Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tortilla Casserole - a Chance for Creative Layering

When I go to the Latin American markets on San Pablo in Berkeley or on San Leandro Blvd in San Leandro, I usually end up buying a 6-inch stack of about 60 corn tortillas (which is the medium size package. The large has over 100!). Even on a Mexican food weekend marathon that includes quesadillas, tacos and enchiladas, I typically eat less than half of the package, and the rest go in the freezer. Repeat this process over a few months, throw in a few purchases of fresh masa (3/4 of which immediately goes in the freezer) and it leads to freezer chaos.

One of my favorite solutions to the tortilla stockpile is tortilla casserole. It doesn't require ultra-fresh tortillas, travels well as a leftover to work for lunch, allows for improvisation, and even freezes well (if I remember my schoolwork properly, the first law of freezer-dynamics is something about conservation of freezer volume, or that freezer space cannot be created or destroyed, but only refilled.).

The process is similar to a lasagna: make a sauce, cook some vegetables, grate some cheese, prepare the starch layer (corn tortillas in this case---I would not recommend flour tortillas, unless you really like goo) and assemble and bake it.

As delicious and warming as it is, it is not photogenic, so you'll have to rely on your imagination to picture it coming together. And you can let your imagination guide you when preparing your own tortilla casserole, as the possible sauce and vegetable combinations are numerous.

The Sauce
For a 9" x 13" casserole (23 cm x 30 cm), you need about 8 cups of sauce (2 L). Some of my favorites are roasted tomatillo, tomato-chipotle, and tomato-red chile. Recipes for the sauces are in another post.

The Vegetables
The vegetables should be chopped in relatively small pieces (about 1 cm across), then partially pre-cooked. For a 9" x 13" pan, you need about 8 cups of raw vegetables. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Steamed or braised chard leaves, chopped fine.
  • Sauteed zucchini
  • Roasted butternut squash (peel, cut into cubes, toss with oil, place on a baking sheet, then bake at 450 F until tender)
  • Roasted poblano chiles (wash the chile, roast over a flame until blackened, put it in a covered pot to steam for 10 mintues, then peel off the blackened skin. Remove the stem and seeds, and cut into strips)
  • Once I used diced pieces of deep fried tofu. Different, but still good.
Keep them separate or mix them all together.

The Cheese
I use a melting cheese like Monterey Jack or mild Cheddar, and need about 2 cups for the 9x13 pan.

The Tortillas
The easiest way to prepare the tortillas is to remove them from the package and cut them in half. This results in a somewhat pudding-like texture, as they disintegrate in the sauce.

For more distinct tortillas, they can be pre-treated in the oven in the following way: Preheat oven to 300 F. Brush both sides of a corn tortilla with vegetable oil, then put on a cookie sheet in stacks of three or four. Bake for 10-15 minutes, flipping the piles once or twice, until tortillas are pliable.

Assembly, Baking and Serving
The assembly process is like lasagna: start with a coating of sauce on the baking dish, then a layer of tortillas, a layer of vegetables, some cheese, some sauce, and so on until you have four layers of tortillas. Top with sauce and melting cheese.

Bake at 350-400 F for about 30 or 40 minutes, until hot throughout. Cover the dish with foil for the 20 minutes, then finish the baking uncovered.

Serve with beans, a salad, and garnishes of chopped cilantro, crumbled queso anejo (an aged Mexican cheese), chopped white onion, and extra hot sauce.

Three Mexican sauces

This post contains the sauces referred to in my recent tortilla casserole post. With slight adjustments in consistency and seasoning, they each could also be a sauce for enchiladas, eggs with tortillas and garnishes, or chilaquiles (crisp tortillas, cheese and other items doused in sauce). The last sauce could be an excellent base for a spicy vegetable-noodle soup.

Roasted Tomatillo Sauce

2 lb. tomatillos
1/2 onion, chopped
3 serrano chiles
Several unpeeled garlic cloves
Chopped cilantro
Salt to taste

(Unit conversion page)


  1. Pan roast the garlic and chiles in a dry skillet over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning now and then, until they are soft and blackened in spots. Remove the peel from the garlic, and remove the stem from the chiles, and put them in a blender jar.

