting the dough

Occasionally you see it suggested that the dough be rested for a while before pressing and cooking. Given that there is no gluten in masa I’m not sure what is to be achieved here. I guess you could argue you are giving the grains time to hydrate but in my limited experience it made no difference.


I am now the proud owner of two tortilla presses. It actually took me some time to find one at all. The lady in the first place where I asked for one laughed in my face, whether that was my Spanish or the idea that anyone would ask for such a basic tool in her fancy establishment…

The first one is of the light aluminium type. Frankly it looks like it was cast by a blind man in dry sand. It so light I can see the hinge bend upward as I press some dough. The first batch I made with it was a complete fiasco, the tortillas were too thick and remained doughy in the middle.

I managed to buy a far stronger looking press (aluminium again, I have yet to see a cast iron model) which does a much better job. In fact with a good press you have to be careful not to press to dough too thin or you will have a hard time separating the dough from the plastic without tearing and an even harder time manipulating it on the pan.

It seems fiddly and a waste of time, but if you are using a ziplock bag to line the tortilla press it is actually worth cutting off the zip after you have opened out the bag. The zips have a tendency to stop the press from closing properly and getting the dough stuck in the zip is a nuisance too.

The other piece of advice here is to lay the ball of dough to be pressed slightly toward the hinge end of the press. The side directly opposite the hinge where the plate can actually touch will produce a tortilla which is too thin on that side.


As well as having two tortilla presses, I now have two comal. The first is a round cast iron one, it’s heavy and will in all probability outllive me. The second is the rectangular griddle type that fits across two burners of the cooker.

Both work well. The more polished surface of the griddle makes moving and getting under the tortilla to flip it easier however I am more comfortable allowing the cast iron to get blazingly hot (this is not a job you want to tackle with your expensive non stick pan unless your flatmate’s budgie really annoys you!). Also I have never been able to make a tortilla puff up on the griddle as I can on the cast iron comal, but more on this later.

The general idea in cooking the tortilla is to cook one side then the second side for slightly longer and then back to the fist side again. 30 seconds, 60 second then a final 30 seconds seem to be the most common suggestions given. This seems about right as a general guide. There are also recipes which call for a medium hot pan and a very hot pan, I’d ignore this, just get the pan as hot as you can and then work quickly and without undue hesitation and faffing about.

One of the mistaken ideas I had when I approached cooking tortillas first was that I did not want them to crispen on the outside. I was trying to achieve the same flexible, almost rubbery, texture commercial tortillas have and by cooking hard and fast I would end up with a tostada. This is not the case however because as soon as the tortilla is left rest in a tortilla warmer the steam softens it and gives it the same flexibility even if it was crisp on the outside when taken off the pan.

What you need to look for is a slight speckling of colour especially around the edge of the tortilla.

Puffing Up

I was slightly doubtful when people made the claim that the tortilla should puff up. There is no leavening in a corn tortilla, unlike in a flour tortilla, and the dough is quite dry, so it didn’t seem immediately obvious to me that they should puff up. But in fact they do.

There is a small trick to the process.

After the second turn ie when the tortilla is back on the side that first hit the pan take a clean tea towel or a scrunched up piece of paper towel and press down firmly on the centre of the tortilla, it will then, hopefully, puff up.

Storing, Warming, Keeping etc.

Those plastic tortilla warmers that every Mexican restaurant in the world seems to have work well. I like to put a piece of kitchen roll in the bottom to capture any condensation.

As they are so little trouble to make I can’t imagine the circumstances in which you would have a glut of tortillas. They keep fine in the fridge in an airtight container and can be reheated in the microwave very well.

As to freezing - I have no idea and don't care.

Before we begin....

It seems to me there are two types off food blogs. The "I didn't have any baking powder so I used dishwasher detergent instead - I think it worked OK - here's a picture of me in the emergency ward" or the "here's a thousand useless facts you knew already - I'm great - please write nice things in the comments"

This hopefully will be neither of those. I'm going to presume a basic level of knowledge (or at least the ability to look it up on Google) and some comfort with basic kitchen craft. The point of this is from me to learn Mexican cooking and to share some of the lessons learned along the way. I have no intention on being the definitive guide to anything, neither have I the patience to be the Complete Idiot's guide to Mexican food.

If like me you can already cook and are interested in learning a new cuisine perhaps you will find this useful, hopefully some of the knowledge I glean along the way will save you some time and frustration.