Obsessed taco lovers know that a great taco is all about the tortilla. In Santa Barbara County, we’re in luck; we know many restaurants and taco stand that hand-make tortillas from scratch, from masa imported from Mexico. It’s the real deal. But Conrad Gonzales, the chef behind Valle Eatery & Bar in Lompoc and Cisko Kid at The Station in Los Alamos, is kicking that up a notch by growing traditional heirloom Mexican corn right here in Goleta, California.
Christmas has come early – this time in August. As I stand in the middle of an unruly, all-natural cornfield in Goleta, leaves waving wildly in the breeze, I witness two men peeling back the dried, yellowed husks of what looks like overripe corn. They are getting their first glimpse at heirloom green corn kernels they have planted earlier this year. The two friends are giddy, excitedly peering into their cob treasures and calling out the colors they find. They look like kids on Christmas morning.
Emerald green, yellow gold, blood red, forest green and gray-green are some of the colors we find inside the whispery husks. These are the fruits of a new culinary experiment here in Santa Barbara County: planting Heirloom Oaxacan Green Dent corn seeds, an ancient corn of the Zapotec people of southern Mexico, to see how well it can be cultivated here. It’s been grown there for centuries and is traditionally used to make green-flour tamales and other staples like tortillas, polenta or corn meal for breading.
Local culinary school buddies Conrad Gonzales and Abel Basch started this project with a mission to introduce new varieties of heirloom corn—those that we have never heard of or seen before—and to make homemade tortillas the traditional, sustainable way it’s been done in Oaxaca for hundreds of years.
Born in Santa Barbara, Gonzalez is a 4th-generation Californian, with family roots in Mexico City. He’s been cooking in the area for over 15 years, then he went out on his own in 2014, now heading up Valle Eatery & Bar in Lompoc and Cisko Kid at The Station in Los Alamos—as well as the Cisko Kid food truck and Valle Fresh catering. He quickly became known around the County for his savory pork belly tacos and homemade tortillas. Abel Basch grew up in Los Angeles and came to Santa Barbara for culinary school—where the two friends met—then cooked in restaurants all over Santa Barbara before realizing his first love was growing food. And heirlooms are his thing.
“Working with heirloom seeds like this is so amazing and interesting,” says Basch, who runs Abel’s Heirlooms out of Fairview Gardens. “Since heirloom seeds have kept their bio-diversity, they naturally mutate and you get all these really cool colors. It’s a surprise every time you harvest.”
Gonzales has always wanted his food creations to be a true fusion of his family’s Mexican culture and his Central Coast upbringing. He also wants his dishes to be organic, locally sustainable and true to their roots. Gonzales wanted to make tortillas the truly authentic way – which is also the truly sustainable way (and happens to be local, organic and GMO-free) – like they have in Oaxaca for thousands of years.
Corn has been a sustainable crop in North and South America for a very long time. Learning to cultivate wild corn, then harvesting and preserving it for winter has built and sustained ancient peoples, cultures and empires across the Americas. “It just makes sense,” Gonzales explains, “for us to plant this heirloom corn, harvest it and keep it to sustain us for winter here in Santa Barbara…I can offer 100% organic, sustainable (and GMO-free) tortillas for all my dishes. The way they are supposed to be made.”
Gonzales knew his friend and colleague would be into it, and when he introduced the subject, Basch jumped at the chance. “If you get me the seeds, and promise to buy the entire yield from the crop, I’m in.” Basch told him. Gonzales already had the seeds picked out.
Since then, Basch has been farming these and other heirloom varieties at Fairview Gardens, helping rejuvenate the historic farm, bringing new produce to the Santa Barbara Farmers Market with other heirlooms, and now they hope to yield between 400-500 pounds of heirloom corn. And there is more heirloom corn planted in other locations in Santa Barbara County, so that Gonzales can explore the results in taste and yield. “Like grapes grown in different appellations in our area,” he says, “I believe we will be able to taste different terroir in the corn as well.”
To harvest, the corn is hand-picked after the husks are dried and yellowed and the corn has become hard. The corn is then milled by hand to remove the kernels, and the kernels are cooked in a solution of water and lime calcium. After they rest for 1 night, the softened kernels are ground in a stone mortar and pestle until they become a wet paste. This is the masa.
To make a tortilla, Gonzales rolls a small amount of pure masa into a ball, then flattens it (you can use a tortilla press) and grills each side on a griddle or cast iron skillet until browned.
The taste is earthy, dense, savory and meaty. It’s a deeper, more intense flavor than typical hand-made tortillas, but also has a light note, just a little floral. This tortilla plays the starring role in a taco, instead of a delivery vessel for the fillings. This is the pure taste of ancient culinary culture: this tortilla is pure corn, no salt or other additions. And it’s better; heirloom corn has more nutrition, protein, flavor and variation than modern corn that is widely available.
“This is as close to historically accurate food as we can get, for a tortilla. And now, we can have an heirloom Santa Barbara tortilla. Only at Valle restaurants,” Gonzales says with a smile. Basch reminds us we can also make green heirloom whiskey, as well as polenta, grits and fresh masa for sale to other cooks. Gonzales would also love to someday make tortillas, chips, tostadas and masa to sell to the public and restaurants. “A Valle Fresh heirloom tortilleria in Santa Barbara County…that would be awesome,” Gonzales says.
The bright green corn has now been harvested, and Gonzales is busy processing it, grinding it into masa and making homemade tortillas from it. That makes his the most authentic tortilla around.
Don’t miss his Goat Cheese-Stuffed Fried Squash Blossom Taco on an heirloom green corn tortilla with green tomatillo sauce, pinquito beans, Cotija cheese and avocado at his eateries this fall.
If you find heirloom dent corn, first cook it in a solutions of water and lime calcium until softened, then after letting it rest for 1 night, grind it into a paste with a mortar and pestle to get the masa (or buy fresh masa from local shops that sell Hispanic foods).
Boil pinquito beans in water, garlic and bay leaf until tender, at least 1-2 hours. Make a green sauce by blanching tomatillos and roasting poblano peppers, then blending these with jalapeño, garlic, onion, lime and salt and pepper.
Roll a small amount of pure masa into a ball, then flatten it with a tortilla press, and grill each side on a griddle or cast iron skillet until browned (or use authentic corn tortillas from the store – local or unlabeled are best).
Heat ¼ inch of oil in a pan (or heat up a deep fryer). Stir together ¾ cup flour and 1 egg, then slowly whisk in ½ cup sparkling water or beer to make a light batter. Stuff the squash blossom with goat cheese, dip in the batter, then place in the hot oil and fry until golden (about 2 minutes).
Lay a tortilla on the plate and drizzle with tomatillo sauce, then top with avocado, pinquito beans, a squash blossom, Cotija cheese and epazote (a Mexican herb similar to oregano or mint) or cilantro. Serve with lime.