Ten years ago today, I was mid-way through attending a seminar on water and its potential for fueling international conflicts. The seminar was held in the heart of one of Germany’s most popular wine regions, in the tiny town of Lambrecht, near Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. I had just met a guy I was quite smitten with a few weeks earlier, and I had invited him to visit me in Lambrecht during my weekend off within half an hour after we had first laid eye on each other. He lived in the south of Germany, and I thought that it would be a twenty minute drive for him to Lambrecht. I consulted a map the day after meeting/inviting him and in horror realized that it entailed a two hour drive, because Lambrecht was not located south of Mannheim, but west of it. And there was no proper highway, just little roads. It would take him forever! I immediately wrote him an email uninviting him, but he insisted on visiting anyway, writing that “by definition” Lambrecht was “just around the corner” and that I shouldn’t worry about it. He even ended up arriving a weekend prior to the one I had invited him to, and we’ve been a couple ever since.
On our first night as a couple, my new boyfriend and I walked around Lambrecht and passed an ice-cream parlour with a Flor de Caña sign. I got very excited and suggested we have a drink. I explained, that I had lived in Nicaragua for three years as a teen and that Flor de Caña had been my staple drink then. (Yes, I understand that laws and customs concerning the legal age of drinking vary from country to country; FYI, they also do for the legal age of driving). Buying Flor de Caña wasn’t possible ten years ago, but you can now come buy it easily. Several outlets offer it online, and in Cologne you can buy it at Kölner Rum Kontor on Eigelstein, and now even the Fine Foods Department in the basement of Karstadt offers it as of last year. My new boy friend would have to remain curious about trying Nicaraguan rum until 2009, because the ice-cream parlour didn’t sell any after all. The sign was put up by the previous owner and the waitress had no idea what we were talking about. In 2009, the man who had insisted on making a two hour drive to Lambrecht despite being rudely uninvited by me the day after I had asked him to visit, married me. It was also the year my friend Sammy, whom I met in Nicaragua, visited Germany for the first time. He brought two bottles of Flor de Caña from Spain, where they sell the stuff all over the place. I’m not sure whether my husband stuck around in hopes of once trying this delicacy that I had told him about on our first night together, but he will tell you any day that it was worth the wait. We always have a bottle of Flor de Caña near by.
Living in Nicaragua will bring you joy beyond the warm weather, the lovely people and fantastic parties in a gorgeous tropical environment. There are also culinary highlights to explore:
a. Gallo pinto con Crema: fried rice with beans served with a dash of sour cream.
b. Quesillo: a corn tortilla covered with a thin layer of fresh cheese reminiscent of mozzarella. Finely chopped onions, tenderized in white balsamic vinegar, are then spread on top of the cheese in the tortilla and the whole thing is wrapped up into a cigar, which is placed into a plastic bag. A generous chug of whipping cream is then poured into the bag, the bag closed on top and the contents given a good shake. Your quesillo is ready! In order to eat, you cut off one of the lower tips of the bag. You then eat/suck small pieces of quesillo and its broth until the bag is empty. I know, it sounds really weird, but believe me, it’s quite a delicacy.
I thought it would only be right to put a corn tortilla-tutorial up on this blog. They are naturally gluten-free (no wonder I ate them all the time while living in Nicaragua!) and vegan. They are also the base of a vast array of dishes: quesadillas, flautas, burritos, nachos, tortilla soup, huevos rancheros, enchiladas – I could go on!
