Create your own flour tortillas for an easy, fix-ahead fiesta

What is as satisfying as a real flour tortilla, handed to you hot and fragrant -- speckled with gold, with a bite both crisp and tender, and with a whisper of smoke from the griddle. I've been pining for them.

When it comes to the store-bought product, I'm OK with factory-made corn tortillas. A lot of Mexicans are, too. But commercially made flour tortillas should be labeled Why Bother. They are bland and boring as wraps.

If you've got it bad for flour tortillas, you need a Mexican mom.

The good news is Pittsburgh has that mom.

She happens to be my yoga teacher, Sylvia Dooley, of Mt. Lebanon. One day, she said:

Fiesta in the freezer

Ms. Dooley and her husband, an emergency medicine physician, are sociable people. Theirs is a party house. "Our friends are always asking me to make Mexican food, especially tortillas, for them. There's no way I can make everything the day of the party."

Here's her do-ahead method. The tortillas are always ready -- in her freezer.

• "You can freeze the uncooked tortillas. Stack and wrap them tightly in plastic wrap. Thaw a half hour or so before cooking." (But I learned, one hungry moment, that they cook fine from hard-frozen.)

• "Our roasted pepper salsa today has been in my freezer since Thanksgiving." The unlikely secret? "Hunt's canned tomatoes." The thawed salsa retains flavor and texture.

• She simmers her beans to meaty tenderness overnight in a slow cooker. The beans keep several days in the refrigerator but freeze well, too.

"Of course you can make flour tortillas. Of course I can teach you."

She drops a bombshell. "You freeze them, and cook them when you want. How do you think I manage to have so many parties?"

From frozen? And they'll be like the ones I remember? This I would have to see.

Her passport reads Sylvia de los Santos de Dooley. She is a native of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, in northern Mexico. This is wheat country, hence flour tortillas dominate northern kitchens. The rest of the country grows corn and eats mainly corn tortillas.

Monterrey is a center of Nortena-style cooking, one glory of which is large flour tortillas rolled thin enough, the story goes, to read a newspaper through. The de Los Santos family maid, Polita, was famous for giant ones that stretched from her shoulder to her elbow.

Ms. Dooley, one of two sisters in a food-loving, party-loving family of nine children, grew up cooking communally, making tortillas under the guidance of her maternal grandmother. She also learned family specialties such as the chiles rellenos she believes "were part of the deal" leading to a marriage proposal from Christopher "Kit" Dooley, "a blonde, blue-eyed gringo" who was studying medicine in Monterrey.

She in turn has made tortilla artisans of her own children, nephews and neighbors. Now she's facing the three of us. We've got tortilla fever.

Mix and match

Simple ingredients, big flavor. Timeless tradition of comfort and satisfaction.

Flour tortillas, pinto beans, avocado are the building blocks for Nortena Cooking 101.

I invited family to mix and match these foods from our class. I sent hot tortillas to the table as they came off the griddle. On the table were bowls of:

• Roasted Pepper and Tomato "Freezer" Salsa

• "Streamlined" Frijoles Rancheros, beans fragrant with Mexican oregano

• Chipotle Frijoles Refritos, refried beans with chipotle

• Plain mashed avocado with coarse salt

• Mild white queso fresco cheese (from Giant Eagle)

• Fresh cilantro

• Chopped sweet onion.

I threw in a supermarket roast chicken, because this menu happened to be purely vegetarian, and you know menfolk. Guess what? People were too busy gobbling combinations of the core offerings to have much time for the chicken.

Flour tortillas reheat extremely well: You can sizzle them one at a time in a hot skillet, or wrap them in foil and heat them 10 minutes in the oven. If it's just a snack, pop a couple in the toaster. The scorched edges are delicious. Try them buttered for breakfast.

Manana? Have huevos rancheros with reheated tortillas, crumbled queso fresco and beans. See recipes.

Bhavna Mehta, of Mt. Lebanon and a vegetarian, is an expert Indian cook. (She also is my yoga teacher at the Himalayan Center on Beverly Road.) Ms. Mehta is an ace at whole-wheat flat breads such as puri and chapatti. She adores Mexican cooking with its potential for vegetarians. She has been waiting for her chance to master tortillas.

