More and more, tortillerias here in the states and in Mexico are switching from fresh masa, made from nixtamalized corn, to instant masa harina, which is made by just adding water. While the masa harina is fine and preferable to most store-bought tortillas, as with most things, doing it the old fashioned way tastes better. But as I discovered, it's no easy feat.
The first step is to boil dry, starchy corn and add CaL, or the mineral lime, to the water. It turns the corn a beautiful, lurid yellow. I boiled for an hour and then let it sit overnight.
The next morning I rubbed the corn vigorously as I strained it and most of the slimy skin came off. So far so good and so easy. But how to grind it into that lovely dough we call masa?
I started out with the meat grinder attachment to my Kitchen Aid mixer. This made little corn sausages, not masa. Then I was told that you could do it in the bowl of a food processor. I was doubtful, even when I heard this came from TV's Alton Brown. It doesn't work. But it made a nice mash for me to feed the chickens.
The next step was to use a metate, as millions of Mexicans have done for centuries. How hard could it be? Well, step one is finding one in the United States. Molcajetes are easy enough to find on eBay but metates are rare. But I did finally find one in Texas.
I'd watched a lot of Mexican women use these and I really thought I'd get the hang of it pretty quickly. Friends, life is full of jokes and the thought that I could master a metate on a lazy Sunday morning is one of them. Other than being dog-tired, my real concern was not letting my sweat drip into the masa! Finally, after what seemed like hours, I had a sad little lump of masa, not fit to show off. The metate is a thing of beauty and I think it will sit nicely in my garden as an objet d'art. If you are as stubborn as I am and are going to continue searching for one, be aware that American Indians refer to their mortar and pestles as metate and mano, much like the Mexicans use for molcajete and mano. An Indian metate is what a Mexican would call a molcajete.
I had one last trick up my sleeve. I had a plate grinder I'd bought years ago hiding in my pantry. With the nixtamalized corn I had left, I put it through the grinder to see what would happen. Guess what? It worked. It took two passes and it was a lot of work but it made fine masa. But it was hell to clean it up and in the end, instant masa harina isn't looking too bad to me.
It's not likely I'll do this again soon but it was a great learning experience and I have a deeper appreciation for what indigenous women have done for years to keep their families fed.