Alimentary, My Dear
By Tamia Nelson
September 23, 2008
The Greyhound bus had more riders than it had seats, and the Plains rolled by endlessly outside the hermetically sealed windows. We’d been a long time on the road since Amarillo, and everyone was getting fidgety. The weather-beaten young man sitting next to me stuck his legs out into the aisle. His stomach growled. He glanced my way, grinned apologetically, and struggled to find the words he needed in a language that was not yet his own: “We stop soon, no?” He nodded at the crumpled schedule in his hand. I glanced at the tiny print and shook my head. “No,” I replied, “not for a while.” His stomach growled again, and mine soon joined in. Still, things could have been worse. The next stop might be many hours away, but I’d come prepared.
I gestured to my companion, pointing at the overhead storage rack. He moved aside, and I stood up, groping for my rucksack. I found it, more by touch than sight, and hauled it over the rail. Inside, right on top, was a grocery bag. It held a thick plastic envelope of flour tortillas, a large block of jack cheese, and a jar of salsa. Using my flattened rucksack as a table, I laid out the feast, then invited my seat mate to join me. A broad smile creased his face, and the next few miles passed quickly as we made a simple meal of sliced cheese and salsa rolled in tortillas. In between bites, my companion told me about his mother in Mexico and how she made tortillas, how the family ate tortillas at every meal, and how he and his brothers would tuck folded tortillas into their pockets whenever they went out to work in the fields. “You know,” he concluded, “you will never go hungry when you have a tortilla in your pocket.” And the broad smile once again creased his face.
That sums it up neatly, I think. You can pretty much live on tortillas, and a lot of people do. Tortillas are among the world’s most popular breadstuffs. Paddlers take note: tortillas are ideal traveling fare. They’re versatile, tasty, and inexpensive. Moreover, they’re now available in almost every HyperMart in the Americas, and in a lot of ser sta gros, as well. (If “ser sta gro” doesn’t ring any bells for you—and it probably won’t if you haven’t read John Graves’ Goodbye to a River—substitute “convenience store.”) You can even make your own tortillas if you’re so inclined.
OK. What is a tortilla, anyway? Simply put, it’s a flatbread, rolled or patted into a paper-thin round measuring anything from a couple of inches across on up. (Most run six to twelve inches in diameter.) Traditionally, tortillas are made from corn meal or wheat flour (both white and whole-wheat), water and salt, and nothing more—though you can now find flavored ones on the shelves of many HyperMarts. To keep tortillas fresh for long periods, it’s best to refrigerate them, but it’s perfectly safe to hold flour and water tortillas at room temperature for days (or even weeks—be guided by the sell-by date). Another plus: tortillas are flat and thin. They won’t be smashed in your pack, and there’s no need to carry a bicycle pump to re-inflate them. But beware of mold. Always keep your tortillas dry!
Of course, durability is one thing. Palatability is something else. Luckily, though, you can…
Eat Tortillas All Day Long
From breakfast to late-night snacks, tortillas fit the bill. Take them on day trips, weekend adventures, and long expeditions. Eat them plain with hearty stews and soups. (Folded tortillas make great sponges to sop up juices and sauces.) Or roll them up and cram them with fillings. They’re good eaten right out of the package, too, though they’re even better once they’re heated. They lend themselves to toasting in a dry skillet or on the grill, or you can crisp them in hot oil, simmer them in a sauce or soup, or bake them in a reflector oven. The bottom line? Whether you’re a whole-hearted vegetarian or a part-time carnivore, you can find a place for tortillas in your menu plan. Corn or flour, flavored or plain… The choice is yours.
Now’s as good a time as any for me to add a few of what the food industry calls “serving suggestions.” Consider the following:
Tortillas for Breakfast How about a tortilla breakfast sandwich? Make fajitas by scrambling a pan of eggs—bulk them out with bacon bits (the real thing or a soy substitute) or cooked breakfast sausage—then roll the eggs in the tortillas. If it’s a cold morning, and if you need help keeping the icy fog out of your bones, up the temperature with hot salsa or another hot sauce. In the mood for something more substantial? Then heat eggs as if you were making an omelette, adding cheese and chopped vegetables. Don’t fold over the cooked eggs when they’re done, though. Instead, place the almost-omelette onto a tortilla of similar size and roll it up into a tidy package. You’ve just made a fajita.
Not in the mood for eggs? Then butter tortillas on one side and toast them in a hot skillet until they begin to puff up and get crispy. Next, slide them onto plates and sprinkle with sugar (white or brown) and cinnamon, or smear them with jam or honey, or drizzle with maple syrup and top with some fresh berries or chopped walnut meats. Or stew some dried fruit and make a sweet roll out of it. Eat as is, or if the fruit is really saucy, drizzle the sauce over your sweet fajitas and eat them with a knife and fork (or knife and spoon). You don’t want to cook? Then wrap fresh fruit in a buttered flour tortilla and sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon. No butter? No problem. Use a substitute. Jam, nut butter, or applesauce will all work well.