I invited tortilla-loving Emily Schmidlapp, 26, of Bloomfield. She works for Just Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty, and is the popular manager of the Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District. "I consume huge quantities of tortillas," she says. "I'd been making flour tortillas at home, but wanted a more authentic approach."

On Ms. Dooley's kitchen counter are King Arthur flour, avocados, a vat of salsa. A commercial range has a large griddle and a warming drawer. Simmering on top is a pot of pinto beans, perfuming the house with powerful Mexican oregano (worth getting at Penzeys or Mexican markets), a skillet of refried pintos, and a pan of cumin-scented tomato sauce.

Nice and soft but not sticky

We dive into it. It's messy. And a bit of a ritual.

Ms. Dooley is an accomplished cook, well versed in Mexican traditionalists such as Diana Kennedy. But for family recipes she measures nothing. Crisco goes in by "blobs" plucked out of the can with her fingertips, one blob per approximate cup of flour. Before adding the shortening, she tastes the dry flour mixture to see if it has enough salt.

None of this surprises Ms. Mehta, who comes to cooking by the same intuitive tradition.

Ms. Dooley has weighed and measured carefully for the recipes here, however. You will not have to eyeball anything -- except water quantity -- unless you want to try it that way for the challenge.

"You will find these tortillas are very light. Not doughy or gummy," she says.

She moves through a demo batch, working the Crisco into the flour with her fingertips. She dribbles some of the hot water over the flour/fat mixture, swirls with her fingers, combining the water with a portion of the flour, then pats the moistened mound into a ball and plops it on the table. What is she doing here? There's a ton of the dry mixture left in the bowl. She dribbles more water, gathers another ball and plops it on the table. The last of the water and the remaining flour gathered and plopped.

"That's the way I learned to make them."

"See?" poking the springy dough. "It should be nice and soft but not sticky."

Her dough rests while we practice the technique. Ours are half batches. One bowl is doomed: "Just too wet. You can't fix it. Happens to lots of people their first time. Throw it out. It's only flour and water."

Crisco, not lard?

Ms. Dooley says, "My family uses lard for lots of things -- refried beans, carnitas, absolutely. It just tastes so good. And for tamales and corn tortillas. But for flour tortillas, no. It's a stronger flavor, makes them too heavy, not what we are looking for."

The do-over, drizzling water more slowly this time, makes it easier to see and feel when flour is moistened. The dough balls receive a quick gentle knead. They are silky and good to go. We cover them to rest.

Gringa shortcut

After a string of dough-making successes, I suffered a setback. Maybe I didn't use enough water, or didn't mix it evenly. One dough ball was soft enough to salvage by kneading, but the second was shaggy and dry. I tossed it, frustrated by this revolting development, but chalked it up to haste.

Then I tried doing it all in one pour, forming a single dough ball. Although Ms. Dooley's abuelita might scoff, my gringa method is very reliable. I stick to half batches (a dozen 6-7-inch tortillas) for ease of management. Here's how:

Drizzle the water over the dry ingredients in one steady stream, reserving a few tablespoons, to moisten the last dry bits if needed. Use one hand to pour, mixing continuously with the fingertips of the other. You may not need the last bit of water. Or you may need every drop and a couple of spoonfuls more. Stop just when you are just able to pick up the last flour bits with the dough ball.

Kneading: While the new batches nap under a damp towel, we squeeze off 2-inch balls from the rested dough and knead each of them in the palm of our hand. (See recipe.) If the balls are a little bit sticky, a flour-dipped thumb will fix it.

"This is a meditation," says Ms. Schmidlapp as we pleat and turn. The balls are lined up to rest a few minutes under a damp towel.

Now comes the fun part:

The Magic Tortilla Machine

"One of my aunts turned me on to this,'" Ms. Dooley says, plugging in the Revel tortilla and flatbread press, a $50 investment, purchased online. She says it has changed her life. Ms. Mehta depends on one for her Indian flatbreads, as well. I ordered one immediately.

Having made tortillas a number of ways, I'm here to tell you: You can shape tortillas rolling by hand, or pre-flattening them in a waxed paper-lined hand presser used for corn tortillas. But nothing compares to the demon efficiency of this machine. You could invest in one with a friend -- like a pasta maker, it is shareable -- and it is fun to make them communally.

