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Food
Tortillas hot off the family skillet

Thursday, April 03, 2003

By Virginia Phillips

Sure, plenty of Pittsburghers know a good pierogi. But how many of us have ever savored a warm, hand-stretched flour tortilla?

Marina Lozano, left, rolls the tortilla dough into a thin round, then passes it off to her daughter, Gina Preciado, who cooks it on a specially designed skillet in her Swissvale kitchen. The women produce fresh tortillas by the dozen under the name of Marina's Tortillas. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

A fresh tortilla is earthy, dark-streaked and thin. Both chewy and tender, it has a griddle-seared flavor that only a skilled tortilla maker can produce. If you've tasted one, you remember.

Hispanic communities turn their backs on machine-made flour tortillas. They find them pallid, gummy with additives, bland in flavor and possessing no aroma at all. These lucky Latinos grew up eating fragrant tortillas made fresh each day by human hands. For the luckiest ones, those hands belonged to mama.

Gina Preciado of Swissvale grew up on tortillas like that. Every time she came back from visiting her mama, Marina Lozano, in Arizona, she'd be toting a suitcase bulging with fresh ones. On birthdays, Marina would FedEx five dozen or so to her daughter back East.

Gina would say, "Mama, why don't you come here when you retire and we'll make tortillas?"

Three years ago, Marina took Gina up on her suggestion. She packed the tortilla rolling stick that she's used for 49 years -- a 9-inch section cut from a pole a little fatter than a broomstick -- and her long-handled griddle, warped and darkened by heat, that a friend cut and shaped to her specifications in a machine shop.

And Marina's Tortillas got under way. Gina is the proprietor and marketing director of the boutique business; Marina brings the magical hands.

"Everybody made tortillas," Marina says of Sonora, the small Arizona mining town on the U.S.-Mexico border, where she grew up and where her children were born. The Sonoran Desert stretches north into Arizona and south into Mexico. Almost everyone in Sonora came from the Mexico side.

This is flour tortilla country. The tradition has roots stretching back to the first wheat flour brought to the New World by Spanish colonials.

Arizona people like their tortillas thin enough to read the newspaper through. Sonorans, especially, pride themselves on huge paper-thin ones, a foot or more in diameter.

The two women work in Gina's kitchen, making no more than six dozen or so at a time. "I'm really fussy about freshness," she says.

Orders come in to their Web site, www.Mtortillas.com. Gina delivers to customers in the East End, as well as Downtown near her day job. Customers also pick up tortillas at Gina's home. She hopes to sell her zingy salsa soon, featuring Arizona's tiny desert chilie pepper, the chiltepin.

Customer John Lane, a computer systems administrator at Pittsburgh Public Theater, has his tortillas delivered to the office, as do, he says, about a third of the theater staff.

The tortillas are a "staple" for Craig Mrusek, a freelance artist, and his wife, lawyer Laura Adams of Forest Hills, essential for huevos rancheros, scrambled eggs with chorizo and salsa.

Patty Campbell, Slippery Rock University geology professor, calls them "as close to Mexico as you can get." Campbell makes a monthly run for herself and hauls dozens for Gina's customers at the school.

Gina is no slouch at tortilla-making and has lots of rolling power, but decades of practice give Marina an ease that Gina longs to have. "Nobody helped me when the kids were young," Marina says, her eyebrows shooting up. "They just ate 'em."

Gina is helping now. The work is done standing.

Smooth as an ear lobe

Marina uses Pillsbury unbleached flour, salt, Crisco and water in proportions known only to her. The KitchenAid mixer thumps the mixture to the right consistency. Three dozen orbs, golf ball size and smooth as an ear lobe, wait in rows on the spotless counter. The griddle, preheating on the burner's highest setting, smells hot.

Marina places a ball of dough on the bare counter. Clack. Thunk! Maybe 10 quick, sure, one-handed strokes. Before each stroke, she turns the dough with her free hand, rolling fast, letting the stick fly free with a snap off the edge of the dough.

She lifts the 8-inch circle, draping it over her closed right hand, knuckles shining pink through the translucent dough. Marina tugs at the edges to stretch the thin dough thinner.

She hands the supple circle off to Gina, who dances it over to the stove and floats it onto the smoking griddle. There it cooks, steaming, 15 seconds on the first side. Gina strokes any puffs flat with a fingertip. These smoothing touches make for appealing dark streaks. Lifting it by a sizzling edge, she flips the firming tortilla five or six times quickly -- a minute, total, at most. The tortilla comes off precisely when Gina judges it "not too crisp but thoroughly cooked."

Mother and daughter are slim and lithe. Marina, 68, with a sleek cap of silver hair, is as deliberate in her moves and thrifty with talk as Gina, 48, her dark mop severely restrained, is ebullient. Gina and her husband, Frank, who has a home-based computer business, let off steam performing with the Amish Monkeys, an improv group that performs at Gemini Theater.

"Tortillas are great kid food," Marina says. "Tortillas were bread for us. We didn't make anything fancy. We ate them for breakfast with eggs or just with butter. Rolled them up with pinto beans for a workingman's lunch. My own mom gave us soup bone marrow in them, and that was delicious. People called anything rolled up in a tortilla a taco."

