If your house is a anything like mine, about three weeks into the school year, your kids seems to suddenly dislike all the lunches you packed for them last year. Starting in middle school, most kids have access to microwaves, so they can quickly heat whatever you send, making ready-to-eat meals from the supermarket really tempting. They’re convenient, and there’s variety, and well, they appear to be healthy enough (usually very high in salt, read “sodium” on the label)… actually, pretty costly way to go, these meals-in-a-box run easily $5/each, with more economical alternatives available that are high in fat and additives.
If you keep tortillas at the ready, its easy enough to turn last night’s dinner into tomorrow’s lunch and, consider this: tortillas are inherently lower in carbs and calorie than bread, and are also appealing for many types of foods, such as wraps, quesadillas and of course, that TexMex favorite, burritos. Besides a handy place to “wrap” leftover steak or chicken pieces, complete with your child’s favorite barbeque sauce or even ketchup, tortillas make a great tuna wrap (put a leaf of lettuce between the tortilla and whatever “sauce” you are using, mayo, etc, so the tortilla doesn’t get soggy). Try “red” (tomato) tortillas, the color is a sure kid-pleaser. Here are some easy ways to leave the loaf behind (and the coolest part is, your kids can help, or even make their own!). To really get them excited, take a field trip to La Palma, where you and your child can watch as the tortillerias (ladies who make tortillas) are hard at work, making tortillas by hand right in front of you (almost as much fun as watching those tortilla machines at Chevy’s!) Note: go before noon, as they stop making tortillas about midday.
Easy Quesadillas Suizas (from the kitchens of Tres Señoritas Gourmet):
Did you know that there are two kinds of quesadillas? Quesadillas Suiszas are the ones with which you are probably most familiar, made from flour tortillas and melted cheese, sometimes with additional filling like chicken or carne asada. Then, there are quesadillas made with corn tortillas and queso fresco. These are more typical in most of Mexico, and can be found, with any luck, from one of the señoras on Mission street corners in the early mornings-midday.
Use Queso Oxaca (which is very similar to mozzeralla, you can substitute if you like) and a really good tortilla and you won’t even want to add other ingredients! Use your comal to heat your flour tortilla, making sure the comal is really hot. Flip the tortilla as soon as it begins to puff up, and add the cheese (generously) to one half, leave open for a few minutes as the cheese begins to melt, then remove quickly from the comal and fold over. At school, 30 seconds in the microwave does it. To make sure your quesadilla is a real taste delight, use handmade tortillas, available at La Palma or make your own with your child, a great weekend project and prelude to Monday lunch.
Instructions for Hand-made Tortillas
- I recommend the cast-iron tortilla press, as opposed to aluminum, which is too light or the wooden type, which is harder to use. To prep for use, clean gently wash with mild soap and water. Dry immediately. Do not scour or use harsh chemicals as this may damage the finish. Available at La Palma on 24th and Florida for $15.50 or on-line at MexiGrocer.com for $18.95 and their check-out only added $1 to our shipping and handling when ordered together with the comal!
- Masa get your masa, which is the dough you’ll need, ready-made and warm at La Palma- (but don’t try to get in the door if there’s any kind of Latino holiday around the corner, the line on Christmas Eve is all the way down the block). Or, buy Maseca brand corn flour for tortillas (read the bag carefully, there is also “corn flour for tamales” which is something different) and experiment with making your own masa, following the easy directions on the bag, this can really be fun to do with kids, sort of like playing with PlayDo. Be prepared to experiment a bit until you get the consistency just right.
You’ll want to experiment with different sized balls of dough and the pressure you use on the press, which determines the thinness of your tortilla. Like that awful standard of American beauty, your tortillas can never be too thin. Having said that, if they are, too thin, that is, you won’t be able to peel them off the press without breakage (a sort of tortilla anemia). Practically Edible (which claims to be the web’s food encyclopedia) explains the process perfectly,
“Cover the base of the tortilla press with a piece of plastic wrap, waxed paper or grease-proof paper (some thrifty people just cut open plastic bread bags and use them.) Some say that they find the plastic wrap or plastic bags the best of all (Editor’s note: we agree!). You put a small ball of … masa on it, in the centre, and cover the dough with another sheet of plastic wrap. Lower the top part of the press on it, and press down with the handle. Open the press up, lift off the top layer of plastic. Flip the tortilla onto the palm of your hand, unwrapped side down, with the side that still has plastic on it up. Peel off that remaining layer of plastic, and flip the tortilla onto the heated comal (griddle) waiting for it. Re-use the plastic wrap or waxed paper for the other ones you need to make.”
For added nutrition, layer with well-fried beans (a great source of protien, fiber and full of antioxidants) just before your fold the quesadilla over- here’s an easy recipe, add epazote to elminate flatulence:
Well-fried beans (they are not actually called “refried beans” because they were never fried in the first place) are best when made from homemade frijoles a la olla or clay-pot beans, traditionally stewed overnight in a cazuela to impart authentic flavor. Well-fried beans can also be made from canned beans, either pinto or black. Sautee about a 1/4 or less of Spanish white onion in a little vegetable oil, add a clove of minced garlic and the beans and epazote (an herb available at Casa Lucas, 24th and Florida) along with some of their broth. Simmer over a medium high flame for about ten minutes, to allow flavors to penetrate, adding more of the bean broth if needed so as not to allow the beans to dry out, and salt to taste. Remove from flame and mash, the flat part of a wooden meat hammer works well, until the beans are puree in texture but still have some whole of half pieces left.
Kid-friendly pinwheels are a great idea if your child is at the age where what their food looks like is still a real draw. Take a flour tortilla (these tend to taste better cold than corn tortillas) and layer it with colorful and color-contrasting ingredients, like peanut butter and jelly; ham and cheese; and roll. Then slice crosswise to create pinwheels, and invidially wrap in plastic wrape. Sure to please. Try different colored tortillas (green is made with spinach, red with tomatoes, a sneaky way to just a little more veggies to their meal).
Tortilla Pizza- just a block over from La Palma is La Spiga de Oro on 24th between Florida and Alabama Sts. There, they sell handmade tortillas estilo Guatemala (the way they make them in Guatemala, El Salvador and most of Central America). These are thicker than the Mexican-style tortillas you are accustomed to seeing and make a great pizza base (see photo). Let you child make thier own the night before, and they’ll be sure to eat their lunch (after showing it off to all their schoolmates).