Saturday, 29 January 2011

An El Salvadorian Dinner and a "Rustic" Dessert

Tonight, more than any other night here at Denison, served as a reminder why I enjoy cooking with others. And despite the hours of searching for recipes, perfection and understanding only arrive upon trial and error.

Yesterday, I was talking to one of the student workers and explained to him that I had been thinking about what to cook next this weekend. After some convincing, I took on the challenge of making pupusas. Little did I know until last night's research that what I had signed onto was actually making a staple dish of El Salvador. I had agreed to attempt to cook something that he, and the rest of El Salvador it seems, holds very dear and true to his heritage.

Unsurprisingly, finding the ingredients for pupusas was going to prove to be a bit of a challenge, a testiment perhaps to the necessity of understanding food culture and the populations that necessitate certain foods appearing in our local grocery stores. Surprisingly, however, was the difficulty in finding the right recipe to follow... and you would think an accurate representation of a staple of an entire nation and its neighbours would be easy to find. I'm not going to even pretend I'm a master at making these, but I will forewarn you that if you were to go video searching on-line, there are many videos that will mislead you. Essential components to look out for are the right kind of chicharrón (stewed pork and NOT pork rinds), as well as the non-use of a tortilla press. Of course, I suppose you could use either/both of these, as well as the wrong kinds of cheeses, dough, etc., but you'd definitely be moving further away from authenticity. And I would like it recorded here the pride I heard (and tasted) as this generation's pupusas makers went to work.

Thankfully, and as alluded before, I had the privelege of being introduced to making pupusas by Jesus and a student leader on campus, Natalie. (And I can't forget Jose's cheese grating contributions.) As you can see from my mise en place photo, I bought the wrong kind of masa, or cornmeal, which is the staple ingredient for corn tortillas, pupusas, and the like. This particular one is obviously for tamales... shows how much I know about Latin American cooking, eh? Make sure you get regular cornmeal, which apparently can be purchased in many grocery stores nowadays; the most common brand is Maseca.

Now, as you may or may not know, I'm a huge fan of figuring out recipes on my own, particularly as I don't typically have all the ingredients or machinery on hand, but in this case, I left it to Natalie to explain the way. Indeed, throughout this process and throughout dinner itself, I heard multiple references to the way family members would make them back home, what condiments and drinks would best be served with the pupusas, and even to what extent they would receive approval on the pupusas they made tonight.

Anyway, back to the recipe. Making the dough itself isn't entirely all that difficult. If you search for recipes online, a typical combination you'll find is 2 c masa to 1.5 c warm water. Tonight, we went with half our bag of masa and enough warm water to bring the dough together. You know when the dough is done when it pulls away from the bowl, practically as an entire mass. It'll also have a playdough-like feel to it, as well.

While Natalie was working on the dough, we worked on the filling. Jose grated Salvadorian cheese that Natalie brought over, and which was mixed with shredded mozzarella. Really, you can work with any kind of cheese, so long as the ending combination melts easily but also stays relatively intact. One recipe I found, for example, used feta. To this cheese mix, we added half a large green pepper which had been finely chopped and then essentially puréed. As alluded to earlier, one of the toughest components to find was the chicharrón. Now, I've never been a huge fan of canned meats, but not only did I not have time to stew my own pork, but I was on substitution mode. So, I tempted fate, bought a can of pre-cooked, canned pork, put some in my food chopper and gave it a whirl. The ending consistency was of a pâté of sorts, and was as accurate as we could create. To that, I added some black pepper. We also heated up some refried beans, to which Natalie added garlic powder and black pepper.

And so now comes the fun part. As Jesus demonstrates, we form a round of dough and create a bit of a well, to which we push in some of the cheese and green pepper mix, the pork, and the refried beans (or any combination thereof). Carefully folding the outsides inward and creating a seal, the rounded dough is then reflattened back into a circle. The tricky part throughout the whole process is to not let the filling ooze out. It's also very helpful to moisten your hands prior to doing all of this so the dough doesn't stick. I'd highly suggest watching a few videos of Salvadorians going through this process and then trying it out yourself. As was pointed out to me, it takes years of practice to get this down correctly. For Natalie, it was her first time actually making these on her own; and as Jesus reminded me, they had grown up watching their family make the pupusas. It reminds me much of how I should theoretically be able to roll up egg rolls; at least I've better understood the cooking part.

