Sometimes, when you return from a vacation to foreign lands, all you can think about is recreating some of the fabulous food you ate on your trip. A jaunt to Spain in the late ’90’s marked my first experiments with frittata, inspired by the many late-night tortilla española tapas I enjoyed there. Frittata has continued a staple recipe in my repetoire ever since. On the other hand, sometimes when you return, all you crave are familiar, comforting foods: dishes you missed while away. In the summer of 2002, I spent five weeks in Korea for the World Cup. While the food in Korea was generally wonderful, it was challenging to a non-seafood and non-beef eater. When I got home, I ate nothing but chicken ceasar salad (that bane of American restaraunt cookery), with ice-cold chardonnay, for weeks. It was so bland, so creamy, so American; something I almost never ate before I went to Korea, but weirdly craved once I returned.
Since returning from a whirlwind five days in London late Monday night, I’ve been dreaming of spicy curry samosas, cheese-smothered jacket potatoes, and ginger chicken Wagamama noodles. But sometimes, when you return from a trip, you come home to looming deadlines, massive spreadsheets of data to analyze, piles of laundry, and a sadly empty refrigerator. At those times, whatever you might be craving gets put on hold in favor of the practical: getting some decent food inside, quickly, so you can get back to playing catch-up.
Enter the 3-minute burrito. I think this is the point when most Americans turn to frozen convenience foods: the frozen burrito, the Trader Joe’s rice bowl, the ubiquitous Lean Cuisine. And I’m not one to tell you that you shouldn’t have that stuff in your freezer: back in the day, I was a big fan of Amy’s frozen burritos and I’ve enjoyed a TJ’s rice bowl or two in my time. But what always amazes me about those “convenience” foods is that they take more time to achieve a lower-quality product than just making it yourself. Take our friend the frozen burrito: cooking instructions vary wildly, but we all know what happens when you microwave a frozen burrito; soggy tortilla wrapped around sections of filling that are alternately surface-of-the-sun hot and ice-crystal-crunchy frozen. Cooking the burrito in a conventional oven yields slightly better results, but often the tortilla ends up dry & crispy, the filling bursts the wrap and becomes glued to the baking sheet, and the whole thing takes 30 – 55(!) minutes. I’d like to meet the marketing genius that convinced the American public that this was the way to go, over simply wrapping a tortilla around whatever leftovers you have in the house, heating it up for a minute or two, and calling it lunch.
Before I left for London, I stuck the last of these roasted vegetables in the freezer, knowing that they would not last in the fridge until I returned. Last night, I moved them into the fridge to thaw, realizing that I had a busy day ahead and would need something easy, filling and nutritious for lunch. With tortillas, cheddar, and some farmer’s market baby greens (amazingly still quite fresh despite the fact that I bought them over 10 days ago), this burrito came together in under three minutes (I timed it: 2 and 1/2 on the nose; I added an extra 30 seconds for putting ingredients back in the fridge.). You don’t need me to tell you that a tortilla wrapped around fresh greens, roasted vegetables, aged cheddar and homemade chile sauce is going to be tasty. But you might need a reminder that it is quicker, easier and much more convenient than any manufactured “convenience” food out there. In these busy times, do yourself a favor: think outside the (frozen food) box. You’ll save time, you’ll save money, and most importantly, you’ll eat better. Win-win-win!
For those of you who just can’t live without the occasional frozen burrito fix, check out this comprehensive and hilarious review of 13 popular brands at From Away.
- 1 flour tortilla, store-bought or homemade
- handful of baby spinach or greens
- about 1/3 cup roasted summer vegetables, or other cooked vegetable, bean or meat
- about 1 oz cheddar cheese
- spicy salsa or red chile sauce, to taste
- Lay a paper towel or clean tea towel over a microwave-safe plate. Place the toritlla on top: layer with greens, vegetables and a bit of salsa or chile sauce. Grate cheddar evenly across the filling. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove the towel, roll the burrito, and enjoy. Alternatively, heat assembled tortilla in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, covered to melt the cheese, for about 3 – 5 minutes.
- A nearly endless variety of cooked or raw vegetables, beans, meat and cheese. I try to include a mix of sweet-ish (roasted veg, caramelized onion, slow-coooked meat), sour-ish (pickled jalapenos, lemon or lime juice) flavors, as well as soft (beans, cheese) and crisp (fresh scallion, slivered cabbage, fresh greens or herbs). Avoid overly wet foods (raw tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers) as they will make the tortilla soggy.
Best eaten fresh, although Martha has a recipe for homemade frozen bean burritos that is intriguing.
The busy season.