This post is an ode to celebration and nostalgia, to flavor and community, to creation and the stories we tell when we remember what we ate.
The spirit of this recipe emerged from my dear friend Keith’s thirtieth birthday. To reign in two decades, his wife Elspeth – one of my sweetest chums and college mates – called upon friends to gather at her family’s summer home on Lake Erie. Keith and Elspeth prepared a spread of tortilla fixings with gusto: roasted tomato salsa and salsa verde, freshly chopped parsley, guacamole, lemon-marinated radishes, and pork – which was slow-roasted over the course of the day while we toyed in the pool and played wiffle ball on the sloping Great Gatsby backyard.
As the sun dipped and the beers ran out in the cooler, Bobby and I were beckoned inside to begin preparing the tortillas. Oh, what delicious memories tortilla-making invokes! As soon as the scent of masa harina hits my nose, I hear the rhythmic slap of strong women’s hands in a crowded marketplace, crafting perfect cornmeal circles on a grindstone before shifting them to the scorching griddle and seamlessly charring the doughy rim. With this recipe, allow me to rejoice in another coming of age for my husband Bobby and his best pal in Nicaragua, Noel.
In the fall of 2009, the duo opened La Buena Onda, a small boutique hotel in the hills of Matagalpa, nestled splat in the midst of Nicaragua’s prime coffee country. As the name suggests, La Buena Onda was “good vibes.” Travelers from around the world swapped stories and clinked rum-brimming glasses on the open-air patio, watched the local bustle flow by on the street below the terrace, chased after our pet rabbit Deito and rocked peacefully in the hand-carved chairs reading weathered books from our library exchange. La Buena Onda was a sanctuary.
For Bobby and Noel, La Buena Onda was a formative stage of their lives, both in their kindred friendship and their business acumen. I want to honor and observe their hard work and personal experience through a glimpse of my own first-hand and more fleeting role in the project, and the impressions it left on my life.
La Buena Onda was a dream three years in the making. While in the Peace Corps, Bobby met Noel at his café and bar, Artesanos, then the only place to get an artful espresso by morning and dance to Salsa Latina by night. Noel is the town’s most loved entrepreneur, and a gracious host to anyone pleasant that walks through his doors. Together, they watched the tourism market grow and eyed houses that came on the market for rent or sale. Bobby had already moved back to the U.S. when Noel wrote to him, “I’ve found the spot. Come back down. We’re ready!”
I followed Bobby south with my fork, eager to rise to the challenge of opening my first restaurant at La Buena Onda. I ventured into the campo while Bobby and Noel renovated the house alongside carpenters and electricians, curated the furniture and décor for each room, and designed the hotel’s operating system. I spent my first week making friends with farmers, discovering how to source a fresh variety of native fruits and vegetables, dairy and eggs, baked goods and honey.
It was on one culination* to the rural outskirts of Matagalpa that I first learned to make corn tortillas. I was captivated, and learned that women make friends in the kitchen; the hearth is where I should always point my compass. This two-minute video shows the fog of the wood-burning fire, hanging still in the dimly lit kitchen where roosters accompanied the masterful pat-pat of the tortilla maker.
When I felt I had kindled warm relationships to stock my kitchen, I retreated to La Buena Onda’s kitchen. I took a month to craft and test recipes, working with two local women to perfect flavors and quantities, and translate my words and measurements into a staff recipe book and guest menus. Bobby and I were temporarily waylaid by a sufferable bout of dengue, and I nursed my bones back to health while painting the walls of our converted garage sunflower yellow with turquoise flowers inspired by Alphonse Mucha. While Bobby and Noel built a kingdom, I fashioned a food palace to pair with the service of sleep.
When the café and hotel were in good form, Bobby and I returned to the U.S., with my fellow cooks at the stove’s helm and Noel overseeing the hotel. Over several trips back and spaced further apart, I watched the restaurant slowly collapse. I learned that a small business with threadbare support demands its creator’s attention. But it wasn’t just a question of the kitchen staff’s care or integrity. My vision was lofty and unguided. My commitment to local food and unique recipes did not excite voyagers’ and locals’ palates as I had anticipated. I hadn’t done my research properly – perhaps I could have gotten away with local sourcing if I had resigned to serving typical fare: rice and beans. With complete understanding, I saw the café transform into a gift shop filled with artisan crafts and souvenirs. From my experience building PEAKS, I know well to celebrate a successful business pivot.
On the other hand, Bobby and Noel grew the hotel into a wildly successful establishment and local landmark that helped shape tourism and encourage healthy business competition in Matagalpa. Neither of them expected to recover their investment or part with their baby. However, last week, La Buena Onda was officially sold to their former manager Tamara and her husband. It was a good choice, if not a difficult one to make. All things end and start anew. La Buena Onda will take on the flavor of its new owners, and Bobby and Noel will have the opportunity to reinvent new spaces.
Memories are the most precious creations, and can be summoned with the simple act of sharing food: with a generous pour of Flor de Cana or the tortillas we take the time to make and feast on with friends.
Homemade corn tortillas are one of those magic kitchen wonders. They are simple as can be, but rarely crafted at home. They cost pocket change to make, but spread far and satisfy the belly. They carry the meat of the meal, and adapt to any reasonable combination of toppings, colorful sauces and freshly chopped herbs. Divided into wedges, tortillas love being fried and dipped.
A bag of masa harina (corn meal) will nearly always include a clear recipe on the back. Follow it for foolproof results. You can find masa harina in the Latin American aisle of your supermarket or where the flour sits on the shelf. This recipe is adapted from Bob’s Red Mill. Play – add pinches of spices or minced herbs.
- Masa harina - 2 cups
- Sea salt - 1/2 teaspoon
- Water - 1 - 1.5 cups, warm
- Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl.
- Slowly pour the water into the dough, mixing to get a firm and springy consistency that is neither dry nor sticky. Divide the dough into two-inch balls (or twelve pieces), and use your hands to gently roll them into balls.
- Preheat a cast iron skillet or griddle - no need to coat it with oil or butter.
- If you have a tortilla press (or are willing to hunt for one at an antique store) you will sing with joy! Wrap it with plastic wrap, place the dough in the center, close the press and ta-da! Otherwise, press the dough between two pieces of wax or parchment paper and flatten it into a circle roughly five inches in diameter.
- Place the tortilla on the hot griddle and cook until the edges begin to harden. Flip after about 1 minute - if the tortilla has slightly charred edges and spots in the center, you’re in good shape. Cook for another minute on the other side, and transfer the tortillas to a plate. Keep the tortillas warm in the oven or covered with a towel until ready to serve.