Gulf Coast Cooking

Tortillas are good for more than just tacos

Everyone knows what a tortilla is, right? It is related, at least in concept, to a Mediterranean or Indian flatbread.

We see them most often in tacos and other Tex-Mex food that is so popular in the United States. Commonly we find tortillas made of flour or corn, both white and yellow, but in some parts of Mexico you can still find tortillas made from blue corn.

In Honduras and El Salvador you will find the delicious pupusa -- a thicker, chewier, handmade corn tortilla that is usually served filled with meats and vegetables. If there is a Honduran restaurant near you, put it on your "to do" list. Another related version is the arepa, a ground corn flatbread that is popular in Columbia and Venezuela.

There is a principle in the culinary world that is universal: if a recipe is really good, it has probably been around for a long time and spread to other cultures as well. Ten thousand years ago the people of Central and South America were eating tortillas in one form or another. The Aztecs and Mayas were fond of them, and here we are today, still enjoying this simple delight.

What you can put inside a tortilla is a long list indeed. The Hondurans like to put cheese, roasted pork and refried beans in their pupusa. Another popular dish in Honduras is the baleada, most often filled with beans, cheese and the delightful Honduran-style sour cream, mantequilla. But that is not to say that you can't put your favorite sandwich fixings in a tortilla and enjoy it any way you like, serve it cold or toasted, open-faced or folded in the traditional way. The possibilities are endless.

BASIC TORTILLA RECIPE

9 ounce all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup lard

1/2 cup tap water

You will need a food processor

Combine the flour and salt in the food processor and pulse several times. Now add the lard, continuing to pulse, a little bit at a time, until well incorporated. Add the water, with the processor running, until a ball of dough forms. Flour a clean surface and divide the dough into 6-8 pieces, then form into equal-size balls. Wrap in plastic and let rest for at least one hour. Now on a floured surface, roll the dough balls out into flat shapes or use a tortilla press. How thin you make them is a matter of personal taste, some people like them extremely thin, others prefer them to be a bit chewy. Cook in a heavy-bottom skillet until golden brown. Use at once for best results.

A SIMPLE TORTILLA WITH SOUTH AMERICAN INFLUENCES

2 tortillas per person

1 pound roasted pork or beef

2 cups cooked black beans

1 chopped onion

2 chopped jalapenos

1-2 pinches chili powder

Quesillo cheese (from the Latin market)

Sauté the onions in a little oil for 3-4 minutes, add the chili powder and the chopped jalapeños, beans and cook for 3-4 minutes more. Now mash the beans to make a thick paste. Load each tortilla with the roasted pork, don't forget to share the juice that will come with it, then add the beans and top with plenty of quesillo.

TURKEY AND CHEESE TORTILLA

This is as simple and healthy a tortilla recipe as you will find. Most of the ingredients can be found in your local deli and a well-filled turkey tortilla will set you back only a few dollars. If you are lucky, your local Latin market will have fresh-made pork skins, chicharrón, grab a bag to go along with this otherwise healthy tortilla.

2 yellow corn tortillas per person

1/2 pound thin sliced turkey

1/4 pound thin sliced Swiss cheese

1-2 thin sliced tomato

1/4 cup chopped olives

1-2 cups shredded lettuce

Salsa verde from the Latin market

This is based on a pretty conventional turkey wrap, but you can jazz it up by using fresh yellow corn tortillas and the salsa verde. Heat a large sauté pan that is lightly oiled and heat the tortillas, but do not let them brown and become too ridged. Start to fill the tortilla with the turkey, then cheese and then the olives, tomato and lettuce. Garnish with as much salsa verde as you like. If you want the cheese to melt, run into a hot oven on a baking sheet for a few minutes.

SIMPLE SCRAMBLE EGG TORTILLA WITH AN ITALIAN TOUCH

This is another simple tortilla idea that works well for breakfast or even an afternoon snack. If you have spent any time in south Texas, then you must be familiar with the delicious idea of a breakfast taco. Adding Parmesan and olive oil gives it an Italian bent that is surprisingly delicious, especially if you use the real Parmigiano-Reggiano. The trick to making it extra good is not to overcook the eggs. Cook them over low heat just until they form a custard and lumpy.

2 soft flour tortillas per person

1 farm fresh egg per person

1/4 cup fresh chorizo sausage

2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons good quality olive oil

Keep the tortillas warm in a moderate oven. Cook the chorizo until well done, roughly chop, then set aside. Break the eggs and whisk lightly, do not whip them into a froth, add a little cream if you like. Cook over a low flame in a little butter until firm, but still wet. Load a tortilla with eggs, a generous amount of chorizo, a good dusting of cheese and a good drizzle of olive oil. Serve at once.

Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.

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