Fast and Flexible: Flour tortillas go far beyond burritos and wraps

One of my Mexican cookbooks describes tortillas as “a food born out of the necessities of the primitive people.” I guess I’m still in a primordial stage because I frequently use flour tortillas as utensils and dishware. Tortilla wedges are my spoons for scooping up salad, dip or beans; flat, unleavened disks are my plates for just about anything that could rest happily between two slices of bread.

While tortillas are manna in Mexico – used to make fajitas, burritos, quesadillas, chimichangas or anything else rolled, stacked or folded – tortillas are also the most popular ethnic bread in the United States. They are available in every major supermarket and come in a variety of sizes and flavors like spinach, sun-dried tomato and basil, even chipotle chile. Americans have given the half-moon-shaped soft taco a blessing and adopted the wrap as a gourmet stand-in for plain old sandwiches.

Considering that the humble tortilla is my bread substitute, soup thickener and lasagna noodle stand-in, I’d consider it one of the most versatile foods in North America. My best culinary discovery has been the flour-tortilla-as-pie-crust. Veggie Pie is essentially a baked omelet with a crust of a single, store-bought tortilla. The recipe was born from a search to make leafy garden greens palatable to my family. I had all the ingredients for a frittata, but wanted a bit more carbs. Lacking potatoes (¡ay caramba!), I opted to go the quiche route, but didn’t want a rich, buttery crust. A couple of flour tortillas, leftover from the previous night’s burrito free-for-all, sat idle in the fridge. A tortilla made a good shell for a taco salad. Could it be an edible bowl for my egg mix?

The result of this improv looks like a cross between a quiche and a frittata, with golden edges, a filling of sautéed vegetables, eggs, cheeses and ham, speckled with green herbs and topped with a fancy Swiss cheese lattice weave. The latter is optional, but the striking presentation will earn a few extra oohs and ahhs at potlucks or brunches.

As with most savory pies, the ingredient list is fairly versatile. Veggie Pie is perfect for showcasing a spring harvest of baby greens, scallions, and fresh herbs like basil or chives. It’s also good for using up vegetables dying a slow death at the back of the crisper. Go ahead and replace the zucchini with sautéed mushrooms since they are such a tasty combo with ham and Swiss cheese; my own kids just won’t eat fungi – yet. As far as the crust goes, I’ve used multigrain and regular flour varieties, both with good results.

Being a bit of a health nut, I’m keen to point out the nutritional benefits of my pie. The crust, one 10-inch flour tortilla, contains a total of 173 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. A 9-inch traditional flour/butter crust holds a whopping 648 calories and 41 grams of fat. While I’m sure you won’t eat the entire pie yourself, you can enjoy my pie regularly without fear of increasing your waistline. In fact, you’ll feel pretty good about your veggie consumption!

The crust trick works with desserts, too. I’ve used it on pumpkin pies and there wasn’t a slice left. When you’ve got nothing to snack on, rub a tortilla with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and toast it for a few minutes. It will come out perfectly crispy and satisfy any sweet tooth.

When the pantry is dry and the breadbox is empty, resourceful cooks can count on the tortilla to save them. Cut or crumbled, baked or toasted, this south-of-the-border staple offers culinary secrets just waiting for you to discover.