  2. Turn on the broiler.

  3. Peel the husks from the tomatillos, wash them, and place them in a shallow baking pan that has sides.

  4. Place tomatillos under the broiler, and cook, turning them once or twice, until softened and blackened. Let them cool for a few minutes, then put in a blender jar with the chiles and garlic.

  5. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, saute the onion in oil until soft, then scrape into the blender jar.

  6. Puree the tomatillo-chile-garlic-onion mixture until smooth, adding water if needed to keep the mixture moving. Use caution if the mixture is still hot.

  7. Return the saucepan to medium-high heat. Add some oil, let it heat up, then carefully pour in the contents of the blender jar---watch out for splattering! Stir the mixture, and turn the heat to medium-low. Let the sauce cook and reduce for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until it is thicker than an average tomato sauce.

  8. Turn off the heat, and pour in a few cups of water or broth to make about 8 cups. Add chopped cilantro and salt to taste (at least 1 teaspoon).

Red Chile - Tomato Sauce

7 dried pasilla or ancho chiles
3 New Mexico chiles
4 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1 t. oregano
Large can of whole peeled tomatoes (28 oz.)
Salt to taste

  1. Wipe the dust off of the chiles, and remove the stems and most of the seeds. Place the chiles in a bowl, and cover with hot water. Place a plate on top of them to keep them submedged. Let them sit for 30 minutes to rehydrate.

  2. In a small skillet, dry roast the garlic for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Remove from the pan, and let cool. When cool, remove the peel. Put the garlic cloves in a blender jar.

  3. Pull the chiles out of the water, and put them into the blender jar.

  4. Blend the garlic, chile mixture until smooth, adding the juice from the can of tomatoes if needed to keep the blades running.

  5. Push the chile mixture through a strainer into a bowl.

  6. Heat some vegetable oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, pour in the strained chile mixture, being careful to avoid any splatters. Cook the puree, stirring frequently, until it is the thickness of tomato sauce.

  7. While the chile puree is cooking, puree the tomatoes in the blender jar, then pour the puree into the saucepan. Cook for a few more minutes. Add enough water to make 8 cups. Salt to taste.

Red Chile - Tomato Sauce

4 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
A few chipotle chiles from a can
2 large cans of whole peeled tomatoes (28 oz. each)
1 onion, minced


  1. In a small skillet, dry roast the garlic for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Remove from the pan, and let cool. When cool, remove the peel. Put the garlic cloves in a blender jar.

  2. Put the chiles and tomatoes into the blender jar (it might take 2 batches). Blend until smooth.

  3. In a medium saucepan, heat some oil over medium heat. Cook the onion until soft, then pour in the tomato-chile puree. Cook for a few minutes. Add enough water to make 8 cups.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

You Are What You Eat Meme

I was tagged by Sury of (Lima) Beans and Delhi Cha(a)t for the You Are What You Eat meme [*]. In no particular order, today's top 10:

Wok-fried rice noodles - vegetables, herbs, garlic, and tofu cooked in a wok with rice noodles. Aromatic, spicy, infinitely variable, and an excellent way to use up odds and ends from the vegetable drawer. I prefer the lusciousness of fresh noodles, but it requires a special trip to Oakland's Asiatown to buy them, so I often use dry noodles. Some of my favorite flavor combinations include
  • lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and Thai soy sauce ("Healthy Boy" brand)
  • garlic, ginger, curry powder, and Chinese soy sauce
  • garlic, ginger, Japanese rice wine (mirin), and Japanese soy sauce
Artisanal bread - especially naturally leavened breads like Acme Bread's Pain au Levain (the journey from raw ingredients to loaf takes more than one day). The picture below is my home-made ciabatta (it takes thirty hours, of which about one is actual labor, the rest is waiting). When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area (a place lacking reasonably priced good bread---$7 for one loaf? I don't think so.), in a moment of bad judgment, I made a sourdough starter. It took a few days, careful attention, and about 15 pounds of flour to create the starter. And just a small temperature swing to kill it. I think I managed to make one good loaf, and then the starter collapsed. These days I let Acme deal with the sourdough.

