Ten years ago, Ted's aunt and uncle retired to Ajijic, a town on the north shore of Lake Chapala, due south of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Ajijic (pronounced ah-hee-HEEK) is a quirky little town, a mix of English-speaking ex-pats, locals, and wealthy Guadalajara residents looking for a weekend escape from the city. Though there's a Costco in "Guad", in Ajijic everyone shops at small, more traditional markets.
Best of all, just a few hundred yards downhill from aunt-and-uncle's house is a tiny storefront tortilleria, a tortilla bakery, where every morning the aroma of freshly-made tortillas pulls you in. Purchase a dozen for a few pesos; eat them the same day; buy more the next morning.
A tortilla -- the kind I keep in my pantry -- is an unleavened flatbread, made from corn or wheat flour, that originated in Mexico. (The Spanish tortilla, after which this tortilla was named, is a thick, layered omelet, often made with potatoes.)
Though wheat tortillas are popular in northern Mexico, they are a fairly recent invention. From ancient times, tortillas have been made from corn cured in lime water; the process, called nixtamalization, causes the skin of the corn kernels to peel off, which increases the nutritional value by activating the niacin and tryptophan in the corn.
Overall, corn tortillas contain only half as many calories, fat and carbs as their wheat-flour cousins, but recently those of us who are carb-challenged have been able to enjoy low-carb flour tortillas made by several companies. My newest passion, a true shadow of the basic flour tortilla and available in my local supermarket, is Joseph's brand wheat-oat bran-flax tortilla, with 70 calories and just 5 net carbs. With the carbs reduced, tortillas seem to lose a bit of their heft, so they're not wonderful for heavy fillings, but they're perfect for quesadillas.
All supermarkets now offer a selection of tortillas, often in the dairy section of the store. That's where I find the low-carb wonders that may be better for my health, but cost a whopping $3.29 for 6 tortillas.
If you live near a city and don't know of a local market, ask your favorite Latino restaurant where to shop. That's how I found a terrific Latino market in Providence that sells packages of 50 six-inch blue corn or white corn tortillas for less than $1.00. With a bit more asking around, I found a small tortilleria on Atwells Avenue in the Olneyville neighborhood.
For the longest time I limited my use of tortillas to Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. But, like my wonton epiphany, I've learned a secret about tortillas. They are dough. Dough that has been mixed and rolled thin. Dough that can hold things, cover things, and layer with other things, such as sandwiches and roll-ups and pizza and pinwheels.
Moo shu chicken
The incredible flexible tortilla stands in for Chinese pancakes in this restaurant favorite dish, adapted from the Tortilla Industry Association web site. Substitute leftover cooked or store-bought rotisserie chicken, if you prefer. Serves 8.
8 flour tortillas (steamed or warmed in a microwave)
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, julienned
PAM or other canola spray
1 Tbsp fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
2 Tbsp shao hsing wine or sherry
2-3 oz bamboo shoots, julienned
2-3 oz mung bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
6-8 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, julienned
2-3 Chinese dried fungus, reconstituted, julienned, soaking liquid reserved
20 lily buds, reconstituted, tied in knot
3 Tbsp black bean garlic sauce
3 Tbsp soy sauce
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Cornstarch or arrowroot, as needed
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
Marinate meat in soy, ginger, and wine or sherry, for 20 minutes to 1 hour. Heat wok, add PAM, and cook the chicken. Add mushrooms, cook, then add fungus and lily buds. Cook, then add bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. Mix well and finally add in mushroom soaking liquid. Thicken with cornstarch or arrowroot mixed with a bit of water. Add black bean sauce, soy sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Thicken if needed with a bit of cornstarch dissolved in water. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning. Top with green onion.
To serve, lay a steamed tortilla on a plate. Spread lightly with hoisin sauce. Place 1-2 tablespoons of chicken mix, spreading evenly across the diameter of the tortilla. Roll the tortilla like a burrito and it is ready to eat.
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