Get to know masa- beyond tortillas

In any given pueblo in Mexico, where the natural goodness is still maintained in most foods because so much is still prepared the old-fashioned way, in the morning hours, one can hear the call of the tortillera.  More often than not, it is her children, going from door-to-door before and after school, who sell their mothers’ just-made tortillas, without which no meal is complete. Made from corn masa, or dough, tortillas are so much a staple of Mexican food that their price is a market indicator in Mexico, and mass producers even buy corn futures to ensure price stability.

The same masa from which tortillas are made can be shaped and flavored into  several forms and used for many goodies, beyond tortillas. There is white or yellow masa which is what was used to create most tortillas on your supermarket shelf, blue corn masa, and masa with nopalitos (baby cactus paddles) which is a darkish green color. You can buy your masa, ready-made or, for the more adventuresome, buy a bag of Masa Maseca (be sure what you select is masa for tortillas, not for tamales) and make your own; as well as hand-made huaraches, sopes, tortillas, tostadas and more at La Palma on 24th St. and Florida in San Francisco’s Mission district. Just a few of the myriad antojitos (I love this word, it translates as “little cravings” that are made from masa are:

  • Huaraches, which also mean “sandals”, are so named because the masa is shaped into something very reminiscent of the sole of a shoe. The best are at La Torta Gorda on 24th between Bryant and York.
  • Then, there are sopes, which resemble thick mini pizza crusts. Buy and fill at home (see recipe below), or play with shaping your own.
  • Gorditas (or “dear little fatties”) are harder to find here. The best gorditas I ever ate were made in Tenago de Valle, Mexico, by octogenarian Doña Luisa, with masa she made from corn she had taken to be milled earlier that day, shaped in what I can only describe as over-sized eye figures with a slit down the middle, and then filled and cooked over her tlecuil (outdoor stove). My favorites were the ones filled with mashed, seasoned fava beans.9 - Embocadero-Gorditas into the oven

Gordiitos into the oven, photo by Jorge Ontiveros from the book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes

  • Tostadas– these are oven-baked or deep-fried tortillas, great way to use leftovers (after all, store-bought tortillas come in big bagfuls, designed to serve Mexican families who easily eat 4-5 tortillas each at any given meal)

Easy Sopes Recipe from Tres Señoritas Gourmet– 

For these quick and easy sopes, we will be using store-bought sopes and preparing two different fillings for your sopes:  One is chorizo y papas (Mexican sausage and potatoes) and the other is well-fried bean (no, they are not really re-fried beans, since they weren’t fried in the first place). Learn how to make sopes from scratch, for additional filling recipes and to even make your own chorizo, refer to my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.

11- Sopes

Sopes photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from the book Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes

1 package sopes, usually contains a dozen
2 potatoes
Chorizo – this is available at Chico’s 24th and Alabama- go early in the day so you can get chorizo seco, which is darker in color and sells out early. If you arrive later, you’ll have to make do with chorizo fresco, which is a bit oilier, and less flavorful- purchase about and arm’s length piece, you’ll see them hanging behind the head of the butcher.
Pinto beans (if you know how to make these from scratch, that is preferable, if not, a 14 oz. can will do, just add a clove of garlic and a chunk of onion when you heat them)
1 white onion
Iceberg lettuce
Mexican sour cream (available at Chico’s)
Queso Fresco (available at Chico’s)
Salsa Verde (please, please make your own, jarred salsas just won’t do the trick- in a pinch you can pick-up salsa at La Palma but you may need to doctor it up with a serrano or jalapeño chile or two as what they sell is definitely toned-down for an American palate)

For the chorizo/papas filling, boil your potatoes until soft, and mash. Remove the casing from the chorizo and cook till well done, about 10-15 minutes on a medium flame. Take care not to burn. Place cooked chorizo on a paper towel to remove as much grease as possible and crumble. Mix with the pureed potato and salt to taste.

For the beans, put just a little vegetable oil in a skillet add the beans (canned or homemade), 2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion and a couple of smashed garlic cloves, salt to taste and cook off as much of the liquid as possible over a low flame. Then mash with a potato masher, or, I have had luck with my Cuisinart on pulse, being careful not to create a puree, but keeping some of the beans partially in tact.

Now, heat your sopes on your comal, upside down at first, then flip and cook until the bottoms are slightly charred (if your comal is very hot, be careful, because this will happen in a just a minute or two). Fill half with your well-fried beans, and half with the chorizos y papas. Top with your Salsa Verde,  finely shredded lettuce, finely chopped onion and Mexican sour cream thinned with just a little whole milk, finish with crumbled Queso Fresco. Provecho!


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