Tortillas as Snacks or Garnishes Tortilla chips are popular snacks. Just check the shelves in any HyperMart. But good as they are, store-bought chips aren’t great paddling companions. They’re easily crushed, for one thing, and they take up a lot of space in your pack. That’s not much of a problem on day trips, but on longer excursions you may want to make your own chips from scratch, right in camp. Just crisp tortillas in hot oil in a skillet, remove them, allow the excess oil to drain off, and sprinkle with salt and seasoning (chili powder is a favorite, as is cinnamon sugar). Now break the crisped tortillas into large pieces and enjoy. Or try this approach: Oil tortillas on both sides and sprinkle with salt and any other seasonings you like, then cut them into triangles and place these in a single layer on a baking sheet that’s sized to fit in your reflector oven. Bake until slightly brown. Eat out of hand, or use as garnishes on soups and stews. Crisped tortillas also make good scoops for anything you’d eat with a spoon.
Tortillas, Cold and Hot, for Lunch and Supper Crisps are always welcome here, too, but tortillas can do a lot more. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. These versatile flatbreads can be folded or wrapped around anything that won’t ooze out: peanut butter and jelly, meat and cheese, spreads of every description. Assemble your tortillas-to-go in the morning before you hit the water, then pack in a rigid box, along with fruit and cookies. Notwithstanding the claims of many anglers, there’s no better shore lunch.
Dinnertime? Consider tostadas. Make them by crisping tortillas. Corn is the traditional choice here, but you can use flour tortillas if you prefer. The crisped tortilla is the tostada, and it serves as a plate surrogate. Pile on whatever you want: satays, beans and rice, salad… The only rule? Don’t build the pile too high. If you do, your dinner will likely end up in your lap. Variations? Sure. How about individual pizzas? Choose whatever toppings you fancy and prepare according to the directions in “Home-Cooked Meals in Camp.” They’re simple and good. Quesadillas are easy to make, too. Place fillings between two tortillas, or fold a single tortilla around the filling.
Then cook in hot oil in a covered skillet until crispy. I’ve described the technique and suggested some fillings in “Fast Food Under Way.”
Fajitas? Roll tortillas around satays, cooked sausages, hot dogs, hunks of cheese, stew, rice and beans, or grilled fresh veggies. Whatever you can trap in the rolled tortilla is fair game. Dress it up with salsa if desired. The secret to success with fajitas is to avoid overfilling them. Eat over a plate or bowl to be safe. If real gluttony is the order of the day, however, consider soft tacos instead. Place fillings on half of each tortilla, then fold over the other half. Easy. But be warned—you can still overload them.
Ambitious camp chefs may want to tackle burritos. Think of these as baked fajitas. It’s a good test of your reflector-oven skills. Roll up fillings inside tortillas, place them seam-side down in an oiled pan, and sprinkle grated cheese on top of each one. Now bake until the cheese is bubbling hot. It’s a hearty meal for a cold day in a rainy camp.
What’s for Dessert? Tortillas! Surprised? I’ll bet you’re not. Where to begin? One of my favorites is a sort of faux strudel. Spread a thin layer of butter (or whatever substitute strikes your fancy) on one side of a tortilla. Now sprinkle brown sugar, cinnamon, and chopped walnuts on one half. (Keep the buttered face up.) If you have apples—fresh or dried—chop one up and add it, too. Fold the tortilla over, enclosing the filling. Then heat a little oil in a skillet. Once it’s shimmering, slide the tortilla into the hot oil. Cover and cook for a minute or two before flipping it over. (Careful!) When the second side is puffy and browned—it may char, but that won’t hurt the flavor—your dessert is done. Eat it like a taco or cut it into wedges. Delicious! Use the same technique to make other sweet treats. If you want, you can make a sandwich of two tortillas instead of folding one in half. It’s harder to flip, though.
More? Sure! Better yet, make that s’more. Follow the faux strudel recipe above, but fill with chocolate chips or shaved chocolate, instead, along with mini marshmallows. Or use marshmallow whip (if you must). Not a marshmallow fan? Then spread peanut butter on a tortilla, sprinkle with chocolate bits, and make a PBC. You’re not nuts about nuts? Substitute raspberry jam for the peanut butter. A hint: try dark chocolate, too.
In a hurry? Then combine sweetness and substance with a cheese and fruit-filled tortilla. Build it like the strudel, but with blue cheese and chopped dried peaches. Dried cherries and cheddar are another tasty pairing. Or how about goat cheese and chopped fresh figs? Crisp the tortillas on both sides and cut into quarters. Serve with a tot of port from a handy flask. It’s an elegant ending to any paddling day.
We’ve come a long way from a seat in a crowded Greyhound bus, haven’t we? Don’t worry, though. Tortillas can go the distance.