Making tortillas is ridiculously easy, if you use the right flour. You need a special flour, Masa Harina, not regular corn meal/corn flour. Masa Harina has been nixtamalized. The corn is cured in limewater, allowing the skin of the corn kernels to peel off. The corn is then boiled and ground and voilá, you have flour for tortillas. In Germany, buying this type of corn flour was nearly impossible, and in most of Germany folks have to order it online. Corn tortillas are not very popular here in Cologne, most Mexican and Latin American restaurants sell wheat tortillas, which is fine, but I never bothered eating those and now I can’t any longer. Here in Cologne, you can buy corn flour for corn tortillas and frozen corn tortillas in different sizes (originally from Mex-Al in Aachen) at Seng Heng Asia Supermarket on Mauritiussteinweg. It’s a good brand, but not as good as Maseca, which you can order online (I’ve not tried this store, it’s just a link I found) or buy at a Spanish store in Hamburg. This is the masa harina which I was introduced to in Nicaragua and which I think is best in taste and in handling. I bought two giant packages of Maseca at El Corte Ingles on Placa Catalunya in Barcelona during my visit in November. I went there to see Sammy get married. I carried eight kilos of flour around in my purse and it was a huge pain, but yes, I wanted it that badly! Sadly, both the flour sold by Mex-Al and Maseca is made from genetically modified corn. It makes me very unhappy to eat GMO foods, and this is the only time I will do it, so if any of you know of a brand of tortilla corn flour that is made from non-GMO corn and which is available in Germany (either at a store or online), please let me know in the comments!
I make tortillas in a tortilla press, just like Teresa, our housekeeper in Nicaragua taught me. My tortilla press is from Nicaragua; my mom bought it for me prior to us leaving the country. She knew how much I loved tortillas and she wanted me to always be able to make them in my home. Thanks, mom! While Teresa preferred shaping the tortillas with her hands, she taught me how to use the tortilla press: never make the tortillas on the press directly, but use a plastic bag, cut along the sides and then peel the tortilla off before placing it on the heated pan.
2 cups flour for corn tortillas
1 tsp salt
1 ¼ cups of water at room temperature
Place the corn flour in a bowl, add the salt and pour the water on top. Proceed to knead into a lump-free dough. The dough should easily form into one firm ball, none of it should stick to your fingers. If it does, your dough has too much liquid and you should add a bit more flour.
Let the dough rest for about ten minutes.
Meanwhile, cut a plastic bag (e.g. one that you use to freeze foods in) open along the sides. Place onto your open tortilla press, covering both the top and bottom parts of the press.
Place a pan on your stove and heat to the highest temperature possible. I grease my pan every five tortillas or so, but traditionally, this is not done.
Take a golf-ball-sized portion of dough and place it on the plastic bag lining your tortilla press. Shut the tortilla press firmly and re-open the press. For best results, ensure the tortilla has the same width on all sides. If this is not the case, turn tortilla by 180 degrees and re-press for an even result. Open the tortilla press; lift the top layer of the plastic bag. Hold the tortilla (and the plastic bag) in your left hand and slowly roll the tortilla off the plastic bag off into your right hand. Place into the heated pan and let cook for about a minute. If you fail at any of these steps, e.g. your tortilla won’t peel off the plastic bag or crumble before being places into the pan, it’s probably an indication that your dough is still too humid and you need to add a bit more flour.
Using a plastic spatula, turn the tortilla around and allow to cook for another minute or so. Teresa would insist that the tortilla is only ready for consumption if the top part of the tortilla and the bottom part of the tortilla are separated by a giant bubble of wapour, the tortilla lifting itself into a pita-type construction, the vapor escaping through a hole on the side, like gas through an exhaust on a car. She would sometimes press the tortilla down with a spatula or a humid kitchen towel and the upper layer of the tortilla would then rise. I’m not sure if it is the lack of humidity, but I cannot repeat the experience exactly here in Germany, the tortilla only lifts in parts. Thus, I rely on brown parts of the tortilla to tell me that it’s ready. To keep the tortillas warm, Teresa would place them into a kitchen towel made out of cotton, reopening and reclosing it for every tortilla as it came out of the pan.
Tortillas keep in your fridge for several days – if you don’t manage to eat them up before. I store them in the fridge just like Teresa taught me: wrapped in the kitchen towel made out of cotton and then placed into a sealed plastic bag.