February 8, 2021

Sally Portman

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Where Mexico Meets Michigan

Corn and carnitas in scenic Sawyer

After moving to southwest Michigan a few years ago, Aaron Harris and his wife, Christie, started to miss the foods they’d eaten in Chicago. Taco night wasn’t the same with stale supermarket tortillas. “So we started going down the rabbit hole of learning how to make tortillas at home,” says Aaron.

Nixtamalization was new to them, but Aaron had experience with Mexican food, having grown up on recipes from his Mexican-American grandmother, and Christie had experience with food, period, having worked nearly every kind of restaurant job back in Chicago. By 2019, they were selling scratch-made corn tortillas at the St. Joseph Farmer’s Market. Last winter, a month before the pandemic hit, they opened Molino Tortilleria in downtown Sawyer, just a couple of miles from Lake Michigan.

Where Mexico Meets Michigan - Quote

Taco night wasn’t the same with stale supermarket tortillas. “So we started going down the rabbit hole of learning how to make tortillas at home,” says Aaron.

A post shared by Molino Tortilleria & Market (@molinotortillas)

With the pandemic came the inevitable pivot. The Harrises spent the summer and fall holding weekend taco and tamale pop-ups outside the shop, where I stopped for lunch last October on my way back to Chicago, after spending a couple of days in Saugatuck.

I spread out a feast in the trunk of the car: tacos made with roasted yams and refried black beans, topped with guacamole and pickled butternut squash, and tacos heaped with apple cider carnitas, made from local pork slow-cooked with honeycrisp apples and garnished with onions, pickled blueberries, cotija, and cilantro, plus roasted chile and bean tamales, served with fresh salsas. I’ve eaten a lot of different takes on tacos, but these were special. They weren’t just delicious. They were unique to the place and season, all made with meats and produce from surrounding farms.

“What we try to focus on with our food is joining cultures,” Aaron says. “We make traditional Mexican dishes, but we’re sourcing locally. Everything we can get from great producers in southwest Michigan, we do. The carnitas are traditional, for example, but we top them with pickled blueberries for a Michigan twist.”

At its heart, Molino is about corn, which the Harrises order from Mexico and the Midwest.

‘When we began learning about corn, we didn’t know much,” Aaron says. “We just knew about the yellow corn we’d see in the fields. Every type of corn is different, just like coffee. They all have different flavors and textures.”

Heirloom corn from Mexico complements corn coming from farms in Illinois and Michigan, including Granor Farm, just ten minutes away in Three Oaks. A farmers’ market connection, Granor is now growing more heirloom corn varieties for Molino—including Blue Clarage, a 1920 variety from Ohio, which Aaron says makes blue tortillas with “a nice, soft texture,” and Wapsie Valley, an 1850 dent corn from Iowa.

A post shared by Molino Tortilleria & Market (@molinotortillas)

“We’re kind of just scratching the surface with corn right now,” Aaron says. “We’re working hard to find varieties that will grow here and learning things to take into next season. We want to support agricultural diversity in Mexico and the Midwest.”

This year, the Harrises are planning to expand their wholesale business. They’ve been building up an online market, where you can order everything from tortillas to taco kits, plus Mexican chocolate, local sausages, and Latin American pastries, like orejas and mantecadas, which Christie makes. You can also order kitchenware, including tortilla presses and Mexican cloth napkins. If you can’t make it to Sawyer, note that they’ve started shipping, too.

Carnitas Tacos with Pickled Blueberries From Molino Tortilleria, Sawyer, Michigan

Serves 6

2-3 lb. pork shoulder
2 oranges, thickly sliced, peels on
3/4 cup Mexican Coca-Cola
1 head garlic, halved
Juice of 2 limes
¼ cup kosher salt
1 tbsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
Corn tortillas, for serving
Pickled blueberries, to garnish (recipe below)
Chopped white onion, chopped cilantro, salsa verde, and lime wedges to garnish

Rinse pork shoulder and pat dry with a paper towel. Add pork to a slow-cooker with oranges, cola, garlic, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours or medium to high for 5-6 hours, until the meat is tender and falls off the bone. Remove pork, reserving cooking liquid. Shred meat with a fork and set aside.

In a large nonstick pan, heat oil until shimmering. Then add meat in batches, taking care not to crowd the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until carnitas begins to crisp, about three minutes. Then add ½ cup of the reserved cooking liquid and simmer until liquid is reduced and carnitas are crisp but not dry. Repeat with remaining shredded pork if necessary. Serve immediately, in warm corn tortillas topped with pickled blueberries, onion, cilantro, salsa verde, and lime wedges.

Pickled Blueberries
Makes 3.5 cups

1 cup distilled white vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 ¾ tbsp. kosher salt
¼ cup water
1¼ lb. blueberries
1 small red onion, thinly sliced

Whisk vinegar, sugar, salt, and water in a medium bowl until sugar and salt dissolve. Add blueberries and onion, then cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight before using.


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