I lived in Washington, D.C. for six years, three of which were in Mount Pleasant, a small neighborhood home to many of the Central American political refugees who arrived in the nation’s Capitol in the early 1980s. True of many recent immigrant communities, they simply recreated their culture where they landed. Although Mount Pleasant street is only about eight blocks long, stepping onto it off of Columbia Road was like walking into a Latin American country. Latino men sat along the sidewalks all hours of the day, discussing anyone passing by, the weather, politics, or whatever took their fancy. In the little square towards the north end of the street it was not unusual to hear a trio or quartet playing guitar and singing traditional songs from whatever homeland from which they were estranged. Bodegas and restaurants doted the street and fresh fruit vendors hawked cut papayas, pineapple and mangos throughout the seasons. It was on this street that I first ate pupusas.
Quintessential street food, pupusas are little pockets of masa wrapped around refried beans and cheese or slow cooked pork, fried golden and crispy. Masa is the lime-cooked cornmeal that is the staple of so many latino cuisines, central to making tamales and fresh made corn tortillas. And trust me when I tell you nothing compares to homemade. Having purchased some masa recently I decided to try my hand at making my own.
I tried the traditional stuffing of refried beans since there were some leftovers from my recent batch of tostadas which were sensational. But another love that is still going strong is roasting peppers and using them in various incarnations, traditional and non. With two extremely large jalapenos waiting in the crisper bin I decided to roast them and use them for pupusas filling. Genius! Just enough spice to wake up my taste buds coupled with some cheese and my dinner and tomorrow’s lunch were made.
For those of you who are really cuisine specific, it turns out that these little bundles of joy are called gorditas in Mexico – and I remember eating them when I visited Nogales on the other side of the border in Arizona. But my Mexican co-workers here in L.A. refer to them as pupusas. So when in Rome…
Refried Bean and Chile Pupusas
4 cups masa harina
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons chopped green chiles (either canned or roast your own on a gas flame and rub off blackened skin and deseeded)
1/2 cup refried beans
1/4 cup shredded cheese (mozzarella or cheddar or monterey jack, or colby)
oil for frying (peanut, sunflower, safflower)
parchment paper or wax paper or clean plastic bag, cut in half
Combine masa, water and salt and mix until well blended and it comes together in a ball and is firm. Add more water drop by drop if it appears dry and more masa if it is too wet. It should easily hold together as a ball. Set aside for at least 5 minutes. Pull off a golf size ball of masa and work in your hands to pack it. Flatten on paper or plastic until it is about 1/4 inch thick and as circular as possible. Dab beans or chile on top and spread to flatten and top with a pinch of cheese. Make another ball and flatten to width of 1/4 inch and place on to of the first one and flatten, closing the pocket around the edges. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. In large skillet heat cooking oil to barely cover bottom of pan; add pupusas and cook on each side 4-6 minutes until browned and crisp. Serve with salsa or eat plain.