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As the server sets down the bowl of fisherman’s stew at the new Handline in Sebastopol, the aroma of warm corn wafts up, mingling with the fragrance of savory white fish, cove mussels, clams and calamari swimming in rust-gold broth.

There is no corn in the soup. The hominy scent comes from the tortillas served alongside. Grilled to order just seconds ago, the pliant rounds are crafted from homemade masa, bringing much more authentic corn character than typical store-bought tortillas.

Every morning, Handline co-owner Natalie Goble starts the painstaking process of making the masa de maíz to serve with the eatery’s al pastor and fried cod tacos, poached local squid tostadas and California halibut ceviche.

“It’s actually a two-day process,” she explains, as the raw corn kernels need to be soaked, simmered, milled and kneaded into dough. “It’s much more work for us, but we really want the true corn flavor that comes from fresh.”

Just getting the corn takes some effort. Dent or field corn is better than sweet corn, since its larger kernels absorb more water and contain more starch.

Such labor intensity means that fresh masa is rare for restaurants, and most places rely on masa harina, a packaged, ground corn flour that needs only to be mixed with water. You can find handmade tortillas at the fast casual HomeMade Tortilla eatery in Santa Rosa, and Copita in Sausalito, among other places.

But as with Copita, few places grind kernels onsite. Copita uses nixtamal masa, which is made from scratch but is provided to the restaurant by a vendor.

The new Más Masa, which opened in November in Fairfax, also makes its own masa, hand-grinding organic, heirloom blue corn from Nebraska and corn from Masienda, a boutique company that partners with small farmers in Mexico.

Because the grinding process is loud, owners Will Eoff and Patrick Sheehy do their milling in the early mornings, before their restaurant opens.

Then there’s Tierra Vegetables’ farm stand in Santa Rosa, which sells local, dried corn and fresh hominy. Last year, owners Lee and Wayne James purchased a molina (grinder) to make fresh masa and tortillas from scratch. They sell tiny amounts of both out of the shop’s refrigerator case. The grinding and griddling is done in the store’s commercial kitchen in Windsor.

To really appreciate the edible art, however, it helps to see the true, heritage process in person. Restaurateur Karen Waikiki is largely credited with reviving the lost tradition locally, when she opened El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs six years ago. Each morning, staff feeds soaked organic corn into a specially made grinding machine to make their masa dough. Customers can view the action in the tiny, open kitchen.

Then, staff hand presses the dough and tosses it on a griddle, with the tortillas emerging golden, bubbly charred in spots and sporting that wonderful, irregular shape that guarantees these beauties didn’t come from a bag.

At Handline, the masa operation has its own private room for holding the 50-pound sacks of organic white corn sourced from Pleasant Grove Farms in Sacramento Valley. There’s a stainless steel soaking tub here, too, and the custom-made mill outfitted with two grinding stones. Guests can peer through the expansive windows and witness the operation.

First, Noble “nixtamalizes” the corn by bringing the whole kernels to nearly a boil with lime water. The slaked lime (commonly called cal) loosens the corn’s hulls, allowing nutrients to be better absorbed by the human body. The kernels soak overnight, until they are soft on their outer layer but firm enough that they can still be dented with a fingernail.

“We want the corn a little bit crumbly but still kind of crunchy, since it will continue to cook in the mill water,” she said.

Noble rinses the corn with fresh water, draining off slurry and skins. Then, she runs it through the mill, adding a bit of fresh warm water as the heavy stones grind to create a sticky, somewhat dry dough.

The dough is kneaded by hand on a wooden board. Since the mixture contains no gluten, she needn’t worry about overworking it and making it tough. The dough rests for a while, then is rolled into pingpong-size balls and is ready to visit the tortilla press.

Once flattened, the dough is tossed on the comal (flat griddle) until it crisps on the edges. The finished tortillas are wrapped in a towel to steam and soften a bit, then are delivered piping hot to hungry customers.

“Most restaurants use dry Maseca,” Noble says, referring to the popular brand of packaged, dry corn flour. “It’s OK, but it just doesn’t have that vibrancy.”

Eoff agrees, adding that besides flavor, the resulting rustic texture of real corn appeals. “We find the fresh masa to be much more flavorful, and it is a touch coarser than what you would get with masa harina. The fact that there are zero additives really shows up on your palate, too.”