Red chile enchiladas - I think the first time I tried these was a few years ago. It took a few tries to get them right, but now they are on my top 10 list. Deceptively simple---a humble corn tortilla dipped in a vibrant sauce of rehydrated dried red chiles and spices---the complexity of the flavor can be astonishing, especially when combined with roasted squash, black beans, and aged Mexican cheese.

Tomatillo salsa - slightly sour, spicy, rich with flavor, it is great on a flour or corn tortilla with a bit of melting cheese.

Dal- warm, interesting, easily modified for whatever ingredients are on hand, a dal soup or stew can be an amazing thing.

Cookies - especially chocolate gingerbread, shortbread, and ultra chocolate like Black Gold. I have a serious sweet tooth, and love most kinds of pastries, but there is something calming and uniquely satisfying about a good cookie---the way it breaks apart, the texture, the portability (eating a delicious cookie while on a break from a hike in the local parks is a great experience).

Insalata caprese - this simple salad of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, fresh basil, and fruity olive oil (and maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar) says summer to me. In the peak of tomato and basil season, it can be sublime, and I could probably eat it twice a day. But in the middle of winter at a (misguided) restaurant it is an atrocity.

Masala dosai - A thin, crispy pancake made from a naturally leavened batter of ground rice and lentils, stuffed with a spicy filling, and served with sambar and fresh coconut chutney. Along with sourdough starter, dosai are one of the foods that I am very hesitant to try cooking. Long before I learned about Indian food---and long before I had eaten a properly made dosa---I tried making them at home. Except for the part about measuring ingredients, I bungled every step of the process. Perhaps someday I'll try again---there are plenty of excellent Indian food bloggers who have posted recipes and tips.

Oranges - it is not easy picking a favorite fruit from the many that I enjoy, but I would have to say that oranges are my favorite. And by oranges I mean the range from tiny satsuma mandarins that almost peel themselves, to blood oranges, to the basic navel orange. Sweet, sour, and nutritious: a great combination.

Pizza - besides cookies, this is the only food of my childhood is on my top ten list. But the pizza of my childhood---loaded with bad sausage or pepperoni on an insipid crust---is nothing like what I make today. I have experimented with thin-crust home-made pizza for years, and my current technique is an amalgam: the dough is from the May/June 1995 Cooks Illustrated; the toppings are inspired by The Greens Cookbook or Chez Panisse Vegetables; and the technique is from the Cheese Board Collective Works. This week, though, I'm making a big break and trying the Peter Reinhart's pizza dough, as posted at 101 Cookbooks. The "Best Pizza Dough Ever" title for the post caught my attention, but when I saw that the water for the dough needed to be at 40 F (4 C) and the "rising" occurs in the refrigerator, how could I not try it? That instruction goes against most of what I know about yeast, but I will trust Mr. Reinhart (author of the award winning The Bread Baker's Apprentice).

To continue this meme, I'm tagging The Timid Cook, Anthony at Bachelor Cooking, Banana Tikka Masala, Avinash at Garam Masala, and Lynne J at Mixed Masala.

[*] The word meme is a shortening of mimeme, which is based on the Greek mimma, something imitated. The shortening from mimeme to meme is analogous to the shortening of genome (or genetics?) to gene.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Burrito Origins

Updated 2/15/15 with a link to a blog post about the earliest mention of a burrito in a restaurant review in the S.F. Chronicle.

In 1998, the Washington Post sent Peter Fox, one of the founders of the Burrito Brothers chain in Washington, D.C., on a search for the origin of the burrito. The story was published on Nov 4, 1998, but is no longer available for free to the general public. Wanting to view the story in its original format, I went to the public library to read it on microfilm (as an aside, it was a fun experience to scroll through the time-machine that is newspaper-on-microfilm. Nov 4 was the day after the 1998 national elections, so the front sections were filled with news and commentary about the mid-terms). If you love burritos, it is worth seeking the entire article either on-line or at the library. As a snack, here is a short summary of Fox's findings:

The trip began in the Mission District of San Francisco. Named after the over 200 year old Mission Dolores (which was featured in Hitchcock's classic film Vertigo), it is a predominantly Latino district. Tens of small restaurants, generally called Taquerias, sell variations of the San Francisco Burrito, which consists of flavored rice, beans, salsa, cheese and meat (or special vegetables) wrapped in a freshly-steamed flour tortilla and packaged in foil. Peter Fox talked to the owner of La Cumbre, which was founded in the late 1960s. Raul Duran initially ran a meat market and grocery, but after hearing from friends in Los Angeles that burritos were a sure moneymaker, he started offering them and eventually the burrito operation took over the whole shop.

