Cinco de Mayo is a perfect time to throw a mid-week fiesta for your family or friends. Top the table with a serape, borrow mariachi music from the library and serve your favorite Mexican dish.
That means you'll need tortillas.
Tortillas - corn or wheat, stuffed or rolled, fried or baked with a filling - are the key to an authentic Mexican dinner.
They also possess qualities that make a working mother's life a bit easier at mealtime - they're cheap, nutritious and ready to eat in less time than it takes a pizza to arrive at the doorstep. For kids, they epitomize a near- perfect food: trendy, novel, able to be eaten quickly (and with the fingers).
Tortillas aren't just for kids, though. Sales of the pancake-thin ethnic bread are growing about 15 percent a year, according to Irwin Steinberg, executive director of the Tortilla Industry Association, a three-year-old trade group in Encino, Calif., with 100 members.
In the last decade, annual tortilla sales rocketed from $300 million to more than $1.5 billion. Steinberg estimates that in 1993, sales will surpass the $2 billion mark.
Nearly two-thirds of tortillas are sold to restaurants and schools; as they have grown more popular, tortillas have started showing up in the school cafeteria, in non-Mexican sit-down restaurants, and in non-Mexican fast-food chains. McDonald's now offers a breakfast burrito and (at lunch and dinner) chicken fajitas.
Tortillas are hot, industry observers say, for a couple of reasons.
"Obviously, the increasing influx of Hispanics into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America has a lot to do with it," Steinberg says. "There's been a big increase in the number of Mexican restaurants opening in this country, so people are more familiar with Mexican food.
"People are getting bored with pizza and Chinese," says Jackie Germano, co-owner of the Whole Enchilada, a Mexican storefront restaurant in New York that turns out everything from deep-fried tortilla chips to shrimp quesadillas to a dessert consisting of a fried tortilla stuffed with cherries or diced apples and coated with powdered sugar.
"Mexican food - especially tortillas - is filling that void," Germano notes.
Tortilla fans in California are able to buy fresh tortillas at supermarket in-store bakeries called tortillerias, as ubiquitous there as in-store delis are in the East, where packaged fresh tortillas - usually displayed near the refrigerated cookie dough and ready-to-use pie crusts - are becoming more widely available. To keep up with the competition, Old El Paso, the largest maker of shelf-stable tortillas, has introduced a soft-taco dinner kit. (It consists of 10 soft flour tortillas, sauce and a seasoning mix; the consumer just adds ground beef.)
"Both this and our hard taco kit are doing equally well," notes Pat Dwyer, senior product manager for Old El Paso, which is owned by Pet Inc.
If you've never eaten tortillas before, these kits can be a good introduction, because they offer recipes with explicit introductions and are easier to make than Hamburger Helper.
But tortillas offer such a wide range of mealtime options that it's
worthwhile experimenting with different fillings, cheeses and toppings.
Flour tortillas, which are soft and measure anywhere from 6 to 12 inches or even 18 inches for a burrito grande, generally are used to make flautas, chimichangas, quesadillas and burritos. Corn tortillas, usually about 6 inches in diameter, are used in enchiladas, tostadas, huevos rancheros, tacos and nachos.
A book titled "Tortillas!," to be published by St. Martin's Press in April, offers 75 enticing recipes using corn and flour tortillas - everything
from tacos and nachos to burritos and chimichangas.
Says Barbara Swanson, co-author with Pat Sparks, tortillas can be rolled, folded, made into chips and pieces, left flat and heaped with toppings, used as scoops, edible spoons or even as disposable plates.
"Only the limits of imagination stop the inventing," Swanson says. "And tortillas seem to bring out the best among family members and friends gathered to eat. With tortillas, anything goes!"
Here go some easy recipes using tortillas, starting with President Clinton's favorite.
BILL CLINTON'S FAVORITE RECIPE
2 (4-ounce) cans green chilies
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes
2 cups chopped onion
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon oregano
3 cups shredded cooked chicken
2 cups dairy sour cream
2 cups grated Cheddar cheese
15 corn tortillas
Remove seeds from chilies and chop them. In large skillet, heat small amount of oil. Add chilies and garlic and saute. Drain and break up tomatoes. Reserve 1/2 cup liquid. Add tomatoes, onion, 1 teaspoon salt, oregano and reserved tomato liquid to the chilies and garlic. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until thick. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
Combine the chicken with the sour cream, grated Cheddar cheese and other teaspoon of salt.
Heat 1/3 cup oil, dip tortillas in oil until they become limp. Drain well on poaper towels.
Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees. Fill the tortillas with chicken mixture. Roll them up and arrange side by side, seam down, in a 9x13-inch baking dish. Pour chili sauce over enchiladas and bake about 20 minutes, or until heated through. Makes 15 enchiladas.
2 cups ground beef filling (recipe follows)
6 (9-inch) flour tortillas
3/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 cup sour cream
1 cup guacamole
1/4 cup salsa picante
Spoon 1/3 cup of the meat filling down the center of each tortilla and fold it over, envelope-style. Fry in a deep-fat fryer or in 1 inch hot oil in a skillet over high heat, turning until the tortilla is golden. It takes 1-2 minutes. Drain. Keep in warm oven until all chimichangas are fried.
Serve with garnishes. Makes 4 servings.
GROUND BEEF FILLING
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
In large skillet, brown meat over medium-high heat. Drain excess fat. Add onion and garlic and cook until they are tender and transparent. Add remaining ingredients and simmer, uncovered, until thickened, about 10 minutes.