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Sellwood Sisters: an Inner Southeast tortilla success story

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Chef Wendy Downing prepares masa to be cooked for Three Sisters Nixtamal tortillas. For some time, the partners of Sellwood’s “Three Sisters Nixtamal” have been giving cooking demonstrations, and providing ready-to-cook maza to food co-ops and local markets.

Now, they’ve taken to baking and selling fresh tortillas, made from that masa.

Partners Dr. Adriana Azcarate-Ferbel, Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate and Wendy Downing were hard at work when THE BEE visited their commercial kitchen, located on the southern edge of Sellwood, near Johnson Creek.

First, many ask why Pedro is called a “sister”.

Turns out, the “three sisters” actually refers, symbolically, to an ancient method of crop rotation of planting maize (corn), beans, and squash together – and preparing them together to make nourishing meals, explained Ferbel-Azcarate, who led the tour.

“Nixtamal is a word from the Aztec Nahuatl language, referring to corn cooked in an alkaline solution and then ground into tamal, a wet masa dough,” Ferbel-Azcarate said.

Originally from Mexico, Dr. Adriana Azcarate-Ferbel said she had to go back home to get what she considered a “good” tortilla.

“As a naturopathic doctor, thinking about health and nutrition, I’ve used food as an avenue toward better health,” Azcarate-Ferbel commented. “Good nutrition helps people be well – as does our larger community. Our food is organic. We're concerned about it, from production and distribution through consumption.”

Their products are made in the traditional way, from traditional ingredients, Ferbel-Azcarate observed. “There's been an industrialization of both corn and tortilla production both in Mexico and in the United States. The tortillas from big factories don’t have the taste and the quality of those produced in the countryside.”

While trained chef Downing was grinding the cooked corn into masa dough, and Dr. Azcarate-Ferbel was running the tortilla oven, Ferbel-Azcarate scooped out a handful of organically-grown corn.

“We start with this organic corn; it’s not been processed in any way. This is not corn meal or corn flour. The yellow corn comes from Southern Oregon and Northern California – grown on small farms. The blue corn comes from New Mexico, a bioregion that is well known for this crop.”

The corn is cooked in hot water with a limestone added – a process called nixtamalization. After being thoroughly rinsed, it goes into a special purpose stone mill used to grind it into a damp, nixtimalized masa.

“All we add is a pinch of salt”, Azcarate-Ferbel pointed out as she set up the oven to cook another batch of tortillas.

To give their tortillas the correct texture, they aren’t baked – they are more like “pan cooked”.

Metallic slats that snake through the machine are heated by a gas burner. The raw masa circles cook on one side, are flipped over and cooked on the other side – and then flipped a third time for final cooking – before exiting on a conveyor belt.

“One of our secrets is that the tortillas are left to cool just a little,” Ferbel-Azcarate confided. “Then, we pack them quickly so they don't dry out. Tortillas are made to be eaten fresh.”

Three Sisters Nixtamal cooks the maize on Mondays, she added, and tortillas are cooked Tuesday through Friday – and delivered on those days to “Know Thy Food” in Brooklyn, Sellwood’s Portland Homestead Supply Company, and the People's Food Co-op.

Learn more by visiting their website: www.threesisterspdx.com