Cambrian: Opinion

Tortas with Mexican-German-Russian roots

Cactus Tortas on toasted rolls, guacamole and hummus, with Pumpkin Mousse.
Cactus Tortas on toasted rolls, guacamole and hummus, with Pumpkin Mousse. Courtesy photo

Judging the Chili Cook-Off has been an annual joy, through fair and funny weather over the years.

In 2000 and 2001 I participated, representing The Cambrian; and then worked with John Bogacki representing the Piedras Blancas Light Station. One year it poured so hard that attendance was cut by half, even though we happily carried on. Another year we ran out of samples because folks were coming back for seconds since there was no on-site barbecue.

One year was hot, but most were typically balmy. We’ve had wind, but never like the gale which blew through last Saturday, May 10. Good thing we had lots of nice savory chili for the 800 attendees voting for the People’s Choice, and five of us judges doing a blind tasting, without knowing the identity of the 16 entrants.

This year we were pleased to include a visiting chef and food blogger, Jason Hill, to work alongside Charmaine Coimbra, Taylor and Joe Hilden, and me. It was nice to see a pro at work while he and his wife Veronica also produced a video of the event. Surprisingly, I encountered them the next day as I rounded the bend at Nitt Witt Ridge where they were taping that unique edifice. Add that to the “small world, isn’t it?” collection.

May seems to be appropriate for Mexican food, what with all the Cinco de Mayo celebrations. My pre-lit, formerly known as Christmas, tree is still bedecked with chili peppers, but that could be year-round at my house.

Mexican food and ingredients are staples in my pantry, with avocados always ripening on the counter. I fell heir to some fresh nopales, cactus which was already julienned and ready to cook. I could have prepared it simmered with aromatics and fresh tomatoes, but I don’t really like my tomatoes cooked.

In order to share with others, many of whom claim they don’t like cactus, I planned to make beerocks, a Volga German-Russian specialty which is readily available in Fresno at select bakeries. A rich buttery crust encases a filling basically of cabbage, peppers and onions, and I would substitute the nopales because they taste like strong peppers. (I ran the recipe many years ago in this column.)

Because folks are avoiding rich buttery buns and I am avoiding kneading dough the way I used to, I found the perfect substitute, torta rolls three for a dollar at Albertson’s. Thus, I arrived right back where I should have started, with a Mexican specialty.

Fresh Tortas

  • 1 pound lean ground meat – bison preferred
  • 2 cups nopales, julienned (or substitute green bell peppers)
  • 1 large white onion, chopped
  • 6 oz. pkg. Crimini mushrooms
  • 6-cup pkg. finely shredded cabbage (angel hair)
  • Sea salt and cracked pepper to taste
  • Three torta rolls, sliced
  • Butter

Brown the meat with the other vegetables, reserving the cabbage for last; season to taste. Sauté the cabbage over low heat separately, just until it wilts down by half. Stir into the meat mixture; or, if preparing vegetarian, simply increase the veggies which you prefer.

Toast the buttered rolls and scoop a little out of the middle; fill generously, topping carefully to maintain the crispness and avoiding pressing like Cuban sandwiches. Serve hot with brown mustard, guacamole, salsa or hummus. To serve later, cool and then wrap loosely with foil. Heat in a 375-degree oven for about 10 minutes.

For dessert as pictured, mix one cup of pureed pumpkin with at least one cup of vanilla nonfat yogurt and the zest of one orange. Top with my favorite crushed ginger snaps or granola. I keep portions of pumpkin frozen in zip-top bags at the ready since Halloween.