SLAP SOME BEANS into them, and dinner is served -- right?
You must be thinking of the tortillas of yesteryear.
Never mind that you'll choose between white, whole wheat or corn, burrito-size, sandwich-size and mini-tillas. Today, those thin discs of dough indigenous to Southwestern cooking fold around fillings from fajitas to fish sticks. They can loosely wrap a handful of something portable, and they can be downright stuffed -- and variously dipped, deep-fried or toasted, even laden with sweets and served as a trendy mealtime finale.
And why not, ask Victoria Wise and Susanna Hoffman, authors of "The Well-Filled Tortilla" (Workman, $9.95.) The "irrepressible tortilla," they call it. After you've thumbed through nearly 300 pages of recipes, ideas and tips, you'll wonder how Wonder Bread holds its own.
"Tacos have swept the country," says Hoffman during a high-speed rhapsody regarding her favorite bread. Foods wrapped in tortillas rival the hamburger for popularity today -- and with good reason, she says:
* They're a basis for great meatless meals, filled with anything from beans or fried green tomatoes to grilled eggplant.
* Tortillas are a break from the usual meat-on-bun theme. "Face it, they're fun," Hoffman says.
* They're versatile, especially where vegetables are concerned. "They're really a 'wet salad,'" she explains.
"And they're delicious. They don't require sitting at the table to enjoy them, which is something the average person doesn't do any more."
"Pancake cuisine," she calls them.
The largely international book that Hoffman, a part-time anthropologist, co-wrote with fellow restaurateur Wise, bespeaks a worldliness not expected of an unassuming peasant bread with predominantly Mexican roots.
The co-authors' backgrounds helped. Wise and Hoffman were involved in the development of Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant that largely gave birth to "California cuisine." Although they went on to open the Good & Plenty Cafe, a more down-to-Earth eatery in Oakland, neither lost her knack for turning humble staples into grandiose meals.
"We wanted to do an international book about something fairly commonplace," Hoffman said, rattling off a list of recipes in the book with Chinese, Middle Eastern and European roots. Stir-fries and stews are in great abundance here, because that's how working people eat the world over.
"In some ways, 'pancake cuisines' came from people who, like ourselves, were on the move -- herdsmen, often, who ate quickly, and hearth cuisine, formed by ancient families who moved through the kitchen at different times and ate on the move.
"Now, today we may not be herding cattle, and our fields may be cement fields, but in a great many ways our lives are comparable. Anything we can do for convenience, we can't afford to overlook."
The tortilla's best friend is salsa, which is loaded with flavor- and nutrient-packed vegetables in an extremely low-calorie dish. ("The modern way of saucing today," Hoffman declares. "If you have some (salsa) in the refrigerator, it's like having money in the bank.")
Yes, the book is laced with salsa recipes, just as the pages also include basic recipes for flour and corn tortillas, tips for making chips, lore and useful information.
But mostly, the aim is fun uses for a casual food.
"We think people will mostly buy them -- tortillas, and probably salsa -- rather than make them themselves," Hoffman says. "Fortunately, so many good products are coming out. We just want to share good ideas for one of the greatest convenience foods around."
Grilled Beef Fajitas
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lime juice, divided use
2 1/2 to 3 pounds shirt steak
2 large, ripe avocados
1 red bell pepper, cut in half, seeds and veins removed
1 yellow bell pepper, cut in half, seeds and veins removed
1 green bell pepper, cut in half, seeds and veins removed
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
8 flour tortillas, 8 to 10 inches in diameter, warmed
1 cup sour cream
Garnish: tomato salsa
In a medium bowl, combine garlic, oil and two tablespoons lime juice. Add steak and marinate one hour.
Peel and coarsely mash avocados. Stir in remaining lime juice until well combined; cover and set aside.
Start barbecue. If using charcoal, wait until 80 percent of coals are covered with gray ash. Place skirt steak, peppers and onions on grid about six inches above coals. Grill meat six to eight minutes for medium rare. Grill the pepper halves and onion slices until cooked through and softened. Remove steak; slice into one-half-inch pieces on the diagonal. Separate onion slices into rings; cut pepper halves into strips.
Presentation: Lay warmed tortilla on plate. Spread about one-quarter-cup mashed avocado down center. Arrange slices of steak, pepper strips and onion rings down center. Top with tomato salsa and sour cream, if desired. Fold tortilla in half and serve.
Makes six to eight tortillas.
Savory Baked Fish
2 1/4 pounds fish steaks, fillets or chunks, such as red snapper, rock cod, sea bass, shark or tuna