Tonight I made quesadillas for dinner. They were mostly stir-fried veggies, on whole wheat tortillas, with just a little sharp cheddar to hold them together. I was inspired to make them because I had a bunch of peppers, onions and mushrooms leftover from my spaghetti sauce endeavor last weekend. As I assembled them and grilled them quickly on an old griddle I got at a junk store outside of Charlotteville, a memory popped into my head. A memory of the best tortillas I ever had.
I lived with my parents in Portland the fall after I graduated from college. I had already decided that I was going to move to Philly, but hadn’t done so yet. I needed to find a job for those intervening four months, and so I did what I always did in those days when I needed work. I made a flyer, offering my services as an organizer. One of my fliers made it into Ellie’s hands. Ellie was a substantially wealthy woman who live in the West Hills of Portland, and was looking for someone to help her organize her office and basement, as well as run some errands for her. She paid me well, and it was the perfect job for that time of my life.
Ellie had a maid named Teresa, who was from Mexico and who spoke almost no English. It was the only time in recordable memory when my mediocre high school and college Spanish was put to some utility. Teresa cooked and cleaned that enormous house, and at least once a week, made fresh tortillas. I watched her do it many times, but have never been brave enough to try it myself.
She would empty a five pound bag of tortilla flour (I don’t know what she used, but it was from the Mexican market) into a baking dish and pour in some oil and water (again, I know nothing about her amounts. I imagine she had done it so many times that it was as familiar as breathing to her). She would gently fold the dueling liquids into the flour until she had a firm dough. Then she would break off little bits and roll them into balls. Next she compressed the balls into little discs and finally she used a rolling pin to flattened them into a recognizable round, about the size of a CD. She would cook them gently on a griddle, flipping them like pancakes until they were done.
She frequently turned three or four of them into cheese or chicken and cheese quesadillas for my lunch. They were unlike any tortilla I’d ever had, before or since. They were almost flaky, like good pastry, but with a toothsome nature that store-bought tortillas don’t have. They will always be the with which I measure all other tortillas. Nothing has ever compared.