Delicious variations

Tortilla offshoots include:

Fajitas -- soft tortillas enclosing almost any kind of grilled fare;

Enchiladas -- rolled filled tortillas baked with sauce;

Quesadillas -- the tortilla "grilled cheese sandwich," in which a soft tortilla is folded into a half-moon shape enclosing a filling always featuring cheese, queso, and browned in a skillet till the outside is crispy golden and the inside oozily soft.

One reason Marina's family didn't do anything elaborate with their tortillas is that a fresh flour tortilla works magic on anything you pair it with, including -- especially -- humble leftovers such as potatoes or beans.

Your interpretation can be as south or north of the border as you please. One of the earliest fusions was tortillas and eggs. This combination came to Mexico in response to the nortenos' need for eggs in the morning.

Tortillas and eggs, with potatoes or beans or bacon or chorizo or salsa, are a favorite with Gina's customers. Many work crazy hours and need a quick fix and/or need to please kids. The breakfast components make for incredibly elastic possibilities.

Tortilla tricks

Note: An excellent fresh tortilla substitute is Garden of Eatin's whole-wheat variety. They are full of flavor and crisp up deliciously. Find them at Giant Eagle and Whole Foods Market.

Potato: If you don't have a leftover (boiled, baked, even mashed) potato, dice any potato (no need to peel), saute until golden with a handful of chopped green or white onion in a little vegetable oil, add a couple of tablespoons of water, salt and pepper, and cook, covered, for a few minutes till soft.

Refried beans: Chop 2 or 3 slices of bacon, saute until almost crisp. Add 3 to 4 chopped green onions and 2 chopped cloves of garlic. Saute on low heat until soft but not brown. Spoon out all but 3 tablespoons of bacon fat. Add a can of black beans. Mash roughly with a potato masher. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Cook a few minutes more to heat thoroughly, adding water if mixture becomes too thick.

Salsa: A chopped plum tomato boosts tired jarred salsa.

Chorizo: Try Whole Foods Market or McGinnis Brothers for great house-made chorizo.

Quesadillas

Here's a favorite any time of day: Fry bacon strips. Keep warm in an oven set at lowest setting, reserving fat for frying the potato/onion mixture mentioned above and then the eggs. For each serving, lay a generous 1/2 cup potato/onion mixture on half a tortilla. Spoon about 1/4 cup soft mild cheese on top. (Use what's in the refrigerator: Monterey Jack, mozzarella, cream cheese, even sour cream. Soft goat cheese is a grown-up treat.) Fold over into half moon. Film a griddle with cooking oil and gently fry, 5 minutes on each side, until quesadillas are crisp and golden. As they brown, in pan used for the bacon, fry as many eggs as you have quesadillas. Top each with a fried egg, place bacon alongside, spoon on tomato salsa, preferably fresh. Garnish with cilantro.

Refried beans and cheese make a mean quesadilla. Top with a fried egg and spoon salsa on the side.

Quickest are scrambled eggs with sauted chorizo. Spoon egg mixture down the center of a tortilla, roll up and dollop on red or green salsa -- or red and green, New Mexico-style.

Instant Luxe: Pound a 4-ounce beef filet slice until about 1 inch thick. Saute to rare or medium rare. After turning, spoon on soft goat cheese or shredded Jack cheese. Top with 1/2 teaspoon minced canned chipotle peppers. Lay filet on a fresh, warm flour tortilla, fold sides up to make a fist-size package, pour a glass of cabernet and enjoy.

Chili Royale: Rub cooking oil on one side of two tortillas, fresh or stale. Lay on a cookie sheet and scissor into 2-inch strips. Bake at 350 degrees for 5 minutes or until crisp. Lay a few of these in a shallow soup bowl and fill with your favorite white or red chili. Top with grated cheese or chopped green onion.

Cooking for company? You might resort to a real recipe. Above is one that has been around for a long time with good reason.

Roasted Asparagus And Red Onion Quesadillas

Streamlined quesadillas, broiled to a golden turn, are plump with asparagus and peppery cheese and cooled by lime cream. Serve them whole for supper or in wedges for dramatic appetizers.

Quesadillas:

  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 large red onion, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices, separated into rings
  • Eight 7- to 8-inch flour tortillas
  • 10 ounces pepper Jack cheese, coarsely shredded
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • Cumin Lime Cream:
  • 2/3 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

For quesadillas: Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

In a large, shallow baking pan, toss asparagus with 1 1/2 teaspoons of the oil and salt and pepper to taste until coated well.

In another large, shallow baking pan, toss onion with 1 1/2 teaspoons of the oil until coated well. Roast vegetables in upper and lower thirds of oven, shaking pans occasionally and switching position of pans in oven halfway through baking, until tender and lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Cool vegetables and cut asparagus into 1/2-inch-thick slices.

Preheat broiler. Grease a large baking sheet. On sheet, arrange 4 tortillas in one layer and divide vegetables, pepper Jack and cilantro among them. Cover quesadillas with remaining 4 tortillas. Brush top tortillas with remaining 2 tablespoons oil and broil quesadillas about 3 inches from heat until golden brown, about 2 minutes. With a metal spatula, turn quesadillas over and broil until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Make cumin lime cream while quesadillas broil.

For Cumin Lime Cream: In a small bowl, whisk together well sour cream, cumin and lime juice. Cut quesadillas into wedges and serve with Cumin Lime Cream.

Serves 4 to 6.

Gourmet magazine

Virginia Phillips is a freelance writer and translator based in Mt. Lebanon.

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