Tortillas: Old food, new options

The true Mexican tortilla is descended from a flatbread that has been made since 10,000 BC. Legend has it that the first tortilla was made by a Mayan peasant for his hungry king, and he created the dough from dried corn kernels.

To make a finer flour for tortillas, Mayan peasants created dough from dried corn kernels and soaked the maize in an alkaline solution to remove skins from the kernels, a process still used today to make masa harina, corn flour used for modern-day tortillas. Tortillas are relatively low in fat and calories per serving.

This bit of information is in the Jessica Harlan book “Tortillas to the Rescue Cookbook.”

Tortillas can be used in unexpected ways – to thicken soups, to bulk up casseroles and even to make a crust for quiches or pies.

Harlan tells that when they arrived in the New World in 1519, Cortes and his conquistadores discovered that the Aztecs were making flatbread cakes from maize, which they called tlaxcalli, a native word that the Spanish settlers adapted into their own language as tortilla.

Tortillas were first cooked on hot stones. Later they were cooked on comals, Mexican stovetop griddles. In the 1940s automated machines were developed to grind the corn, press and cook the tortillas for more efficient, larger-scale production.

In old Mexico, tortillas were, and still are, used as an eating utensil, a habit picked up by Western cowboys who discovered the convenience of filling tortillas with meat to make an easy dinner around the campfire. American settlers of the Southwest, as well as Mexican immigrants to the United States, helped tortillas gain a place in American cooking and now it is hard to imagine the nation without Tex-Mex, Southwestern and New Mexican cuisines, all that include tortillas as an important component.

Store tortillas wrapped in the plastic bag they came in keep in the refrigerator as long as several weeks. Most have an expiration date that can help gauge if they are still good, the cookbook cautioned.

Warming tortillas can be done to make them more flexible and easier to fold and roll. There are several ways to warm a tortilla to use in a rolled recipe or just to stuff with a favorite filling.

On a plate or paper towel, stack the number of tortillas needed, five at a time, maximum, and microwave on high for 15 to 20 seconds until warmed and flexible. To prevent flour tortillas from drying out, loosely fold in half and wrap in a dampened paper towel before putting in the microwave.

On the stove, there are three methods for warming tortillas on the stove, two for flour and one for corn tortillas.

Method 1, flour tortillas – turn a gas burner on medium and let the grate heat. Lay the tortilla on the grate and warm for about 10 seconds, then carefully flip with fingers or tongs. Heat until lightly browned and flexible. Keep wrapped in a clean dish towel while heating others.

Method 2, flour tortillas – Heat a dry skillet over medium heat for a few moments until pan is hot. Place a tortilla in the pan, heat for 15 to 20 seconds and use tongs or a spatula to turn over. Continue warming until tortilla is lightly golden and flexible. Keep warm in a clean dish towel.

Method 3, corn tortillas – Brush a small skillet lightly with cooking oil. such as vegetable oil and heat over medium heat. Add tortilla and warm in the skillet for about 30 seconds, turning over to heat evenly until it is flexible. Keep warm in a clean dish towel as more are heated.

Tortillas can be made into chips or baked into cups.

For baked tortilla chips, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush flour tortillas lightly with olive oil or vegetable oil on both sides. Cut into eight wedges each and arrange on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Bake until beginning to get crispy, about 8 minutes, turn chips over and bake until chips are lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes longer.

To make fried corn tortilla chips, line a baking sheet with paper towels. Cut into wedges with a knife or a pizza cutter. Heat 1 inch of vegetable oil in a medium saucepan to 350 to 375 degrees, checking with a candy or frying thermometer. To check the oil, dip a piece of tortilla into the hot oil; it should bubble if it is hot enough. Work in small batches to avoid overcrowding, turning with a slotted spoon to cook evenly-1 minute for lightly crisped chips, up to 2 minutes for a crunchier chip.

For tortilla cups – Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Warm a stack of 6-inch flour tortillas in the microwave for 15 seconds until flexible. Pierce all over with a fork. Brush both sides with melted butter or vegetable or olive oil. Fit into small ovenproof bowls or ramekins, about 5 inches in diameter, or in muffin tins, crimping the sides of the tortillas loosely to fit them into the bowls. Bake for 10 minutes or until they hold their shape as cups. Remove from bowls and finish baking on a sheet pan or directly on the oven rack until crisp and beginning to brown.

For fried taco shells – Fill a skillet, with 1-inch of vegetable oil and heat until it is shimmering. Place a corn tortilla in the hot oil, it should sizzle upon contact with the oil and fry in about 15 seconds. Using tongs, fold the tortilla in half and use tongs to hold the bottom side of the shell under the oil for about 15 seconds to allow it to get crisp and golden. Turn the entire folded tortilla over and hold the other side under the hot oil for another 15 seconds to cook evenly. Drain briefly on paper towels. Fill and serve hot.

