I was in the doctor’s office the other day, when a woman heard me speaking Spanish and struck up a conversation. I learned that she is from El Salvador, and that we both love to cook. The next obvious question was “Can you tell me your favorite Salvadoran dish?” She raved about pupusas, round, corn-dough-cakes that are stuffed with cheese, cooked on a comal, or griddle, and then topped with a delicious homemade tomato salsa and curtido, a pickled cabbage. She explained the pupusas are a favorite breakfast food, but are sold in “pupuserías,” and from street vendors at all times of the day in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. My mouth was watering as she described how to make the curtido first, to allow the flavors to set, and then to have the kids help roll masa into balls, flatten them into flat disks, and stuff them with cheese.
The history of corn is fascinating, beginning in Mexico at least 9000 years ago as the seed of a grassy plant called teosinte. Selective planting and domestication of the maize by indigenous people over thousands of years helped it become what it is today. Since the Pre-Columbian era, people in Mesopotamia have been drying corn, soaking it with slaked lime (cal) and then grinding it to a flour. Corn by itself is deficient in nutrients, however this process adds niacin to the corn. In addition, the staple diet of corn and beans combine amino acids to provide a complete protein and along with squash, a balanced died. The prepared corn flour is known as nixtamal, and when mixed with water and salt (then called masa, or “dough”) it can be used to make a myriad of regional dishes such as tortillas, tamales, gorditas, pupusas, atole, etc.
A couple of days after our encounter, I gathered the ingredients needed.
Curtido: Pickled Cabbage
a head of cabbage (repollo)
1 onion, chopped
salt, pepper, oregano
1/2 c water
1/2 c vinegar
Curtido Step 1:
Pour boiling water over the cabbage and let sit for 5 minutes to soften or wilt the cabbage. Drain and toss the water (or save for a smoothie).
Curtido Step 2:
Mix carrots, onions, chopped chile (optional), salt, pepper, oregano. Then pour over a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and the vinegar and water.
Salsa Casera: Homestyle Salsa
Salsa Step 1:
Blend the ingredients in a blender with a half cup of water, and some salt.
Salsa Step 2:
Simmer in a saucepan for 15 minutes to reduce.
2 c Maseca (corn masa flour) *look in Latin American grocers
1 1/4 c warm water
soft, white cheese
Pupusas Step 1:
Mix the ingredients together, for several minutes. It may look dry, but do not add extra water unless it absolutely will not stick together. Too much water, or too little water will both affect the dough and it will not form a ball properly.
Pupusas Step 2:
You and the kids should be able to roll the masa like playdough into balls. Pat your palms together to flatten the balls into disks, like thick tortillas. If the dough is too sticky, add a tiny bit more of flour; if it is to dry, add a drop more of water.
Pupusas Step 3:
Fill with cheese! Cheese that can melt easily and are readily available outside of Central America are mozarella or Monterey Jack. Put the grated cheese in the middle of the dought, and bring up the sides and pinch close. Re-mold the masa into a fat tortilla again, with the cheese in the middle.
Pupusas Step 4:
First, heat up a non-stick pan: either a cast iron pan, traditional comal, or a griddle. When it is heated and lightly oiled, cook the pupusas until slightly golden, 4-5 minutes per side.
Serve them with the salsa and the curtido on top, or on the side.