The Making of a Tortilla
A Corn Cob’s Journey from Garden to Griddle
Vida Cantina stands out from the crowd on Route One in Portsmouth, its bright orange logo dwarfing the façade of the whitewashed ranch formerly known as Friendly’s. Chef/Owner David Vargas has called the shots here since 2014 and has, in contrast to the gregarious exterior, subtly transformed the restaurant from a run-of-the-mill New England-style Mexican joint into an authentic taqueria. This is the story of one man’s quest to bring old-world tortillas to coastal New Hampshire.
“We do ninety percent tacos so let’s own it,” Vargas recalls telling his staff in late 2015, when he realized he wanted to make all of Vida Cantina’s tortillas in-house. Vargas, a first-generation Mexican-American born and raised in Southern California, wanted to do it right. “The only way to make them is to use the ancient Mayan traditional of nixtamalization,” Vargas says, which involves cooking dried corn kernels in a solution of water and lime, or calcium hydroxide. “Cooking it this way allows you to break down the corn (so it can be more easily ground) and simultaneously preserve the nutrients,” Vargas says.
Just as important was sourcing organic corn locally. For this, he called on Evan Mallett, Chef/ Owner of the Black Trumpet and Vice-Chair of Slow Food Seacoast. Mallett directed him to farmer Chuck Cox of Tuckaway Farm in Lee, NH who worked closely with Vargas to find the right fit. They experimented with several varieties before settling on Autumn Explosion, an organic hybrid flint corn commonly referred to as Indian corn because of its bright, multicolored kernels.
“I was looking for an ornamental corn,” Cox says with a chuckle, recalling his inspiration for planting this variety. Turns out, the decorative kernels also make a mean tortilla.
“There are a lot of restaurants throughout the country that do from-scratch tortillas but not many have farms that grow corn for them,” Vargas says. The Cox family agreed to grow Autumn Explosion exclusively for Vida Cantina on two-and-a-half of their fifty-five acres of land. This translates to almost one thousand pounds of kernels annually, that have been picked, husked, dried, shelled and are distributed to the restaurant monthly in eighty-pound increments.
Upon delivery, the journey to the plate has only just begun.
THE NIXTAMALIZATION PROCESS
When they receive a shipment, Vargas and his staff boil the dried kernels (which resemble horse teeth) with limewater for approximately forty-five minutes, until the outer layer, or hull, begins to peel off. Then, they cool it in the solution overnight before rinsing in several changes of cold running water, scrubbing lightly to remove the remaining hulls, and looking for the water to run clear. Then, they mill.
Vargas is adamant about hand milling. “I bought us a little thirty dollar corn mill and the first time Tuckaway delivered sixty pounds of corn it took us nine hours to process because you have to mill it twice!” he says. (They later bought an electric grinder that does the job in thirty-five minutes). After the first run through the miller, they add water to form coarse masa dough, before rolling it through a second time to produce downy pillows of cotton colored powder.
The Mayan tradition, Vargas explains, actually involves milling with volcanic rock, which creates an extremely fine cornmeal. In its absence, Vargas combines the twice-milled corn with a small amount of finely ground commercial grade masa flour to create a better bind for the dough without sacrificing flavor and texture. To this, he adds water, vegetable shortening and salt, kneading until the water is fully incorporated and the dough squishes like Play-Doh.
Then, they weigh out two-ounce balls and press them into six-inch tortillas using a cast-iron tortilla press, toss them onto a lightly oiled 500 degree griddle and heat until the tortillas simultaneously crisp, puff, and turn golden brown on the outer edges. When the tortillas smell like corncobs roasting over an open flame, they’re done. Repeat 500 times, and you’ve got enough to cover service on a busy Saturday.
“They’re a labor of love, for sure. The first time we did it, my staff was like ‘We have to do this again tomorrow, Chef?’” Vargas says with a laugh. One bite, however, validates all their hard work.
The inflated, crispy exterior belies a creamy middle that practically melts in your mouth; a taste and texture far too elegant to be classified as street food. This is probably why they’ve also stepped up their filling game, wrapping the tortillas around fancy ingredients like lacquered pork belly dusted with black Oaxacan mole powder, or tofu with carrot slaw and peanuts. Customers have started demanding tortillas to go, prompting a take-out side business, and Vargas has also committed to produce the same recipe for the Dos Amigos Burritos chain, where he is Consulting Chef.
“I never thought I would be doing the style of food and scale that I’d want to be doing here (in New Hampshire), using locally grown corn. This has turned into something a lot bigger than I ever imagined,” says Vargas, “I’m very lucky.”