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The Tortilla Factor

By Janis Mitchell
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 08:45:00 AM

I got a befuddled insight at my favorite Mexican market today. I stood there suspended between two extremes and couldn’t make a decision. I was doing what I so often do, shopping for those special ingredients that turn leftovers into a newly conceived meal. 

The more years I spend getting dinner on the table, the more repetitive my creative repertoire becomes. This dearth of imagination not only occurs in the initial preparation, but continues into the next generation, as my use of leftovers becomes another rotating series of too-familiar menus.  

Since John and I are both from Los Angeles, our default is always Mexican food. This time what I had to work with was baked chicken pieces, breasts and thighs, and who cares if last night’s version was quasi-Asian with soy sauce, garlic and orange juice. It will just make for a more interesting taco, right?  

So I filled my shopping basket with freshly made six-inch white corn tortillas, small manila mangoes, house-made hot sauce, cilantro, and a can of refried beans. This is a meal of leftovers after all, and there is no way I am going to spend hours boiling dried pintos and mashing them into a paste.  

Also salvaged from last night’s dinner was an ear of boiled corn and about a cup and a half of zucchini slices that had been sautéed with onions. I bought a pound of Monterey jack cheese and a can of green enchilada sauce. I have discovered that cold vegetables (especially corn and squash) make cheese enchiladas much more interesting. The small, thin, white corn tortillas are a little more delicate than the heavier larger ones and green enchilada sauce is less hearty than the red ones, so that is a complementary combination, too.  

I picked out some ripe avocados and thought about making guacamole. And that is the moment when my dilemma stuck me. I stood in front of the rack of tortilla chips and could not decide which ones to buy. John likes the thick restaurant style chips and our daughter, Molly, likes the thin crispy ones. Thick or thin? Which kind did I buy last time? Whose turn is it to get the chips of choice? As I mentally bounced back and forth between the two of them I realized, that nowhere in this dilemma was there a preference for me, for The Mom.  

I used to have very definite likes and dislikes. I can’t remember the moment when compromise became my middle name. When it was just John and I in the family I took the position that he who goes grocery shopping gets to choose. Of course, those were also the days when meal planning was a novelty and deconstructing restaurant dishes was a favorite pastime of mine. I actually used to make things like puff pastry, fondant, and pate. Now it is all I can do to get out the oil and vinegar instead of opening a bottle of salad dressing.  

Back in the early days of co-habiting we used to pour over recipes and then spend hours together in the kitchen creating something wonderful. The pressures of family life have altered that completely. Our dinner party menu planning has lost its creativity too. We rarely cook for friends anymore and when we do our dialogue runs more to, “What did we give them last time?” than imagining what our friends would most enjoy.  

I can remember lengthy grocery lists that involved shopping at several different specialty stores to get the freshest-best-most obscure ingredients for a memorable meal. I can still recall some of those dinners with great satisfaction. The food, the wine, the good company all came together in our kitchen. When I look at old photographs of those good times I can see that I was so absorbed in the cooking that I often never bothered to put on make-up or take off my apron the entire evening. There is a vast difference between cooking and getting dinner on the table.  

Nowadays when I run all over town grocery shopping it is because I can’t find the exact brand or version of somebody’s favorite in a single location. Cans of lemon Pellegrino water that Molly loves are only available at Berkeley Bowl, the best prices on basics like cereal are at Safeway, but Safeway doesn’t carry Café Fanny Granola and only Andronico’s has PG Tips English Breakfast Tea. So The Mom runs all over town trying to fill the larder with a variety of individual preferences. This running around is usually done in the window of opportunity between work and dinnertime. No wonder I stared at the tortilla chips like the classic deer-in-the-headlights. I stood there so long that I became an obstacle to the other shoppers at the end of the aisle. I was thinking, “come on girlie, just pick one!” Then I remembered my favorite kind of tortilla chips. I like the ones that are somewhere in between John’s thick and firm favorites and Molly’s potato chip light ones. I like tortilla chips that are just thick enough to separate into layers when they puff up; not the whole chip, not even every chip, just some of them have that thin little bubble on the surface.  

Guess, what? They don’t carry that kind at my favorite Mexican market.