Ah, February.  That bleak time of the year when New Years is a distant memory and Easter seems impossibly far away.  What better time for a change of scenery?

While eating tortilla chips might help you feel like you’re vacationing in Mexico (more on that later) there’s another change of pace I’ve been thinking about (and they do say change is as good as a break).  I’m talking about breaking out from some tired kitchen routines.  We all have our familiar dishes and flavours that we fall back on, and that’s fine.  But there’s a lot to be gained from trying something new once in a while just to shake things up.  When that something new is something that we usually buy pre-prepared, we can gain both new insight into and appreciation for the things we put into our bodies.

I didn’t request Tortilla Chip Day because I’m especially fond of taco chips, or because I’m in the habit of making them (I never had).  I requested it because last year I discovered that home-made corn tortillas are easy to make and kick the pants off the store bought varieties.    It was a culinary revelation, and it only seemed appropriate to try taking the process to the next step.

Well to be honest, my February hasn’t been very bleak.  The sun has been blazing on us several days straight in what is supposed to be rainy Vancouver, and what with the Olympics underway my city is partying like it’s a holiday, which it is for many of the revellers.  Sure, I’m still working, but the spirit is a wee bit contagious.

All of this goes to explain why Deanna’s Margarita blog on Sunday seemed like the perfect excuse to have a whole Mexican themed day and make my taco chips, thereby killing, well, only one bird with one stone, but having an awful lot of fun doing it.

For brevity’s sake I’ll skip the history lesson, but I do want to suggest that for an entertaining take on both the history and preparation of these morsels you should check out Alton Brown’s Good Eats Episode Season 10 Episode 1 “Tort(illa) Reform”.  Plenty of sites host it including Youtube, and I happily but belatedly stumbled upon it only after my chips were made.

While Alton’s version started with straight, untreated Maize, I skipped ahead and used Masa Harina.  After my original foray into home-made tortilla land I went out and bought a 5 lb. bag for, I forget, maybe $2?  Here’s my tortilla recipe:

Step 1: Corn Tortillas

1 Cup Masa Harina

¼ tsp salt

½ Cup (plus extra) very hot water

1 tsp vegetable oil

Blend together the first two ingredients and add oil and ½ C hot water.  Stir until the dough is in large dry clumps – there will still be lots of loose flour.  Cover with plastic wrap and let sit a few minutes until the mixture is cool enough to handle.

Knead by hand until it forms a dry, smooth dough.  You may have to add more water, but only do so a bit at a time because it’s easy to go too far.  The dough should not get sticky.  (As a side note, I erred on the side of too dry in order to reduce the oil absorption during the deep frying stage). Separate into eight balls (they should be about the size of golf balls).  Cover with a damp towel.

I don’t have a tortilla press, so I roll mine out.  Start by cutting two 12-14” circles of freezer paper.  You could also trim the edges off a large heavy plastic zip-top bag, or in a pinch use wax paper.  I like the freezer paper because it’s heavy enough to resist creasing and the plastic side is quite slick and non-stick.

Flatten a ball of dough and sandwich it between the plastic faces of the paper.  It may help to use the underside of a fry pan to squash it down further.  Then roll with your rolling pin until very thin – I aim for about the thickness of a dime.  This results in a 7-8” tortilla. Carefully peel back the top paper.  The tortilla will be stuck to the lower sheet.  Invert them both over your hand and carefully peel the second sheet off.  If you opt to use a wetter dough than I did your edges will come out less scallopy than mine.

Lay the tortilla in a hot cast iron pan.  The first side should cook 30-60 seconds.  Flip and give it another 30.  Set aside and keep warm.  Once you’re in the rhythm it’s easy to roll one out while the previous one cooks.

At this stage the tortillas can be used for tacos, enchiladas or other delicious treats.  They have a wonderful toasty flavour and a smoother texture than store bought corn tortillas.  Of course, the grind of your Masa Harina will affect that.

Tortilla Chips

Corn tortillas (yes, you could use store-bought…)

Frying oil

Salt or other seasonings, if desired

Cut your tortillas into wedges and spread them out to dry for a while.  I put them in a just barely warm oven for about an hour.  Heat your frying oil to between 360 and 375F.  Prepare a cookie sheet lined with paper towel and have your salt or other seasonings ready.  Fry a few at a time.  Most recipes I’ve read suggest anywhere from 30-60 seconds.  Mine were much faster than that, for whatever reason.  Keep an eye on them and remove them before their colour changes much.  They will continue to cook and darken after they are removed from the oil.  Set them on the tray and season immediately, if desired.

The Verdict

Serve with your favourite dips.  I used ceviche and a hearty home-made guacamole.  These chips were much stronger than store bought, so they held up really well to dipping.  They were less crispy and more crunchy, but not tough.  They had a nice dry texture – not at all oily, and had the nice toasty flavour I associate with my home-made tortillas.

I would definitely whip these up again if I were hosting or attending a Mexican themed party, and I might try Alton’s lime-flavoured variation.  They are a nice change from commercial chips and their dipability was a real bonus, and at pennies per batch you have to love the value.  However, they weren’t the revelation that the tortillas themselves were, so I’ll stick to the store bought for day to day use.  Still, I know I’ll be a bit more mindful the next time I tuck into a bag of commercial tortilla chips.  How did these get to my table?  How were they made?  What ingredients are in them?  What else do I buy that I could be making?

Lucky for us we may soon be getting a peek inside the world of commercial taco chip production.  I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but stay tuned to the blog…