J. Birosik is big on burritos. Really big.
"They're inexpensive, they come in infinite variety, there's no frying, so they're perfect for health-conscious people and vegetarians -- you can add some rice for a family meal -- and for entertaining, they're really fast. And inexperienced cooks can get really elegant results on the first try.
"But it's fun, that's the main thing," the food writer and cookbook author says on the phone from her home in Sedona, Ariz. She says, "It's the Aspen of Arizona."
"I've been into Southwestern and Mexican foods since my parents moved from New York City to California and we used to go on vacation to the Baja peninsula," she says. "You'd stop in these little towns and there'd be people out there literally fishing for your dinner, and they'd bring it back and cook it up fresh for you with herbs picked right out of the garden."
Over the years she amassed more than 1,000 recipes for her favorite food, burritos. "People were always asking for the recipes," she says, so she wrote "The Burrito Book" (Avon Books, 1991, $8.95 paper), which contains about 100 of the most popular. There are burritos for breakfast, burritos for lunch, burritos for dinner, burritos for dessert --
How about apple burritos with Cheddar cheese, topped off with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon?
Almost any food is fair game for burrito treatment, in Ms. Birosik's view. Her formulas include such varied ingredients as shrimp and swordfish, beets and brown rice, peanuts and hazelnuts, radicchio and arugula, and artichokes and eggplant -- not all in the same recipe, of course.
And then there's the napilita cactus -- not likely to be available on your local grocery shelf -- which has a "distinctive" flavor, she says, but which has to be handled carefully lest it develop a stringy, greasy texture: "It's the okra of Arizona."
You shouldn't be afraid to experiment with any taste that appeals to you, she says in the book, noting that many cultures have burrito-like dishes -- Chinese egg rolls, Greek stuffed grape leaves, Japanese sushi rolls -- whose flavors lend themselves to the tortilla-wrap treatment. Indian and Middle Eastern dishes adapt especially well, she says, because they are usually cooked in one or two pans and eaten from a single bowl, much like traditional burritos.
Besides the burrito recipes, the book contains recipes for side dishes, salsas and sauces and a little burrito lore.
Mexican burritos have been around for at least 400 years, she reports: The Aztecs were serving them when Cortez invaded Mexico in the early 1500s. When Aztec agriculture -- with such crops as beans, corn, sweet potatoes, avocados and tomatoes -- met Spanish domesticated animals -- cattle, pigs, sheep and goats -- the modern burrito was born.
There are several ways to serve burritos, which are basically tortillas wrapped around a cooked filling. When they're folded and deep-fried, they're chimichanga-style; when they're rolled up and baked in sauce, they're enchilada-style.
However you make them, they're fast food that is economical to serve, even when you're feeding a horde.
"Burritos are great for entertaining," Ms. Birosik says. "They can be made up ahead of time and then thawed in the microwave, so you don't have to spend all day working in the kitchen and you can enjoy your guests."
"Savvy party hosts," she suggests in the book's introduction, "will make and freeze dozens of finger-size burritos days in advance, then serve them piping hot in three minutes or less at the touch of a microwave button."
Another way to throw a burrito party might be to make up ingredients in advance, then set them out and let the guests wrap up their own combinations and sauce them as they please.
Or, you can show off the versatility of the simple concoction by serving an all-burrito menu: Chilled smoked turkey burrito appetizer; broiled oyster burritos, peppersteak and Roquefort burritos, and curried burger burritos with aged Baltimore chutney for entrees and apple burritos with cheese for dessert. You could vary the taste even more by substituting other "wraps" for the tortillas, in some cases. (Variations Ms. Birosik suggests include blue-corn flour burritos, crepes, split pita bread and egg-roll skins.) A couple of sauces and some traditional Spanish rice could round out the meal.
If you make everything ahead of time, you need only nip into the kitchen to microwave the next course to keep the party rolling.
For those who are still staggered by the thought of all those burritos, Ms. Birosik offers a final rationale for embracing burrito cuisine:
"I'm really enthusiastic about having fun in life and savoring its sweetness," she says. "And I have this child-like appreciation of finger food. Burritos are the perfect excuse to elegantly dine with my digits.
' "It's sensual and fun."