Posted on December 21, 2011
In San Antonio, we eat flour tortillas, as previously noted. This is because when refined (or de-germed) flour was invented during the industrial revolution, it flooded the market as a cheap grain with a long– too long– shelf life. The original Mexican tortilla is a corn cake. I live about a mile from the oldest gristmill in Texas (Mission San Jose), which predates white flour by about 150 years.
I also live near the C. H. Guenther Mill, where workers have been on strike since last spring. But clearly this is the type of strike that has few plays in the playbook– pretty depressing considering their union reps make almost six figures and yet dont seem to know what a fight-back looks like even if it came served to them for breakfast alongside their porkchops. When asked by another local union what they could do to support, they told them to “make sure and honk” when they drive by the mill. Those workers deserve more than that.
Although this mill has a lot of quaint family history in the neighborhood, it is now part of a large and growing multi-national bakery product conglomerate. It owns bakeries in the U.K., and produces baked goods like biscuits for large franchises including McDonald’s. It is the beneficiary of a city- subsidized urban renewal project on Broadway where it is building its new gazillion square foot headquarters. I used to love going to the little restaurant they run in the old stone house on the riverwalk.
Guenther’s produces a very popular White Wing/ Paloma Blanca tortilla mix– which is basically white flour, hydrogenated oils, salt, leavenings, and more stuff I cannot pronounce. It is a staple in many working class households in Texas. Unfortunately, it is healthier to eat straight up lard than these hydrogenated oils, or almost anything else in the store actually (except maybe sugar). Lard is not so shelf stable either, so it is only sold mixed with hydrogenated oils too. Lose, lose. You can always render your own, if you have time.
Yet the local brand seems not to be a target for the strike, there are no pickets on weekends when the restaurant is busiest. Heaven forbid someone who eats at the restaurant (owned by the same company) knows about the take-backs on pension and healthcare the company is forcing onto some of the only living wage industrial jobs in the city limits.
To add insult to injury, now the jobs of this industrial food tradition of the flour tortilla wont be even a step up from dry land farming in terms of job security and family wages. Of course, it is not just the poor whose diets became shelf stable after white flour was invented– this kind of food also became most desirable by middle classes in the first half of the 20th century, since convenience trumped housework.
The good news is whole grain tortillas are making a come back. I eat them often at both Taco Haven locations (you can watch them make them in the window on S. Presa). I see them in the bakeries too, although for some reason not at the whole-grain El Sol.
My homemade solution: whole grain tortillas made with butter and ancient grains.
Amaranth gives these tortillas magnificent flavor. Not a traditional corn tortilla, but I think we should eat more amaranth solely because Cortez tried to ban it when he figured out its cultural significance to the Aztecs– the Mesoamerican empire was built on amaranth crops. It was used to make cakes for pagan rituals, so Cortez had the crops burned. When Cortez met the Aztecs, he wrote home about a flat cake made of maize (tlaxcalli in Nahuatl) calling it a tortillabecause they reminded him of the thin, flat, fried cake made of chick pea meal that was eaten in Southern Spain at the time (part of the Arab heritage of the region). So there we have it, every culture has their flat bread, some more imperial than others. These tortillas are a big F-you to C.H. Guenther, and also to Cortez. Oh, and they taste amazing.
My philosophy about tortillas is similar to pie crust– the more often you make them, the easier they are to do well. It is not difficult, but just requires a little finesse– knowing how hot the griddle should be, getting used to rolling while cooking, and not letting them burn. And like the pie lesson, no multi-tasking if you are rusty or a first timer.
Amaranth is high in protein, but contains NO gluten. So when making breads or tortillas, you should mix it with wheat or other flours, or it won’t puff up much. Here I have mixed it with whole wheat pastry flour, and some white flour. You could make these with only the whole wheat and amaranth also. Keep your whole grain flours in the freezer, double bagged, unless you plan to use them very fast.
I served them with fajitas, a pico de gallo made with diced watermelon radish, and my favorite charro beans. My last local box of produce had scallions, a giant watermelon radish the size of a turnip, amazing acidic tomatoes (?!), and fresh cilantro with a nice purple hue. The radish is not as bitter as a turnip, but has a nice spice.
I cut a bit and sprinkled it with lime and salt, and was so impressed by this combo, I had to add it to the salsa. It gives a great crunch and spice. They are a winter crop, but have awesome color. Here’s to all things not shelf stable! And locally grown!
Amaranth and Whole Wheat Tortillas
makes about 16 tortillas
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur- a worker-owned mill)
1 and 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup amaranth flour (from Bob’s Red Mill– another worker owned mill)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
5 tablespoons butter
1 cup water, just off the boil
Use a dough blade in your mixer or food processor, or do this by hand. Dont use a cutting blade. Mix all the grains and salt and baking powder in the processor. Add the butter one tablespoon at a time, and process for 3-4 minutes. Then with the lid on, gradually add the hot water. The dough will seize and pull together.
Dump it out into a large mixing bowl, and knead it briefly to bring it all together. Cover and let it rest for 30 minutes to an hour. Heat a griddle on medium high. Divide the dough in half, and then in quarters. Divide each quarter into a ball the size of a golf ball or lime. With a little flour, roll it out to 6 or 7 inches in diameter. Cook for 20 seconds on each side, it should brown a little and have air bubbles before you flip it. Serve immediately!