Using stale tortillas and tortilla chips as the basis of a tasty meal might sound a bit "county fair" at first. But the clever use of good masa is no deep-fried butter carnival trick. A few leftover tortillas or half a bag of slightly over-the-hill chips are handy ingredients that can be turned into delicious and authentic dishes.
Tortillas themselves are a study in kitchen frugality. The first tortillas were made of corn and were a clever way to preserve this essential staple crop of ancient Mexico. Corn, often called maize, was dried for storage to provide food beyond the harvest season. The dried corn kernels were soaked in water and limestone to soften them. The tough outer membrane was removed and the inside of the kernel was ground by hand to make masa, the corn dough that is used to make tortillas but also tamales, empanadas, arepas and more. In the case of tortillas, masa is formed into a golf ball shape and rolled or pressed in a tortilla press to make a thin cake.
When Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, arrived in what is now known as Mexico, he named the cakes, "tortilla," after the Spanish word, "torta," which means little cake. Although tortillas would travel north with the spread of European colonization, the ingredients and labor-intensive technique have stayed the same until relatively recently. It wasn't until WWII that mechanized corn grinders relieved tortilla makers of the backbreaking work of hand-grinding the corn into masa. And each tortilla was individually hand-formed until the 1960s when the first small-scale tortilla presses whirred into action. Today, the majority of tortillas are mass-produced. However, a growing interest in handmade food, coupled with the rising popularity of gourmet food trucks, specifically the taco truck, has created new demand for hand-pressed tortillas.
Finding Good Tortillas and Chips
Good corn tortillas and chips can and should be made with very few ingredients. For tortillas you need just corn, calcium hydroxide (from limestone), and perhaps salt. Corn chips are also made with these ingredients and are fried in oil. Without a lot of additives and preservatives, they are one of the lesser evils of the snack aisle. However, two of their main ingredients - corn and oil (particularly if it's corn or canola oil) - are the most commonly genetically modified organisms (GMOs). To avoid GMOs in your nachos (and other foods), look for tortillas and chips that are certified Organic. Currently, the National Organic Standard is the only certification that guarantees foods are GMO free.
Using Up Stale Tortillas and Chips
Once you've got your hands on some solid tortillas or chips, you want to get the most out of them. Here are some ideas that will help you use them up:
- Make Your Own Chips: Want to make your own chips? It couldn't be easier and it's a great way to use up stale tortillas.
- Make Migas: Migas, a scramble of eggs and torn tortilla pieces, is a breakfast game changer.
- Revive Stale Chips: Stale tortilla chips can be revived in a 400 degree oven. Just spread them out on a cookie sheet and pop in the oven for five to ten minutes and they will crisp right back up.
- Use Them in Tortilla Soup: Tortilla soup - or any soup. I love them smashed into bits and stirred into a hot bowl of posole. But don't limit yourself to Mexican fare: fresh tomato soup, squash bisque or chowder would all be great with tortilla chips.
Or you can make one of my favorite Mexican dishes, chilaquiles. Chilaquiles is one of those meals that is both comforting and zesty, part breakfast, part lunch and filling enough to be dinner. I've done the dish here as a casserole so you can feed the whole family. Topped with a fried egg or some pulled pork or chicken, it's Mexican comfort food at its finest.
50 stale tortilla chips, about 4-5 ounces
2 cups salsa verde (from the recipe that follows or purchased)
1 large egg
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated (about 4 ounces)
Optional toppings: fried eggs, warm pulled chicken, warm pulled pork, cilantro, sour cream
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Refresh the chips by arranging them on a cookie sheet and heating in the oven for 5-10 minutes until crispy. Remove from the oven and set aside. Turn the oven to broil.
Heat salsa in a large sauté pan over medium heat until simmering. Crack the egg into a small bowl and whisk in a 1/4 cup of the hot salsa, stirring constantly, to combine. Add the tempered egg mixture back to the salsa in the pan and whisk to combine. Simmer for 1-2 minutes until the sauce thickens.
Add the chips to the pan and toss to coat in the sauce, allowing the chips to soften and soak up the salsa, about 2-3 minutes. Spread the sauced chips out in the pan so they are in one single thin layer. Top with cheese and broil until cheese is melted, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from oven, being very careful of the hot pan. Top with fried eggs, or pulled meat, cilantro and or sour cream. Serve immediately.
Quick Salsa Verde
Makes 2 cups
Salsa simply means "sauce" in Spanish and it isn't always tomato based. This tangy green salsa gets is color and flavor from tomatillos, a cousin of the tomato with a papery husk that is removed before cooking. You can find them with increasing frequency in farmers markets or the produce section of your local grocery store. If you can't find tomatillos, green tomatoes make a fine substitute.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 jalapeno chili, stemmed and sliced into rings (seeds removed for a milder sauce)
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 pound tomatillos, husks removed, fruit rinsed, cored and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Add onion and chili and season with salt. Partially cover the pot and sweat the vegetables until the onion is transparent, about 5-7 minutes (if the vegetables show any sign of coloring, lower the heat). Add the garlic, return the lid and continue to sweat for 1-2 minutes. Add the tomatillos, vinegar, 1/4 cup of water and the sugar and raise the heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, until the tomatillos are softened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Using an immersion blender, puree the salsa until smooth but not without texture. Stir in the cilantro and proceed with your recipe or cool to room temperature and serve with your favorite (perhaps homemade) chips.
Salsa keeps, cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to five days.