Wrapped up in tortillas Move over burgers and pizza, this ethnic bread is all the rage

May 05, 1993|By Rosemary Black | Rosemary Black,New York Daily News

My children turn up their noses if hamburger appears in too many guises in any given week. Chicken elicits a chorus of "Again?" The bloom is even off pizza, probably because we eat it so often that the pizzeria owner knows my order by heart.

But tortillas -- corn or wheat, stuffed or rolled, fried or baked with a filling -- are the key to a peaceful dinner. No complaints, no mutiny -- and seconds for all. For me, tortillas 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 100-member Tortilla Industry Association, a 3-year-old trade group in Encino, Calif.

In the last decade, annual tortilla sales jumped from $300 million to more than $1.5 billion. Mr. Steinberg estimates that in 1993, sales will surpass the $2 billion mark.

CNearly 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.

And now that President Clinton's favorite dish has been so well-publicized (the famous enchilada recipe even appeared in my son's school newsletter), tortillas are likely to get even hotter.

They're 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," Mr. 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 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."

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!," published by St. Martin's Press last month, offers 75 enticing recipes using corn and flour tortillas -- everything from tacos and nachos to burritos and chimichangas.

Barbara Swanson, the book's co-author with Pat Sparks, says 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," Ms. 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 Mr. Clinton's favorite.

Bill Clinton's favorite recipe

Makes 15 enchiladas.

2 (4-ounce) cans green chilies

vegetable oil

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

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