Editor's note: Chef It Up is a monthly series in which local chefs share kitchen tips and recipes to create restaurant-quality meals for your family.
Chef Marc Dunham has his hands full as director of the School of Culinary Arts at Francis Tuttle Technology Center, but he makes time for homemade tortillas.
As he grew up in New Braunfels, Texas, flour tortillas were a part of daily life.
“You go anywhere in Austin or San Antonio and order a taco, you're going to get a flour tortilla,” Dunham said. “You go to Chicago, and you'll get corn.”
I can vouch. Fifty-ish miles north in Austin where I grew up, flour tortillas are the default filling wrapper and sauce sopper regardless of your cultural background. But if you're in a city where the local populace will support fresh masa-making, you're more likely to find corn tortillas.
During his demonstration, Dunham pointed out something I'd never realized: The flour tortillas made in Texas aren't your garden-variety, authentic made-in-Mexico tortillas. They are true Tex-Mex tortillas.
“This is what's a little bit different about this particular style of tortilla down in Texas,” Dunham said. “It's going to add a little more water content, and a little more fat. This is one of those instances where you have cultures collide.”
Whether you call it culture clash or a tortilla with the soul of a biscuit, the result is a slightly fluffier, more substantial tortilla.
Authenticity is probably the most misunderstood attribute a dish is judged upon. Authenticity doesn't indicate quality; it indicates the limitations of geography. While the tortillas Dunham made might not be authentic to interior Mexico, they are pervasive south of the Oklahoma border and no less delicious. If you order a tortilla in Spain, don't be surprised when a egg-potato frittata lands in front of you.
Corn tortillas are wonderful when they're made correctly, but making them correctly is a two-day process involving dried corn kernels and slaked lime to create nixtamal — the foundation for masa. And you can't make tamales or corn tortillas without masa.
Up until two years ago, one couldn't even find the ingredients needed to make nixtamal in Oklahoma City. The fact that you can now is a step in the right direction, but as we are only just embarking on this virtual culinary school, we'll stick to the simplest things first. This Tex-Mex version not only bears the soul of a biscuit and the convenience of a tortilla, but is a remarkably simple process.
Dunham had a few important tips as you embark on tortilla perfection:
• On your mixer, use the mixing attachment rather than the dough hook in the initial stages to better distribute ingredients.
• Have extra water handy as the dough mixes, as myriad variables can contribute to the moisture level of the newborn dough, including weather conditions. A slightly tacky, wet dough is preferable to dough that's too dry, because the fix for overly moist dough is a few dashes of flour, while integrating moisture into dry dough means another round in the mixer, which can lead to a tough dough.
• Always keep the dough covered to avoid a skin forming on it.
• Make sure milk and water are room temperature.
• Instead of a dough ball, form the dough into a log to make it simpler to cut off uniformly sized pieces.
Dunham's recipe calls for 1½-ounce dough balls to create standard 6- to 7-inch tortillas. You can adjust the dough ball's size for larger or smaller tortillas. For instance, if you're making a chimichanga, you'll want a 3-ounce dough ball to create a 10- to 12-inch tortilla.
Speaking of chimichangas, the secret to keeping a filling-stuffed flour tortilla from unfolding in a deep-fat fryer isn't toothpicks, it's paste. Simply mix a tablespoon of flour with a tablespoon of water and line the edges of the outer seams of the tortilla with paste before folding. Make sure the pasted edges have adhered to the pouch, then fry the chimichanga seam-side down in the fryer or skillet.
Dunham's tortillas might be too good to sacrifice at the alter of deep-fat frying, so check out the spicy chicken recipe he offered for family-pleasing tacos. If you have any tortillas left over, store them in a resealable bag and treat everyone to breakfast tacos in the morning. No reason to get fancy — eggs and bacon or sausage or both with a little salsa is plenty. Any leftover chicken, rice and beans would be welcome, too.
Learn, dine at culinary arts school
Francis Tuttle's new School of Culinary Arts is populated by high-school age students but is open to anyone. Even if you simply want to be the best home cook in the county, there is a track for you at the Rockwell campus.
If you don't cook or aspire to, you still must eat, and the school has three dining options open to the public.
Tut's is Francis Tuttle's way-better-than-average cafeteria, which opens for breakfast at 7 a.m. The plancha fires up for custom breakfast burritos from 9 to 10 a.m. Tut's features brick-oven pizza daily until 2 p.m. Daily specials include pastas on Monday, burgers on Tuesday, burritos on Thursdays and barbecue and chicken-fried specialties Friday. Wednesdays are chef's choice. Tut's also offers deli and take-away items. Cravings is a bakery and coffee bar that offers fresh-baked loaves of bread and pastries from 2 to 7 p.m. The newest addition to the school is District 21, a full-service restaurant open for dinner from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. I'll have a more intimate examination of District 21 to share in the fall, but I can say with no hesitation that it's worth your time and money.
Meanwhile, from Chef Dunham, here is a recipe for Tex-Mex tortillas and some spicy chicken with which to stuff them.
3 pounds all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons lard
24 ounces lukewarm milk
6 ounces lukewarm water
• Using speed 2 of mixer, combine lard, salt and baking powder with paddle attachment for 2 minutes. Add flour and mix with paddle attachment for 2 minutes. Stop and scrape the bowl on the sides and bottom.
• Continue to mix on speed 2 for another 2 minutes.
• Switch to the dough hook and add the milk and water and mix on speed 2 until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 to 7 minutes. Dough should pull away from sides and bottom easily.
• On a smooth surface, form the dough into a long log and cut away 1½-ounce pieces.
• Cupping your hands like a bear claw, roll the individual dough balls on the work surface, allowing the ball to rotate freely between the surface and your palm. This creates a smooth, consistent dough ball.
• Lightly dust your work surface — don't dust too much as it will create a cakey tortilla. Using a rolling pin, roll out the tortilla in three passes, rotating the tortilla by a third with each pass.
• Heat an ungreased skillet or griddle to about 300 degrees. When brown bubbles begin to form on the tortilla, flip and repeat.
Citrus Adobo Chicken Tacos with Cabbage, Apple Slaw
Small food processor
Cazuela or roasting pan
2 pounds chicken thighs, boneless
4 chipotle peppers in adobo, plus 2 tablespoons of adobo sauce
Juice from 2 oranges
Juice from 1 lime
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon achiote paste (optional)
1 teaspoon cumin powder, or toasted cumin seed crushed in a spice mill or molcajete
1 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste
2 cups red or green cabbage, shredded thin
1 gala or other sweet apple, julienne
Juice from 1 lime
2 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon adobo sauce
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
Salt to taste
• Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the chipotles, adobo, orange juice, lime juice, oregano, achiote, cumin and black pepper in food processor and process until smooth.
• Season the chicken all the way around with salt. Rub the entire chicken with the adobo blend from the processor. Place in the cazuela or roasting pan and cover with foil. Place in the 350-degree oven.
• Place the cabbage, apples, lime juice, mayonnaise, cilantro and salt in a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. Cover and place in the refrigerator until the chicken is cooked.
• Cook the chicken at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow the chicken to cool slightly, and use a fork to shred. Toss the shredded chicken in the juices from the pan.
• Remove the slaw from the refrigerator and build your tacos using fresh flour or corn tortillas and the citrus adobo chicken. Serve each with a little of the slaw.