Crispy taco shells, baked – Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wrap four corn tortillas in a slightly dampened paper towel and microwave for 15 seconds on high until flexible. Lightly spray both sides of each tortilla with cooking oil. Drape over a taco shell baking rack or over the sides of a loaf pan. Bake until crisp about 8 to 10 minutes.

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Here is an appetizer with the heat of horseradish and the salty smokiness of bacon.

Creamy Bacon and Horseradish Wedges

3 slices crispy cooked bacon, crumbled

1/3 cup cream cheese

1 teaspoon prepared horseradish

3 small, 6-inch, flour tortillas

3/4 cup baby arugula

In a small bowl, stir together bacon, cream cheese and horseradish until combined. Evenly spread cream cheese mixture among the tortillas. Place about 1/4 cup arugula on one half of each tortilla and fold in half over the arugula and cream cheese filling, pressing down slightly to seal. Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Place as many of the filled tortillas as will fit in a pan and cook until the underside is golden and the filling warmed, about 2 minutes. Flip over and cook on the second side until browned, about 2 minutes longer. Place on a cutting board and cut each into four wedges. Serve warm.

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When you don’t feel like dealing with fussy pastry dough, just fold a flour tortilla around a filling and bake. It makes a crisp crust for empanadas and other filled pastries.

Spinach and Cheese Empanadas

16-ounce bag frozen chopped spinach, thawed

1/2 cup cottage cheese

3/4 cup grated Jarlsberg cheese

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1 large egg

8 small flour tortillas

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Squeeze excess water from the spinach. In a large bowl, stir together the spinach, cottage cheese, Jarlsberg cheese and seasonings. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork. Mound about 2 tablespoons spinach mixture to one side of the center of a tortilla. With a pastry brush, wipe the edges of the tortilla with egg. Fold in half over the filling to make a half-circle shape. Press lightly on the middle of the empanadas to push out any air pockets then press down very firmly to seal. Brush tops of each empanada with beaten egg and with a sharp paring knife, cut one or two slits in the top of each empanada to allow the steam to vent. Bake until tortillas are crisp, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes eight.

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This fresh-tasting wrap is sturdy enough to pack for a lunch. It is a healthy and interesting alternative to the usual sandwich.

Mediterranean Hummus Wrap

1/2 cup prepared hummus

2 medium, 8-inch, flour tortillas

1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced

4 ounces alfalfa sprouts

2 medium roma tomatoes, sliced

1/2 cup jarred roasted red peppers, cut into strips

1 cup pitted kalamata olives, about 4-ounces coarsely chopped or sliced

To make wraps, spread half of the hummus on each tortilla, leaving a border of about 1-inch uncovered. Arrange the cucumber, sprouts, tomato, red peppers and olives in the center of each tortilla. Wrap like a burrito. To pack in a lunch, wrap tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and keep refrigerated.

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A crust can be made from ground corn tortillas in this quiche. If using fresh broccoli chop into bite-size pieces and steam in a little water until tender.

Broccoli-Cheddar Quiche

10 small, 6-inch, corn tortillas, torn into pieces

1/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/4 cup warm water

5 large eggs

1/3 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup chopped frozen broccoli, thawed

1 1/3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, 6 ounces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place tortillas in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until into fine crumbs. Add the flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt and pulse to combine. With motor running, drizzle in the vegetable oil and then the water. Process until the mixture forms a clumpy dough. Turn the dough into a 9-inch nonstick pie pan and press the dough evenly into the bottom and sides of the pan. Bake until the crust begins to brown on the sides and it feels dry to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes. In a bowl, whisk eggs, cream, milk the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Arrange broccoli in an even layer in the crust. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the broccoli. Pour filling over the broccoli and cheese and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the filling. Bake until it is no longer jiggly in the middle, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves four to eight, depending on it being an appetizer or a meal.

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This dessert is best made just before eaten. Be sure to allow time after the meal to prepare it. It is a sweet indulgent dessert. This recipe serves two.

Caramelized Banana and

Peanut Tostadas

Vegetable oil for frying

2 small, 6-inch, corn tortillas

2 small bananas

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons dark rum

1/2 cup roasted, salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Whipped cream for garnish

Heat about 1/2-inch vegetable oil in a medium skillet over high heat until shimmering. Line a plate with paper towels. When the oil is hot, add a tortilla and fry until crisp, about 30 seconds on each side. Transfer the tortilla to the paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the other tortilla. Cut the bananas in half crosswise, then split in half again lengthwise. Dispose of the oil in the skillet, wipe out the skillet with a paper towel, place it over the medium heat and add the butter. When the butter melts, add brown sugar and cook, stirring until dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add bananas, cut side down. Cook for 1 minute longer. Drizzle the rum into the pan and cook for 30 seconds, using a spoon or the tongs to stir the rum into the brown sugar mixture around the bananas. Place the fried tortillas on two plates. Arrange four banana pieces on each tostada and drizzle the sauce on top. Garnish with peanuts and a dollop of whipped cream.