Cooking Class: Mexican tortillas

Mix up your menu a little with some tortillas, burritos and quesadillas.

(photo credit: MCT)
Ten years ago at my niece’s wedding reception near Tel Aviv, there was great interest in the taco station. To most of the guests, tacos were exotic.
“Where do you buy the tortillas?” I asked the caterer, as I hadn’t seen them in the stores.
“We make our own,” he said.
Things have changed. These thin, flat, unleavened “pancakes” are much more common thanks to the Mexican-inspired eateries that have opened here in the last few years. You can buy tortillas to use at home – but not at a grocery store. They’re found in large, well-stocked supermarkets, natural food stores and markets in neighborhoods with American residents.
Flour tortillas are easier to find than corn tortillas. La Bonita, a tortilla manufacturer in Karmiel in the western Galilee, recommends flour tortillas for rolling up all sorts of meats, vegetables and spreads, both savory and sweet; and corn tortillas for cheeses and savory spreads or for chopped meats in sauces.
Flour tortillas became popular because they are flakier and more delicate and “can be made very large so that one can hold enough for a meal,” write Victoria Wise and Susanna Hoffman in The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook.
There are also whole-wheat flour tortillas and colorful tortillas flavored with herbs, spices and vegetables. Wise and Hoffman consider the different kinds of tortillas interchangeable. You simply allow three filled corn tortillas per person or two filled flour tortillas, which are larger.
The simplest way to use tortillas is to make tacos – soft, warm tortillas filled and folded in half. Crisp tacos are made from fried tortilla shells.
Another popular form is the burrito – a warmed soft tortilla filled and folded like an envelope. Tostadas are flat, crisp fried tortillas topped with a variety of ingredients, often including salads of raw vegetables.
At La Bonita, they suggest making unconventional, not necessarily Mexican, tacos, such as one filled with creamed mushrooms and onions finished with grated cheese. For those who want more tang, spicy tomato sauce can be added. The filling is rolled up in warm white or wholewheat flour tortillas.
Tres Pesos, a tortilla company in Holon, recommends making a breakfast burrito: You warm flour tortillas in a covered container in a low oven while you make a flat omelet flavored with sour cream, cilantro and chopped tomatoes or tomato salsa. Then you spread each warm tortilla with mashed avocado, top it with a wedge of omelet, add more sour cream, tomatoes and grated cheddar cheese, and roll it up. Other popular preparations call for heating the tortilla after you fill it.
Quesadillas, a favorite snack, are tortillas filled with meltable cheese, folded in half and heated in a skillet to melt the cheese. A more elaborate tortilla preparation, which I think of as Mexican blintzes, is the enchilada – a softened tortilla, filled, rolled up, topped with sauce and baked.
I learned some quick, easy and delicious ways to use tortillas from La Tortilla Factory in Santa Rosa, California, which makes kosher parve tortillas. For a banana and raisin snack wrap simple enough for children to make, spread cream cheese on a white or whole-wheat flour tortilla, top it with banana slices and raisins, sprinkle with cinnamon and roll it up. To make an Asian-inspired chicken burrito, combine roasted chicken with sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger and sesame seeds, and wrap the mixture in a tortilla with lettuce leaves and cooked brown rice.
Heating tortillas in a dry skillet or griddle is the traditional way to warm them and gives the tastiest results, especially with corn tortillas. To heat a tortilla in the microwave oven, use high power and microwave the tortilla just until warm. This can take 25 seconds or longer, depending on how cold the tortilla is. Some recommend first wrapping the tortillas in a paper towel. I find that this gives better results, especially if the tortillas were frozen.
Wise and Hoffman give additional heating options:
❖ In the oven: Heat oven to 200ºC (400ºF). Place tortillas on the oven rack and leave in the oven for 3 minutes.
❖ In a steamer: Wrap a stack of tortillas completely in a cloth towel. Put in a steamer basket above about 2.5 cm. (1 inch) of boiling water. Cover and steam for 6 to 10 minutes.
