Paloma’s Nathan Mayes makes the masa.
“What’s the dumbest idea you’ve ever had?” I ask Chef Nathan Mayes inside Paloma’s brightly sunlit galley kitchen.
“Installing a gigantic tortilla machine I brought from Mexico in this tiny kitchen,” he replies. And the best?
“Taking it out,” he says with a laugh. Though the behemoth is gone, there is no shortage of fresh corn tortillas at this Santa Fe restaurant. Thanks to some smaller equipment and prep cook Angeles “The Masa Master” Guzman, Paloma makes and serves anywhere from 200 to 400 individually pressed, organic corn tortillas a night. “We make everything from scratch here,” says Mayes. “Being an artisan, to me, means you’re creating with your hands. And if you’re creating with your hands, you’re creating with your brain and with your heart.”
Whether stuffed with crispy sea bass and folded into a taco, or hand-torn and fried into chips for pico de gallo and guacamole, tortillas are the cornerstone of Paloma’s Mexican-inspired menu. Today, Mayes is giving me a lesson on how to make corn tortillas at home—something commonplace for some New Mexicans, but daunting to those of us who have always relied on the convenience of the store-bought variety.
It starts with the corn
The chef begins by rinsing four cups of dried New Mexico-grown blue corn. Paloma sources its corn through Masienda, a company that partners with small-scale farmers in Oaxaca and the United States to cultivate and import sustainable landrace and heirloom corn. In 2017, Masienda began the New Mexico Blue Corn Project, which contracts New Mexico farmers to grow locally adapted blue corn. To Mayes’s knowledge, Paloma is the only restaurant currently buying the project’s corn for their tortillas. “Corn has a long history in New Mexico of being a life source,” he says. “There used to be corn mills all over the state from Taos to Las Cruces. Cooking with local blue corn is a very New Mexican thing to do, and it supports [our local farmers] at the same time.”
Mayes adds the rinsed kernels to a large pot and covers them with water, about two inches above the corn. He skims off any floating hulls and stirs in about a tablespoon of calcium hydroxide also known as pickling lime or cal. He then heats the pot to a very low simmer. Soaking and steeping maize in an alkaline agent is called nixtamalization—a process that strips off the kernel’s outer layer, making it easier to grind, increasing its nutritional quality, and improving its aroma and flavor. First developed in Mesoamerica, this ancient technique is an integral step, says Mayes, for achieving a chewy and delicious corn tortilla.
It took Mayes a while to master the art of making corn tortillas. “All corn is different,” he says. “The cook times, the moisture levels, it all varies from batch to batch.” Growing up in Texas, he mostly cooked and ate flour tortillas—the preferred tortilla of Tex-Mex cuisine. We discuss how, in recent years, the once-trendy cuisine has fallen out of favor among foodies for being too unhealthy and “inauthentic.”
“It’s not supposed to be ‘authentic’ Mexican food,” says Mayes, “because it’s not from Mexico, it’s from Texas. And, I actually think it’s due for a renaissance.” The dishes on Paloma’s menu are “Mexican-inspired” but, as he puts it “authentically inauthentic,” with a creative spin put on traditional dishes. Offerings such as local bison lengua with corn dumplings and guajillo chile broth and the cauliflower rostizado with mole amarillo, piñon, and toasted raisin salsa macha exemplify Mayes’ talent for integrating Mexican flavors with local ingredients in unexpected ways. “I’m not [one of those American] chefs trying to educate other Americans on what ‘real’ Mexican food is. I just want to do my own interpretations with the food and ingredients that inspire me.”
Doing things the right way
As our blue corn continues to simmer, Mayes reminiscences about childhood road trips to Mexico with his father, a well-known chef and restaurateur in Austin. “We’d cross the border at Laredo to eat and stock up on [restaurant] essentials—knives, spices, cigarettes.” Many years later, Mayes and his business partner Marja Martin would travel to Oaxaca, Tulum, and Mexico City to eat and shop in preparation for opening their own restaurant. But Mayes is quick to explain that his love for Mexico and Mexican culture extends far beyond food and goods. “More than anything I [respect] the Mexican people. They [possess] a real appreciation for their natural resources and push through so many obstacles with happiness and purpose. There is so much strength and resilience in Mexico.” Mayes and Martin also make a point to patronize socially and environmentally conscious companies operating in Mexico that provide local food producers with equitable economic opportunities, such as Masienda and Pacifico Aquaculture in Ensenada, the only true ocean-raised striped bass farm in the world. “We should support the people who are doing things the right way,” he says.
After about two hours on the stovetop, the corn has cooked to the desired al dente. Mayes dumps the pot into a colander and rinses the kernels thoroughly, using his hands to carefully slough off much—but not all—of the bran. He scoops up a handful of seeds and presents them to me as if they’re tiny jewels. “See how they’ve changed from a deep blue to aqua? The cal lightens the color, but blue corn grown in New Mexico tends to be on the greener side. This variety also isn’t blue all the way through—sort of like purple skinned potatoes that are white on the inside.”
The treated corn or nixtamal is now ready to be ground, which, for the purposes of this demonstration, Mayes does with a simple Victoria hand grinder that home cooks can purchase online. As Mayes cranks the nixtamal through the grinder (on the tightest setting for a fine ground), a greyish, blue-green masa (dough) emerges. He sprinkles in a teaspoon of salt while kneading the masa, and adds water a little at a time until the consistency feels like Play-doh—smooth and springy but not sticky or gummy.
Mayes rolls the dough into golf balls in his hands and places one in the center of a cast iron tortilla press lined with a sheet of plastic. “Plastic grocery bags or a Ziploc bag cut in half work great for this,” he says. Mayes then covers the top of the ball with another sheet of plastic and brings the top of the press down over the dough and presses with the handle, forming a beautiful flat tortilla.
The chef carefully removes the plastic and lays the raw tortilla ont o a hot dry griddle. After a few seco nds, it starts to puff and smell of popcorn. Once Mayes can move the tortilla around freely with his fingertips, he flips it to toast the other side, a step he repeats every thirty seconds or so for about two minutes until each side is dry and just beginning to show some brown, toasted spots.
At last, Mayes hands me the piping hot tortilla. I blow on it feverishly while taking in its sweet scent. With my first bite I know I won’t be able to go back to rubbery factory-made disks. The flavor is a perfect balance of sweet and earthy, the texture luxuriously soft and chewy. I want another.
The process of making corn tortillas from scratch has turned out to be completely worth it from a flavor standpoint, but it was time-consuming. I leave with a deeper appreciation for all the grandmothers, home cooks, and chefs taking the time to keep this art alive. To echo Chef Mayes: we should support the people who are doing things the right way.
Want to try your hand at tortilla making? See Chef Mayes’s recipe here.
401 South Guadalupe, Santa Fe
*This story was originally published in the spring 2019 issue of Edible New Mexico.