Gabriela Ituarte didn’t go to culinary school. Instead, the chef and co-owner of the new Maizal Quesadilla Café has spent most of her life cooking alongside her family in Mexico City. She showed us the centuries-old method she uses to make corn tortillas (for her top-notch poblano quesadilla) from scratch.
THE RAW MATERIALS
Ituarte uses an old variety of Indian field corn called Wapsie Valley for her tortillas. It has more starch than sweet corn and popcorn, making it ideal for dough. She sources hers from Kawartha CSA, just west of Peterborough. Instead of picking the corn fresh, like you would for corn on the cob, it’s left to dry out on the field for an extra month, until the kernels become rock solid. After being harvested, the corn is dried for another month before the kernels are removed and shipped to the restaurant.
COOKING THE KERNELS
Ituarte boils 10 kilograms of corn and 10 tablespoons of powdered limestone in water for up to six hours. This is called nixtamalization: The alkalinity of the limestone removes the kernels’ pericarp, the tough outer layers that we can’t digest, leaving the soft, nutritious part of the inner kernel behind. It sounds complicated, but not for Ituarte. “I grew up in Mexico City, and I’d eat tortillas every day,” she says. “It’s just something you pick up.” The corn mixture (nixtamal) rests overnight to break down leftover tough bits.
MAKING THE MASA
At 6:30 a.m. the following morning, Ituarte begins making the day’s tortilla dough (called masa). “I never make tortillas for the next day because they get really soggy and stale,” she says. “The dough is always made that morning.” The nixtamal is fed through an electric grinder so it forms a paste. Then, Ituarte shapes the masa into she slightly larger than golf balls.
THE FINAL PRODUCT
The tortillas, which are far more flavourful than the flour kind you’ll find in the grocery store, are cooked to order. Ituarte flattens a masa ball in a manual press, then puts it on a griddle for a few minutes until it’s crispy. To make her hot-pepper quesadilla (pictured), she loads a tortilla with roasted poblano peppers, caramelized onions, and mild Oaxacan cheese (pronounced “wa-hockan,” it’s similar to mozzarella), folds it over, and throws it on the grill. It’s served with refried beans and a simple salad of iceberg lettuce and pico de gallo.
$5.50 or two for $8. Maizal Quesadilla Café, 133 Jefferson Ave., 647-351-0133, facebook.com/MaizalToronto.