Monday, April 20, 2009

The Press that Launched a Thousand Projects

I go to Hospice (actually, Experienced Goods, a thrift store that benefits Brattleboro area hospice) several times a week to see what's new. Often I leave empty handed, but sometimes I find gems. Like the tortilla press I scored last week for $2.50.
Obviously I was obligated to make tortillas. I went back to the Co-op, where I had just finished shopping, and picked up some masa harina. And a lime, just for good measure. I thought this tortilla press might also necessitate the purchase of lard so I went to the meat department fully expecting to be told that no, we don't sell lard and was not disappointed by the same helpful man who dashed my hopes of buying suet at Christmas. I had asked about duck fat a few days previously and got the same response.
I got home with my press, my masa harina, and my lime and looked up a recipe for refried beans. I was right. I did need lard (the recipe offered duck fat as an alternative). And beans. I knew I could get black beans at the Co-op, but lard, where was I going to get lard? I called the other local supermarkets. They didn't carry it either. I called a gourmet food store half an hour down the road and asked if they sold duck fat. I asked for duck fat because the chicken liver mousse recipe in the current Art of Eating that I've been wanting to try calls for it and if I could use it in the beans too, well, two birds. The woman on the other end of the phone didn't know what I was talking about. "You want what!?" "Duck fat," I repeated, "Rendered duck fat. Y'know for cooking." "Oh. No. We don't sell that. We sell duck breasts?" She offered. I told her thanks anyway and called the kitchen store in Keene to see if they had any suggestions. They recommended I call Paul's. So I called Paul's and asked if they sold lard or duck fat. After some backing and forthing between the woman on the phone and the man in the meat department I was told that yes, they did sell duck fat. So I drove to Keene, found Paul's, and was told no, they didn't sell duck fat. What about lard? No. But they did have some frozen pork fat so I bought that deciding to render my own. I got home with my pork fat and realized that I had absolutely no idea where the fat had come from, if the pigs had been given antibiotics or hormones or what. So back to the Co-op I went and asked J. if I could have some scraps of fat from the pork he was trimming. And guess what, I got an affirmative response from the meat department!
I consulted Pat Katz's The Craft of the Country Cook on rendering lard and it came through with highly detailed instructions. The simplified version runs thus: Trim every iota of meat off the fat. Chop the fat into small pieces or run it through a meat grinder. Put a heavy-bottomed, high-sided pot over low heat. Add a few bits of the fat to the pot and when enough has begun to render that the fat doesn't stick to the pan add the rest of the fat. Stir the fat constantly. When enough has melted that the fat stirs easily increase the heat to medium and continue to stir frequently. The fat will start boiling and sputtering as the water evaporates. When the temperature reaches 255 F, rendering is complete. You can also use the cracklings as indicators. These bits of membrane will start to show when rendering is complete. When the floating cracklings turn light brown, rendering can be stopped and when they start to sink to the bottom the pot should be taken off the heat. Allow the fat to sit for a little while to let the sediment settle. Dip the clear fat off the top into containers and strain the rest through a cloth lined colander. Or strain the whole amount. Store in small containers, leaving as little airspace at the top as possible. Also protect lard from light. Rendered fat that has had all the water removed from it will keep in a cool place for months.
I used a cast iron pan and I think it turned my lard grey, so if you have an enameled pan use that instead. Otherwise, although my experience with lard is minimal, I think my fat rendered well.
I invited my dad over for tacos for Sunday dinner. I started my beans on Friday. I put a cup of beans covered with water and a tablespoon of whey up to soak in a warm place on Friday night. Saturday morning I simmered them for four hours with two cloves of garlic and a bay leaf, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and put them in the fridge. Sunday afternoon I mashed 2 cups of the cooked beans, melted 3/8 of a cup of lard in a cast iron pan, added the beans and stirred them until all the fat was incorporated. I corrected the seasoning and set them aside to reheat just before dinner.
And then I made tortillas.


makes about 15 tortillas

  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/4 cups plus 2-3 Tbs. water
  • 1 tsp. lard
  • Combine the salt and masa harina. Add the lard to the water and heat. Pour 1 1/4 cups of the water mixture into the masa harina and mix with a fork. It will probably look clumpy and be a bit dry. Add more water a teaspoon at a time and mix with your hands until the dough comes together. Be careful not to make it too wet.
  • Knead your dough for 1-2 minutes until it is smooth. Wrap tightly in plastic and allow to stand for half an hour.
  • Cut two pieces of parchment to fit between the plates of your tortilla press. Put a dry cast iron pan over medium-hight heat. Unwrap your dough and pinch off a golf ball-sized piece. Rewrap your dough. Roll the piece you have broken off into a ball. Place it on the parchment lined press and squash the ball slightly with your fingers. Place the other piece of parchment on the dough and then press. Carefully peel the parchment off your tortilla and then your tortilla off the parchment. Cook on the hot, dry pan until done. Place in a towel to keep warm. Repeat until all the dough has been used.
  • I found the my tortillas came off the pan stiff as boards, but became soft and pliable as they sat in the towel.

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