Eat immediately

Ms. Dooley spoons roughly mashed avocado onto a warm tortilla and sprinkles it with coarse salt. "Only Americans stuff flour tortillas with all kinds of stuff. We use just avocado. Or butter. Try this."

She feeds us in turn. Silence. Then giant smiles. This is what we came for. Now on to the party fixins.

Sylvia Dooley's Flour Tortillas

PG tested

I've modified the recipe slightly. This is a half recipe. All the water is added at the beginning and combined to make a single dough ball, rather the multi-step recipe described in the story. It's very manageable this way. When you get the hang of it, you should try the full recipe, Sylvia's grandmother's way detailed in the story, adding the water in 3 separate pours. If you opt to hand-roll the tortillas, the dough rolls easily. This recipe makes about a dozen 6- to 7-inch tortillas.

  • 2 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/4 cup Crisco

  • 3/4 cup water hotter than lukewarm, but not uncomfortably hot

  • Special equipment recommended: A Revel 8-inch Tortilla/Roti press, available online, about $50 plus shipping.

Mix flour and salt with your fingers or a whisk. Rub Crisco into the flour mixture until it looks like coarse sand. Slowly pour all but a few spoonsful of the water over the flour mixture, at the same time working the ingredients together with the fingers until you can form a ball. You may not need the last bit of water, or you may have to add a couple of spoonsful to combine all the dry flour.

Knead gently a time or two and set aside to rest 15 minutes under a damp towel.

Kneading: Squeeze off a 2-inch ball and place it in the palm of your left hand. With your thumb, push a hollow into it. Using your thumb, roll a bit of the outer edge in toward the middle; continue around, bits of the edge into the middle. Go around two or three times. The dough will feel elastic and smooth. Continue until you've done all. Let them rest 15 minutes under a damp towel.

Pressing: Set the heat to just below medium. The low heat encourages flattening, but does not cook the dough. Place a ball on the silicone surface, close the lid, press gently with the handle, open, peel off a round, now about 5 inches in diameter. The dough is still raw and should feel smooth and clammy. Place on counter. It may shrink a bit.

Rolling: A few strokes will do it, turning the dough circle a quarter turn each time. If it threatens to pleat or stick, gently lift and tug the edge you are rolling toward. The tortilla should be about 5 or 6 inches in diameter and will be almost thin enough to read a headline through.

(To freeze tortillas now: Stack them -- they won't stick together -- wrap them well in plastic wrap and put them in a plastic freezer bag. Remove them 20 minutes or so before you want to cook them.)

Cooking: Heat a heavy griddle or cast-iron skillet on medium heat until a drop of water bounces and sizzles. Lay a tortilla on for 30 seconds until golden speckles appear on the bottom. Using your fingertips or a spatula, flip the tortilla. You will see small areas puffing on the top. Cook 30 seconds. Turn again. The tortilla will likely balloon more on this third turn, revealing its layers. Cook 30 seconds. The more it puffs, the flakier it will be. If it swells like a spaceship, olé. Turn the heat down if tortillas scorch. The tortillas will not puff well if the griddle is too hot. You'll get the feel of timing. If the first tortillas is a dud, don't worry. It's like the first pancake.

No-Soak "Pot" Beans

PG tested

Mexicans laugh at the notion of pre-soaking beans. "I was amazed to find out Americans soak their beans," Ms. Dooley said. These beans, delicious as is, are the foundation for Frijoles Rancheros and Frijoles Refritos, recipes below. Seasoning is simple: an onion, garlic cloves, then salting assertively when the beans are nearly done ("when they can absorb the seasoning."). Ms. Dooley sometimes uses a pig's trotter in place of vegetable oil as the fat that makes the beans "creamy." A strip or two of bacon or bacon drippings could be used instead.

  • 1 pound package pinto beans

  • 1 small onion

  • 8 to 10 garlic cloves peeled

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil or simmer with a pig's trotter

  • Salt

  • Slow cooker: Rinse beans, place in slow cooker with onion, garlic and oil or pork. Add water to an inch above the beans. Cook on low overnight, or about 12 to 14 hours. The beans should be velvety but not falling apart, barely covered in a flavorful "beany" pot liquor. Add 2 teaspoons salt now. Remember the beans take a while to absorb the salt. Cooking times vary with individual cookers and how long the beans have been on the supermarket shelf. Fresher beans cook more quickly. If your beans are not fully tender, increase heat to high for a few hours.

