Cheese-Stuffed Pupusas with Tomatillo Sauce and Roasted Vegetables
Pupusas--Salvadoran Cheese-Stuffed Cornmeal Patties
by Victoria Challancin
Globalization. You gotta love it. While in the grocery store today trying to think of a tasty, easy-to-prepare vegetarian meal for lunch, I remembered how much my son, who is visiting, liked Salvadoran pupusas. Having only eaten them, but never having made them, I thought "How difficult can they be to prepare?" They are, after all, simply thick cheese-stuffed cornmeal patties made with masa harina, the cornmeal used to make tortillas. Of course, in El Salvador, they are often filled with stuffings other than cheese, but I thought cheese would work just fine. And it did. The globalization comes in like this: an American cook makes Salvadoran cornmeal patties with a Mexican salsa and Mediterranean roasted vegetables for an American, a Mexican, and someone half French and half Colombian. Yep. Globalization. You gotta love it.
Pupusas are a Salvadoran staple, particularly popular as street food. Similar to arepas, a Venezuelan or Colombian sweet or savory corn cake made from ordinary cornmeal, pupusas are made from nixtamal, the same corn meal used for corn tortillas. The difference between the two types of cornmeals is that regular cornmeal, the kind used in Southern Cornbread, for example, is simply made from ground corn; nixtamal cornmeal, or masa harina, is made from ground corn that has been soaked in an alkaline solution before cooking.
Mexico also has its own similar version of a cornmeal cake-- the gordita, a Mexican cornmeal cake whose name literally means "little fatty," which is also made from nixtamal corn meal, and which uses more filling than pupusas, served atop the fat tortilla-like cake instead of being stuffed and enclosed inside.
Other traditional Salvadoran fillings for pupusas might be any of the following, alone or in combinations:
- Cheese--specifically quesillo, a mozzarella-like cheese found throughout Central America
- A paste of cooked pork meat called chicharrón (not to be confused with fried pork rind, which is also known as chicharrón in Mexico and other countries in the Americas
- Refried beans
- Queso con loroco (cheese with a vine flower bud found in Central America)
- Guisado, or stew, usually meat-based (this was my son's favorite when he visited El Salvodor, before becoming vegetarian)
- Serve with curtido, lightly pickled cabbage and onion relish--a traditional Salvadoran accompaniment
- Roasted Vegetables--as I did--zucchini, onion, mushrooms, red bell pepper, garlic
- Tomato sauce such as marinara or puttanesca
- Remoulade sauce
- Any Mexican-style salsa--truly, any would work
- Tzatziki? Why not? I eat it with practically everything
Cook's Notes: I made the pupusas using Maseca brand masa harina and stuffed them with mozzarella, which is similar to quesillo. Other cheeses would work equally well. I served them with Mediterranean-style roasted vegetables with olive oil and garlic just because I could. I had on hand some freshly prepared salsa verde (click here for a traditional recipe) made the previous day to serve with mushroom fajitas, and some Mexican sour cream, or crema (or crema ácida or acificada), which resembles crème fraîche. All of these flavors worked beautifully together for a satisfying vegetarian meal that I will certainly make again. And the beauty of it all is that there are enough leftover roasted veggies for the guys to make vegetarian quesadillas tomorrow while I attend a meeting. Whoopee!
You also have the choice of cooking these as they are traditionally prepared on a greased griddle, which yields a lovely blotchy outside. I chose instead to lightly pan-fry them in about an eighth of an inch of olive oil and grapeseed oil in a skillet instead.
Recipe: Salvadoran Cheese-Stuffed Cornmeal Patties
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
2 cups masa harina
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups warm water
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, or other melting cheese of choice, grated
Olive oil (my idea) or vegetable oil to grease the griddle or pan
Mix the masa harina and salt with a fork in a medium-sized bowl. Add the water. Mix thoroughly. If too dry, add a bit of water; if too wet, add a sprinkle of masa harina until you have a soft, pliable dough.
Make balls about the size of an average lemon with the dough. Flatten the dough into a fat circle. Place about 1 tablespoon of cheese in the center. Draw the edges up and around the cheese and seal to completely enclose the cheese. Flatten the dough again into a disk about 1/2-inch thick.
Lightly grease a griddle or comal (or use the frying pan method described above). Heat until quite hot.
Add the pupusas and cook in batches, turning once so that they are golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.
The dough mixture, a little dry, before I sprinkled it with a bit more warm water
A lemon-sized ball of dough
Flattened into a disk...
Filled with grated cheese...
The cheese filling, partially enclosed...
The uncooked, stuffed pupusas...
Cooking in a little oil in a frying pan rather than on a greased griddle...
The cooked pupusas, with a little cheese oozing out...
Globalization: An Anecdote
Three years ago my son, Zachary, was lucky enough to be one of five young Latinos who starred in a Discovery Channel reality program in Spanish called Norte a Sur--Cinco en Ruta (you can see a short clip of him here). In the 10-part series, five young Latinos, whom I jokingly say had the last names of Hernàndez, Lòpez, Sànchez, Garcia, and Popovsky (guess which one is my son), travelled to seven Latin countries and 10 major cities, doing humanitarian work along the way.
While he was in El Salvador, Zack had to travel by taxi from the shooting location a rather long distance to buy paint to use in a project on which they were helping local fishermen. En route, he and the taxi drive naturally chatted and got to know each other. Here is the short version of their conversation:
Driver: So, man, where are you from?
Driver: Oh...Mexico...I only know one person in Mexico and he is actually Dominican. What part of Mexico?
Zack: San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato.
Driver: Hey, that is where my uncle lives, but he is Dominican, not Mexican.
Zack: What's his name? I know a few Dominicans there.
Driver: Jaime Miniño.
Zack: OMG. I don't believe it. He's my girlfriend's father!
Of course, in that wonderful way of globalization, it turns out that the one person the Salvadoran taxi driver knew in all of Mexico was someone born in the Dominican Republic who happened to be the father of Zack's girlfriend. Globalization. Our small, small world. You gotta love it.
Parting Shot: California Garden
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