Next, Fox went to Los Angeles, where the earliest burrito reference he could find was at El Tepeyec in East Los Angeles. They first appeared on the menu in 1954, and unlike the San Francisco burrito, they are served on plates and can be sauced to create a "wet burrito."

Fox went south to Tijuana, Mexico, where after a day or two of hunting around, found Restaurente del Bol Corona, an establishment with an all-burrito menu. These burritos were much smaller than those found at the previous two locations, and consited of only one or two fillings enclosed by a 12 in. flour tortilla---no rice, no guacamole, no sour cream. The restaurant started as a snack stand in 1934. The current owner, Leopoldo "Polo" Borquez thought that burritos originated in Alamos or Navojoa in Sonora, Mexico.

Fox's final stop was Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, just south of Arizona. Sonora is primarily an arid plain, and flour tortillas have been the standard since soon after the Spanish brought wheat to Mexico. Many street vendors in town sold burritos which looked like those served in Tijuana. Poncho Durazo, owner and founder (in 1939) of Restaurant Xochimilco, said that machaca burritos (machacar = "to pound or crush") are the Sonoran tradition. Filled with beef that has been dried in thin slices, then pounded and boiled to tenderness, machaca was a staple for those who had to live out in the wilderness for long periods---miners, ranchers, and cowboys. The burrito provided a portable meal that could be made from ingredients that could travel with them into the backcountry.

Fox concludes his article with this apt image:

As we followed the historical trail, and got closer and closer to the source, the burritos became smaller and smaller, and our favorite ingredients disappeared one by one. When we finally found what we thought was the original burrito, it was very different from the burritos we knew and loved. The burrito's evolution seemed like a cross-generational version of the children's game of telephone, in which a message is passed through so many people that the message at the end is completely different from the original.

For additional Burrito lore, visit Peter Fox's radio postcards for National Public Radio (Real audio streams at each link):
Burrito Odyssey, July 17, 1998
Burrito Trail, August 12, 1998
End of the Burrito Trail, September 3, 1998

Burritos! - a book about burrito history
Fiction - History of the California Burrito
The Food Timeline
A Wikipedia entry on the SF Burrito

Update, 2/15/15:
At the San Francisco Chronicle's web site, Peter Hartlaub is helping with a project called Our San Francisco, a collection of articles and blog posts about San Francisco's past and present. One of the sub-projects is called "First Word," where he searches the immense archives of the newspaper to find the first incidences of important words (note that the full archives aren't easily searchable by the general public, even those with access to superb academic libraries like U.C. Berkeley). Given the importance of the "Mission Burrito" to the culinary life of San Francisco, he decided to look for "burrito." He found the first burrito review in the S.F. Chronicle on December 2, 1973 and the place was actually not in the City, but in Los Altos on the southern end of the Peninsula. It was Estrellita at 971 San Antonio Road in Los Altos: "The house specialty is the burrito ($1.95 [$10.40 in 2014 dollars, using the BLS Inflation Calculator]), all beef, bean and beef, or chicken, accompanied by either salsa verde (homemade jalapeno sauce) or the more usual tomato-based sauce. In the case of the most popular of these, the beef burrito, you get an enormous platter that consists of a large rolled flour tortilla filled with nothing but chunks of beef in a delicious gravy...very filling, a meal in itself."

Interesting, but I wonder when burritos were first served in restaurants that never received reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle. I'd guess that most of the taqerias in the Mission District have never received more than a passing mention in the Chronicle.

Also, if the above history is correct, this statement of Hartlaub's is way off target: "I’ve been told the burrito may have originated from California field workers, not from Mexico. But it is a San Francisco tradition that dates back to the first half of the 20th Century."