Anyway, the filled and flattened pupusa is ready to be cooked. Set it on an ungreased pan or grill and allow it to cook for about 4-5 minutes, or until it begins to slightly char. Flip it over, and cook the other side. The pupusa is done in another 4-5 minutes. The result, for me at least, is an acceptably doughy kind of patty--much more palatable than one made of regular flour--the star of which is the filling. I never thought I would like the green pepper and cheese mixture, but it's amazingly delicious and gives character to the pupusa. The pork and refried beans also lend a bit of contrasting textures that takes a way from eating "just dough" or the utter creaminess from the cheese. Of course, the better shaped the pupusa, the more evenly distributed the filling and less of the solitary dough you have to eat. Without a doubt, the center is my favorite bit, though the edges are just as good. Of the different accompaniments one could have with the pupusas is curtido, a Salvadorian cabbage salad. This is only circumspect here, but I imagine this is a particularly good pairing not only as a texture contrast but to give a bit of freshness to the pupusa, of which it is rather filling to begin with.

Alongside the pupusas, I made my take on casamiento, or more simply put, black beans and rice. In one pot, I brought 3 c chicken broth to a boil, added 2 tbsp butter, and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I added 2.5 c rice and allowed it to cook according to the package instructions (about 15-ish minutes of total cook time). In another pot, heated up two 15 oz cans of black beans (with most of the liquid drained, though next time I'd probably use all the liquid) with about 2 tsps hot sauce. Once cooked again, I added this to the rice. That pot washed out, I lightly sautéed green pepper (diced by Madeleine, the French TA) and onions (which continue to make me cry... I didn't get around to freezing them as I did in a previous recipe) in a bit of olive oil and about a tsp of hot sauce. Cooked but still with a bit of a bite, I added this to the rice and beans.

After about 4 or 5 pupusas (or perhaps even more), it seemed everyone was reaching the food consumption point. Nevertheless, I set out to work on dessert, based on two recipes I've practically been drooling over for what seems like eternity. Prior to the start of the dinner, I browned 2 tbsp unsalted butter and off the heat, stirred in about half a 13 oz jar of Nutella. I may or may not have eaten more of the Nutella as I was preparing the chocolate. The result was a very smooth Nutella liquid which I transfered to a glass dish and froze for about an hour. Madeleine then scored the hardened chocolate which was then returned back to the freezer while we ate and made the pupusas. More or less following the online recipe (I used baking powder instead of baking soda, which didn't seem to really affect anything) which is itself a glorious product of the wonderful folks at America's Test Kitchen, my resulting dough was a beautiful brown and shiny concoction, browned because of the browned butter and the dark brown sugar.

An aside: twice I've mentioned browned butter, or back to my more classical French cooking roots: beurre noisette, aptly named for its brown color and nutty aroma. To brown butter, simply heat the butter to the point it starts to foam and continue to cook beyond that. The foam is a result of the water particles in the butter escaping (in a previous post, I mentioned the water in butter interacts with flour to make gluten), leaving behind the essence of the butter. In addition, the solid particles in the butter sink to the bottom of the pot, which lends to the browning color. If you don't continue to move the pot (and heat within) around, the solids will burn, lending a rather bitter flavour to the butter. This beurre noir is not what we're looking for in this recipe, but is apparently useful in others.

Back to the cookie dough... And so, this is where I didn't follow ATK. The recipe calls for putting this dough wrapped up in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. But who are we kidding? Like I was really going to wait that long. I was already charged to wait for the Nutella to harden. Scrapping the pre-scored Nutella from the glass dish, mini chunks of Nutella were graciously added to the dough. Now, this is the point where I'd admit I probably should have waited; the dough was still warm, and so most of the Nutella was melting into the dough. However, what's the problem with that? Really, the only problem is you get butter and Nutella on your hands as you're shaping them and placing them on an ungreased cookie sheet (Trust me. You have enough butter going in this recipe.) After 15 minutes, my rushed cookies came out of the 375°F oven with mounds of cooked dough surrounded by a bit of char (from the brown sugar and Nutella no doubt). Thankfully, I was able to wiggle the cookies around and separate them from the char. Again, patience reigns: after a few minutes to cool (even on the cookie sheet or carefully transfered to a plate to cool), the cookies hold their shape. The result for this batch was a crispy exterior into which you bite into a smooth interior, the crispy exterior of which gets thrown into the party and in this case adds to the illusion you're crunching on Nutella chips and hazelnuts (which I need to add to my next batch of Nutella chip cookies).

Oh, and if you couldn't tell, it's the Nutella chip cookies that I'm calling "rustic." As for the casamiento, I know what I'm having for lunch for the next few days; as for the pupusas, the consensus was that was as authentic as we could get. And if we could create food from scratch and recreate a sense of home if but for a little while, what else is needed from the kitchen?

For more photos, click here.

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