    Oven method: Place ingredients in a cast-iron or glazed-enamel Dutch oven with 6 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer on the stove, then cover tightly and put in a 350 degree oven for about 2 hours. At an hour and a half, check for tenderness. Now is the time to add another teaspoon of salt. This method comes from Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times via the excellent cookbook, "Rancho Gordo Heirloom Beans" by grower Steve Sando with Vanessa Barrington. You can order pintos and other heirloom beans: (Bean gurus Mr. Sando and Mr. Parsons suggest if you have the luxury of time, soaking the beans, even for a couple of hours, makes them cook more evenly and faster.)

    Makes 6 cups.

    Frijoles Rancheros

    PG tested

    Rancheros are simply juicy "pot" beans, gussied up with sautéed veggies and fragrant with Mexican oregano, which is more aromatic and less sweet than Mediterranean. They are usually served as a side dish to grilled meats and fajitas, but are delicious with tortillas.

    • 1 medium onion chopped

    • 1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, chopped (try first with one to test heat)

    • 3 to 4 small plum tomatoes

    • 1 teaspoon or more Mexican oregano, to taste

    • 3 cups of the "pot" beans with their liquid

    • Salt and freshly ground pepper

    • Whole leaves, cilantro to add when serving

    Saute vegetables until soft. Add oregano and beans. Heat to simmer. Check seasoning, adding more oregano, salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves. Makes 31/2 cups.

    Chipotle Frijoles Refritos

    PG tested

    "Pot" beans are pureed with the onions and garlic that are cooked with them, and an added chipotle pepper, then refried in hot oil. They are delicious with tortillas, tacos, alongside scrambled eggs, or as a dip with cheese melted on top. They can be thinned with broth to make soup. This soup without the chipotle and with rice added is toddler food in Sylvia's family.

    • 3 cups "pot" beans with their liquid

    • 1 or 2 chipotle peppers (canned chipotle in adobo sauce)

    • 1/4 cup canola oil

    • Salt

    Puree the beans with stick blender, food processor or blender. Heat oil in heavy skillet until very hot. Add the pureed beans, and cook, stirring, until thickened enough to suit you. Remember, beans will thicken as they cool. Taste for seasoning. Note: You can make refried beans with Frijoles Rancheros too, but use a potato masher so the vegetable ingredients will retain some texture.

    Roasted Pepper and Tomato "Freezer" Salsa

    PG tested

    With a base of canned tomatoes, this black-flecked roasted veggie salsa freezes perfectly and thaws with taste and texture intact. Serve with chips or spoon over tacos, quesadillos and burritos. Here's a winner: Ms. Dooley suggests huevos rancheros for a light meal any time of day: bring salsa and a little oil to a simmer in a skillet; crack a couple of eggs into the pan and cook, covered, until set. Serve with fresh flour tortillas and beans.

    • 2 tablespoons canola oil

    • 1 large onion, peeled and quartered

    • 4 to 6 garlic cloves, peeled

    • 3 to 4 small Hungarian peppers -- from Whole Foods or summer farmers markets -- or substitute 2 large banana peppers

    • 2 to 3 jalapeno peppers, whole (add half and taste, before adding the rest)

    • 28-ounce can Hunt's whole peeled tomatoes and juice

    • Salt and pepper

    Turn on broiler. On a rimmed cookie sheet toss onion wedges, garlic and peppers with vegetable oil. Broil a few inches from flame for 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally to let tasty black spots form. Allow to cool. Place garlic in blender or food processor with a little of the tomato juice and pulse a couple of times. Add peppers, stemmed and seeded, and pulse twice. Add onions and pulse. Crush tomatoes with your hands, add them and pulse twice. Add the rest of the tomato juice and pulse once. You want a chunky texture. Season with salt and pepper and pulse again if needed. Taste. If you want to increase the heat level, chop and add reserved jalapeno.

    Makes 4 cups.

    Mashed Avocado with Coarse Salt

    PG tested

    OK, this is hardly a recipe, but so good. Roughly mash an avocado or 2. Spoon into a warm flour tortilla. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Or serve with beans and salsas with tortillas.

Virginia Phillips: First Published June 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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