I’m not sure how many people have been told they need to work on their “hair game” by Nick Kokonas, but PIF and I are two of them.
A few Mondays ago, we attended the Chicago release party of Alex Stupak, chef and owner of the Empellóns in New York City, and Jordana Rothman’s new cookbook Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. This was our first soirée into the world of Chicago’s Food Elite. We spent the night eating and drinking well over the worth of our tickets in tacos and mezcal and got to have conversations with Chefs Alex Stupak, Jenner Tomaska (Next), and Grant Achatz (Alinea), and, obviously, Nick Kokonas (co-owner and co-founder of Alinea and founder of Tock).
Overall, the night was incredibly eye opening. The people we talked to, aided no doubt by the mezcal, were blunt and honest; the crowd was elegant and gave off an air of importance that was contagious; and the food – guacamole with uni, lamb barbacoa tacos, and char roe pico de gallo – was incredible. I was at once captivated, intimidated, and excited. We happened to run into a friend of mine from college who is an aspiring chef and was (smartly) taking advantage of his ticket and treating the event as a job fair. Flanked on both sides by extreme extroverts, I was encouraged to introduce myself to as many people as I had time for in between servings and, as such, I got to shake the hand of every industry influencer there that I had learning about for months.
Later, as I reflected on the evening, I realized that the night had left me with more unanswered – or perhaps unanswerable – questions. None of these brilliant and influential people perfectly embodied exactly what I wanted to be doing in the food realm. Today, I’m still very unsure of my place (if I have one at all), other than that of a voracious eater, enthralled hobbyist, and self-proclaimed critic. If I had to choose, I’d say I fall somewhere between a Jordana and a Nick. While I love to learn, brainstorm, and create, I am simply not a chef. But I am inquisitive, creative, and fully enchanted by this industry that is centered around creating goods that last mere seconds or minutes, experiences that last hours, memories that last a lifetime, and ideas that are both eternal and eternally evolving.
However, there is at least one thing I learned definitively that evening and it is that fresh tortillas taste infinitely better than store bought ones. And, just as importantly, they are extremely easy and fast to make at home. Making tortillas is already a super cheap process, but here is my even cheaper, I-Live-Alone take on Alex Stupak’s recipe.
Adapted from Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman’s Tacos: Recipes and Provocations
Cook time: 10 minutes
Makes 2 tortillas
1/4 cup masa harina
gallon sized Ziplock bag
1. Mix 1/4 cup masa harina with 1/8 cup water in a bowl and mix with hands and roll into a ball. Keep adding water in small increments until you can press the ball without cracks forming in the dough. (I find I generally have to add quite a bit more water.)
2. Once you get it to a good consistency, make two equal sized balls from the one big ball and cover with a wet cloth (This is what Stupak recommends, but I place the ball back into the bowl, which should have a bit of water on the bottom, and cover with a cutting board). I find my tortillas turn out better when I let them sit for 20-30 mins after mixing, so I typically leave it while I prepare the insides.
3. Place one skillet over medium-high heat and another over low-medium heat.
4. Tear the freezer bag along the edges so it is just a large, plastic rectangle.
5. If you don’t have a tortilla press, I had pretty good results pressing the dough between two cookie sheets with heavy books piled on top. To set up your “press,” place one rimmed baking sheet face down, place the open Ziplock bag on the baking sheet, and go get a bunch of heavy books.
6. When you’re almost ready to serve, take a ball and press between your fingers so it’s slightly flat on either side.
7. Place the ball on one side of the Ziplock bag and fold the other half of the plastic bag over the ball.
8. Press the bottom of the other cookie sheet on top of ball and place heavy books on top. Press down until tortilla is desired thickness. Tortilla should be around 5 inches in diameter. Too thin, and it will be impossible to peel off in one piece. Too thick, and it just won’t taste as good.
9. Carefully peel off one side of the Ziplock bag. Place hand over tortilla and slowly peel off other side of the Ziplock bag.
10. Carefully flop tortilla onto the low-medium skillet. (Stupak actually recommends sliding the tortilla onto the skillet but this takes some mastering.)
11. After 15 seconds, use spatula to flip the tortilla over and onto the medium-high skillet for 30 seconds. Flip over, still on medium-high skillet, for 10 seconds. Repeat this one more time. Then move tortilla to a plate and repeat with the other tortilla. (You can make this a more streamlined process by having the other tortilla pressed and between the plastic baggy, ready to go as soon as the first tortilla is done. If you’re cooking with multiple people, have a sous chef press the tortilla while you cook man the stove or vice versa.)