According to La Tortilla, tortillas made without preservatives can be refrigerated for up to two weeks or kept frozen for up to six months. After freezing tortillas, even if you plan to serve them at room temperature, La Tortilla recommends heating them so they become soft and flexible.
Instead of using tortillas, you can prepare the following recipes using unsweetened blintz wraps.
This recipe is from The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook. Authors Wise and Hoffman write: “Pinto beans are the Mexican classic... but we think of black beans as the Cadillac of beans.... We usually wrap these beans up burrito style, tucking in the ends of the tortilla.” At serving time, “chopped or minced garlic or onions, or both, sprinkled raw on top in plentiful quantities, make black beans wake up and announce how good they are.” Chopped hard-boiled eggs are another good addition.
If you would like your filling more compact (and less liable to spill out of the ends of the folded tortilla), you can puree half the cooked beans with the cooking liquid and stir in the remaining whole beans.
Serve with fresh tomato salsa (see Note below). You can use fewer chilies for a less pungent salsa. “The salsa’s consistency should be like a wet salad with enough liquid to cover the vegetables, but not so much as to drown them.”
✔ 700 gr. black beans (about 31⁄2 cups), sorted ✔ 11⁄2 medium onions, finely chopped ✔ 6 garlic cloves, minced ✔ 3 jalapeno or other fresh chili peppers, stemmed and finely chopped ✔ 1⁄2 cup canned crushed tomatoes in puree ✔ 1⁄8 tsp. pure chili powder or cayenne ✔ 12 cups water ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. salt ✔ 12 flour or 18 corn tortillas, warmed just before serving
Toppings: ✔ 2 cups cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves
✔ 2 cups sour cream ✔ Fresh tomato salsa (see Note below)
Place the beans, onions, garlic, chili peppers, tomatoes, chili powder and water in a large pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a gentle boil and cook for 11⁄2 hours. Stir in the salt and cook a little longer if the beans are not tender. To assemble, use a slotted spoon to remove beans from pot and place them in the center of a tortilla. Top with cilantro, sour cream and salsa. Fold and serve.
Note: To make fresh tomato salsa, use a food processor or a chef’s knife to coarsely chop 6 fresh hot peppers – one or several kinds (total about 60 grams or 2 ounces), 3 small trimmed radishes, 3 garlic cloves, 1 trimmed bunch of green onions or 1⁄2 medium onion, 2 medium tomatoes and 1 cup cilantro leaves. If using a food processor, first cut the vegetables into chunks.
Transfer to a bowl. Add 1⁄4 tsp. salt, 1 Tbsp. tomato paste and 1⁄2 to 1 cup water, depending on how juicy the tomatoes are. Mix well. Makes 2 cups.
These burritos are filled with eggs scrambled with lox and onions, deli style, and a spoonful of sautéed spinach.
✔ 1 bunch spinach (350 to 450 gr. or 3⁄4 to 1 pound), stems discarded, leaves rinsed well, or a 300-gr. (10-ounce) bag of spinach leaves ✔ 3 to 4 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil, or ✔ 2 Tbsp. oil and 1 to 2 Tbsp. butter ✔ 1 cup chopped onion ✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ 4 flour or whole-wheat tortillas, preferably whole grain ✔ 6 eggs, or 4 eggs and 3 egg whites ✔ 3⁄4 cup finely diced or thin strips of lox or smoked salmon
Cook spinach uncovered in a saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat for 2 minutes or until just tender. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Squeeze spinach by handfuls to remove as much liquid as possible. Chop spinach fine. Heat 11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. oil in a heavy nonstick skillet. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until tender and light golden. Remove half of onion and reserve for mixing with eggs. Add spinach to pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and heat through.
Transfer to a bowl and keep warm. Wipe skillet clean. Warm tortillas in a dry skillet, a microwave or a steamer; cover and keep warm. In a bowl, beat eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper and add the reserved onions. Heat remaining oil (or butter with any remaining oil) in skillet. Add eggs and scramble over low heat, stirring often, until they are set to your taste. Remove from heat and gently stir in lox.
Spoon spinach onto tortillas, top with scrambled egg mixture, roll up and serve.
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.