Having taken a Mexican appetizers class with my lovely daughter-in-law, I was not surprised to discover a tortilla press and keeper among my birthday presents this month. Both of us had been fascinated by the process of making sopes, small freshly made tortillas with the edges turned up, then filled. Now I had my own tortilla press and a bag of masa to make them. It was time to try this at home.
Last night the same daughter-in-law and I went to work, but not without some trepidation on my part. Very few recipes call for using corn tortillas as “wraps.” The grocery store version is usually tough, and even when heated correctly, not terribly tasty. I’d had fresh tortillas in Guatemala, but didn’t remember using them for anything except bread at dinner. Still, I was determined to try. So I set out bowls of slaw, lettuce, chopped cilantro, heirloom tomatoes, green pepper, cheese and black beans I’d simmered with onion, garlic and adobo seasoning from Penzey’s–my new favorite store. I added salsa, hot sauce and fresh lime, then made Mexican rice from Allrecipes.com, just in case that was the only edible thing on the table, and hoped for the best.
Then we made the tortillas.
How could I have doubted? The tortillas were like nothing I’d ever had before. Fragrant, earthy, pliable and thin enough to easily wrap around any variety of fillings. We followed the advice of Gwyneth Paltrow from an article in Vogue about her new cookbook, sipping wine as we worked, and keeping the cooking simple and enjoyable. Making the tortillas was such fun, and eating them? That much better. The entire evening was memorable. We have a new favorite meal at our house, and my daughter-in-law’s putting a tortilla press on her Christmas list.
Almost everything is better when it’s made from scratch. Vegetables fresh from the garden as opposed to the supermarket freezer? Better. Bread fresh from the oven? Better. Homemade ice cream from farmer’s market peaches and thick natural cream? Can’t get better.
Books are the same. Beginnings, fresh starts, are always key. Nothing rewarmed or packaged. Start from scratch. Yes, you can use ideas that have been done before–because haven’t they all?–but your job is to go back to the very essence. What exactly intrigues you? What element set your wheels spinning? Start at the core. To make a memorable taco or burrito? Begin with the tried and true corn tortilla, then make it yours with your own innovations, attention to detail. Joy.
Joy is important to cooking. Mine ebbed after years of serving meals to children with little desire to try anything new. Now that their appetites are more interesting, and they’re not at my dinner table very often, I can cook what pleases me and my appreciative husband and friends. The joy–can’t you tell?–is back.
Writing is the same. If you don’t feel a surge of interest, if you aren’t curious where an idea is going to take you, the idea isn’t right for you. It may be a perfectly great idea, but someone else needs it. Set it free and find the one that makes your heart beat a little faster, the one that sets your mind whirling. The one that brings you joy.
Ideas are everywhere, but start from scratch. Distill each appealing one to its essence. A corn tortilla is nothing more than masa and water. Yet it’s the beginning of something truly magnificent. Follow that humble example, and you’ll never go wrong.