Guide to buying, keeping, heating and eating tortillas

Buying in SF’s Mission disctrict: There are several options here. Casa Lucas, Chicos Produce (both on 24th St. near Alabama) have various brands of factory-made tortillas that are better than what you find at Safeway. I prefer the rich yellow masa over white. Then there are lovely, handmade tortillas of various sizes, colors, and flavors (de nopalitos– cactus paddle;  masa azur– blue corn flour) at La Palma just down the street at 24th and Florida. They also mill their own ready to-use-masa for making your own tortillas by hand (again, another story). On Mexican holidays, you’ll see a “cola”, a line around the block of anxious Mexican men and women waiting for the fresh-milled dough. The same masa can be used to make sopes, gorditas and other lovely creations.

Or, you can go the TortillaLand route, sold at the Safeway or Fresh and Easy in the refrigerator section, usually near the Cacique cheese (or ask). They  have both corn and really delicious flour tortillas. TortillaLand tortillas are as close to homemade as you are going to get, even my favorite abuelita wouldn’t know the difference!

Heating: NOT in the microwave! The will have nothing of the authentic texture, the occasional delightful bubble that indicates that your fresh (even if you buy manufactured tortillas in a bag, as opposed to buying handmade tortillas – which are available at La Palma- and re-heating them, tortillas still need to be fresh to be good, check the date printed on the package. On a comal, but you can also heat them in any non-stick pan (never use any oil, ever, unless you are making enchiladas, which is whole other story), or even directly on the burner of your stove, but this requires a certain expertise.

  • A comal is the flat iron grill used to heat tortillas, (in a typical Mexican kitchen, this is never put away, it just sits on top of the stove, always at the ready). It comes as a round disc, about 12″ in diameter, which is perfect for a family of 4, or oval, which heats 6 tortillas at a time, for a larger crowd. If you want it to look like you know your way around a comal, learn to grab the tortillas with your finger tips to flip them and remove them from the fire. No self-respecting Mexican turns tortillas with a spatula or tongs.
  • Seasoning your new comal  You need to prepare the comal before you use it for the first time by washing it with warm soapy water and dry it thoroughly, this is best done by putting it on a hot burner for a few minutes to really evaporate every drop of water. Next, you’ll want to lightly coat the pan with vegetable oil which prevent rust spots. Chelsie Kenyon recommends that you “Place the comal in a hot oven, at least 350 degrees and bake it for one hour. Remove it, let it cool then wipe off excess residue. Re-apply the oil then heat for an additional hour, turn the oven off and then let it cool in the oven overnight. Wipe off any residues and your comal is now ready for use”.
  • Cleaning and Care After use, you’ll just want to scrape scrape off any excess food with spatula to scrape off any excess food with a metal spatula, wash normally with warm soapy water and it return it immediately to the stove (high flame) to prevent rust. Chelsie continues, “Every once in a while, rub oil on the surface to keep it well seasoned. The more you use a comal, the more flavor it will impart to your food, so use it often”. If it does develop rust, don’t worry, just  use steel wool to scrub off the rust is removed, rinse thoroughly and repeat seasoning instructions above.

Comal available at Casa Lucas on 24th and Florida for $8.00 or on-line through MexiGrocer.com for $10.95 + $6.95 shipping

Keeping: According to Mission Foods, which manufactures tortillas and other masa-based product “the typical shelf life of Mission products stored at ambient temperature (unopened package): Flour tortillas: 14 – 35 days; Corn tortillas: 8 – 35 days.

How long you can keep the tortillas after opening the package depends on the handling conditions the product was exposed to. If you are not going to consume the whole package after opening it, wash your hands, remove the tortillas you will need and tightly close the package. The product should be good until the expiration date printed on the package.

While, it is okay to freeze tortillas. It is very important that you let them thaw in the refrigerator for a day or two before using them. Corn tortillas should not be thawed in the microwave.”

Eating: 

As with any culture that is food insecure, there are Mexican cooking techniques which developed out of necessity, with the resulting dishes becoming part of the everyday food repertoire. With tortillas as a staple of the Mexican diet, it is no surprise that one of these “recycled” dishes have these are their focus.

Leftover tortillas: at any given Mexican meal, more than ample tortillas are heated for diners. People are called to the table when the cook announces that she is “calientando las tortillas” or warming the tortillas on the comal, and the meal is officially over when no one wants anymore tortillas. In any given pueblo in Mexico, in the morning hours, one can hear the call of the tortillera, or more often than not, her children, going from door-to-door before and after school, to sell their mothers’ just-made tortillas, without which no meal is complete. Better to buy more than not enough, so leftover tortillas are always at hand. Aside from frying them to a golden strips to create totopos (chips), or tostadas (the crispy tortilla flats that we typically buy packaged), as tortillas accumulate, chilaquiles appear on the menu.

The name chilaquiles is derived from the word chil-a-quilitl in the language of the Aztecs, and means “herbs or greens in chile broth”. (Note: In case you thought that Spanish was the only “National language” of Mexico, Nahuatl has been spoken in Central Mexico since at least the 7th century AD and is still spoken today in scattered communities mostly in rural areas. Nahuatl along with the other indigenous languages of Mexico are recognized as lenguas nacionales (“national languages”) in the regions where they are spoken, enjoying the same status as Spanish within their region, according to Wikedpedia)

To make chilaquiles, you’ll need: (recipe courtesy of Tres Señoritas Gourmet)

  • Leftover tortillas or chips
  • Vegetable oil (if you are using tortillas)
  • Salsa of choice, red or green
  • Queso Fresco (available at Chico’s Produce on 24th St, and Alabama)
  • shredded lettuce
  • finely chopped Spanish white onion
  • Crema (Mexican sour cream, also available at Chico’s, you’ll want to thin this out with a little milk)
  • Optional: scrambled eggs or pulled chicken breast, or even roasted chicken, baby spinach and rajas (strips of chile) the way they prepare their Chilaquiles Casi Listos at Mamacitas, in chipotle cream, with without a doubt the best chilaquiles I have ever had, anywhere.

Cut tortillas into 1/6ths and deep fry in very hot oil, remove and drain. Immediately plunge them (or, alternatively, chips) into waiting, warmed salsa. Top with all the other ingredients listed plus your choice from the optional toppings. While it is traditional to “soak” the chips or tortillas pieces until they are almost soggy, serving immediately, creates and more interesting dish, texturally. Soaking is a better option if you are using chips), but the just deep-fried tortilla pieces make for way better chilaquiles.

Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

For a very special touch, Adriana Almazan Lahl adds edible flowers as a finishing touch. This and other masa tips can be found in our award-winning cookbook, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, available on Amazon.

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