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The torta is like an old friend. It's there after a bad breakup. It's there the morning after, when you just want to bury the memories of last night in a few layers of meat and avocado and mayonnaise and thick bread. It's there after a long afternoon of tedious work, multi-layered, dense, loving, comforting. It's a midday pat on the back, a lunch on the grass in the park.
In Mexico, you can't walk half a block without bumping into a "Tortas!" sign. Often it's handwritten and sloping slightly to one side or another. Challenge yourself to stroll through a park or down a busy street and not find someone - a boy scurrying to school in his hurriedly arranged uniform, a businesswoman sitting on a bench - munching on a torta.
Like the other quintessential Mexican "Vitamin T" foods - tamales, tlayudas, tacos, tortillas - the torta has to be done in a specific way. None of this newfangled balsamic-vinegarette-jamon-serrano-pesto fruitiness - nope, a torta has a range of potential ingredients in a range of potential combinations and that's that.
There are always mayonnaise, mustard, avocado, tomato, and rajas (pickled jalapeños and carrots). From there, you can go:
Hawaiana (ham, the creamy white Mexican string cheese called quesillo, and pineapple)
Cubana (pork, ham, quesillo, and pineapple)
Chile Relleno (poblano chiles stuffed with pulled pork and fried)
Milanesa (a breaded and fried beef patty) or
Choriqueso (chorizo with quesillo)
The trick to a good torta is heating everything up with the right timing. The torta should be warm, and the bread ever so slightly crispy. There should be just enough rajas to give the torta kick without suffocating it with spice. Read on for instructions on how to whip up the perfect Mexican torta for a lunch in the park or a morning-after gathering in your kitchen with friends.
Tortas Hawaianas (serves 4)
4 big French bread rolls - white bread, crusty on the outside and soft within, like a baguette but not quite as crispy
8 thick slices ham
½ lb. quesillo or other soft white stringy cheese that melts easily
2 medium-sized tomatoes, sliced
2 ripe avocados, sliced into wedges
4 pineapple slices, preferably fresh, but canned is OK
1 can of rajas
mayonnaise to taste
mustard to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Cut rolls in half and spread mustard and mayonnaise on one half of the torta bread. Add two or three tomato slices and four or five avocado slices.
2. Heat the ham in the oil in a nonstick skillet until browned, 2 minutes or so. Add quesillo and pineapple. Once the quesillo has melted, add a heap of the ham-quesillo-pineapple mixture to each torta. Add a little more oil - barely a tablespoon, just enough to keep the pan from smoking - and place the tortas in the skillet. Grill 3-5 minutes on each side.
3. Remove from heat and add 4-5 rajas per torta. Cut in half and serve with a light green salad and agua de sandia or cold beers.