Back at Handline, Noble tears off a piece of tortilla and pops in her mouth. “Sometimes I add a little sea salt or lime,” she says. “But really, there’s so much wonderful corn flavor, it doesn’t need anything else.”

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Here are three ways to make corn tortillas at home, from labor intensive to easy. This is an authentic recipe, adapted from chef Alton Brown of the Food Network.

Tortillas

Yields 14 to 16 tortillas

Nixtamal:

1 pound dried corn kernels, approximately 2 cups (see NOTE below)

6 cups water

2 tablespoons slaked lime (cal, available in Latin markets or online)

Masa:

4-5 tablespoons lukewarm water

1 teaspoon kosher salt

For nixtamal: Prepare nixtamal by rinsing corn under cool water; drain and set aside. Put 6 cups water and lime into a 3½- to 4-quart, nonreactive stockpot, set over medium-low heat and stir to combine. Add the corn and bring just to a soft boil, stirring occasionally. Be sure that it takes 30 to 45 minutes to come to a boil, then remove from the heat, cover and rest at room temperature overnight. Do not refrigerate.

Drain corn in a large colander and rinse under lukewarm water for 5-6 minutes while rubbing kernels between your fingers in order to remove the outer coating. Place corn into a large bowl, cover with lukewarm water and soak 2-3 minutes. Drain, rinse and repeat. Use immediately.

For masa: Put nixtamal into a food processor bowl and pulse 10-15 times. Add 2 tablespoons water and pulse 8-10 times, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Add 2 more tablespoons of water along with the salt and pulse until dough begins to form. If the dough is still dry and somewhat crumbly, add the remaining tablespoon of water and pulse several times. Turn the dough out onto the counter and shape into a ball. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and rest 30 minutes.

Preheat a cast iron griddle over medium-high heat to 400°F.

Divide dough into 1½ ounce portions, shape into balls and keep covered with a damp tea towel.

Flatten each ball with a rolling pin, or using a tortilla press, line the base with a 1-gallon zip-top bag, cut in half. Place 1 ball at a time onto the press and top with the other half of the plastic. Close the press and push down firmly several times until the tortilla is flattened. Remove the plastic wrap from the tortilla.

Place tortilla onto the cast iron skillet, and cook for 1 minute on each side. Remove it to a plate lined with a tea towel. Cover the tortilla with a second towel to keep warm. Repeat with all of the dough.

NOTE:

Replace nixtamal with dried masa corn, available online or from Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa.

___

Josefina Fregosa, who makes wooden tortilla presses available at Healdsburg Shed, offers this easier recipe for tortillas.

Tortillas

Makes s 8 to 10 tortillas.

1 cup organic masa harina

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup hot water, or slightly less

In a medium bowl, mix together masa harina and salt. Add the hot water gradually, stirring with a wooden spoon as you go. Continue adding water until the mixture comes together but is almost too sticky to handle, using only as much water as necessary. Keep stirring until smooth.

Cover dough with a damp cloth and let rest for one hour in a cool place.

Pinch off a golf ball-sized piece of masa and roll it into a ball. Keep remaining masa covered; it will dry out quickly.

Cut two pieces of parchment paper big enough to cover the inside surfaces of the press. Put one piece of paper on the bottom plate of the tortilla press and place a ball of masa on the center of the paper. Cover with a second piece of parchment and flatten it slightly with your hand.

Using the handle, bring down the top plate of the press firmly.

To remove, hold the pressed tortilla (with the parchment on both sides) in one hand. Peel away the top piece of parchment from the tortilla, then flip and peel away the other piece of paper.

Transfer the tortilla to a hot, well-seasoned, dry skillet or griddle. Cook for about 30 seconds and then gently turn over. Cook second side for about 60 seconds — the tortilla should puff slightly.

Turn back to the first side and cook for another 30 seconds. The tortilla should puff completely.

Remove and keep the tortilla warm in a basket lined with a kitchen towel.

Note: Tortillas can be made two hours in advance, wrapped and reheated in 350-degree oven for about 12 minutes. Store tortillas in airtight containers or bags in the refrigerator for up to 3 or 4 days.

___

Here is the easiest recipe: Handline sells fresh masa daily for $2 a pound. Tierra Vegetables sells fresh masa (limited quantities) for $7.50 a package.

Form dough into small balls, then flatten with a tortilla press or rolling pin.

Grill in a skillet, using method above.

Carey Sweet is a Santa Rosa-based food and restaurant writer. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com