I slowed things down and did a hands-on lesson on how to make Salvadoran pupusas for August’s edition.
Welcome back to The Sunday Roast! This month will be a little bit different and shorter. I was unable to snag some restaurateurs’ time this month as everyone is busy staying afloat. I’ll be back to my regular reporting next month, but for now, this month’s edition is more personal as it’s contributes to my growth as a cook and includes a subject I know well.
This month: Nobody’s schedule lined up with mine as things remain hectic in the nation’s capital. Fortunately, I reached out to a close friend, who has grown up knowing how to make a food many consider iconic in the DMV area: the Salvadorean pupusa. It was quite the feat, and it forced me to think on my feet and change the format a little, but I think it was well worth it. Remember to check out all recipes and past month’s feature at my website. Also, my subscriber count is at 84, and I want to hear from every one of you.
Some background: In a monthly newsletter, I combine a DC local’s story behind their favorite recipe(s), or ones that whip up some nostalgia, with photos and prose of my attempt at replication. These recipes vary in difficulty, but they are always ones close to the heart. This newsletter is sent on the third Sunday of each month as the name suggests.
A fun note: Make sure to mark this email as NOT spam, move it to your inbox or add my sending address to your address book to avoid the newsletter regularly ending up in the abyss. Sometimes Mailchimp email campaigns go straight to spam.
The story behind Maria and her recipe.
Maria Saenz is my boyfriend’s older sister, who I’ve grown close to. As a young child, she immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador with her mother, and she’s carried her culture and love for its food with her. Now, as a mother of four daughters, one of whom was just born two months ago, and a dental assistant currently at home, Maria says she cooks full-blown homemade meals for her whole family at least twice a day.
She typically cooks some brunch due to everybody sleeping in, then a big dinner, but it’s always easier for her to cook for her family rather than get takeout from several restaurants. She’ll figure out what to cook each week, though she says quarantine has made it hard to come up with ideas, but she’ll frequently cook classic Salvadoran recipes when her kids request them, such as fried plantains paired with sour cream or sopa de res, a beef stew. Her go-tos? Beans and rice, and eggs.
I reached out to Maria about featuring her cooking because I knew that pupusas and other Salvadoran food were beloved by the D.C. area, but also because I’ve sampled her food several times and she’s a fantastic cook.
I was excited to feature a dish quite popular in the DMV, while also finally learning how to make one of my boyfriend and my favorite takeout. She was ready to teach me while also sharing a piece of her story. She hopes to teach her children to value Salvadoran culture and cooking, since she’s been able to keep her roots and not been totally Americanized. The recipe is something from back home that she cooks for comfort, and for teaching her kids.
Maria brought some of the ingredients needed, including Maseca instant corn flour and Rio Grande crema la Bendición (Salvadoran style), while I brought the 2 lb. bag of mozzarella cheese, plus the tomatoes, cabbage, cilantro and limes for her version of the cabbage that pairs with the cheesy pupusas.
While the recipe may overall be the same for most people, some adjust it to fit their tastes, like some restaurants that emphasize a meat filling such as pork or beef. Maria leaves just cheese in her pupusas because it’s much quicker and easier to make, and I personally enjoy them (and more of them) with just cheese since it’s much less greasy. However, Maria’s pupusas are different and creamier because she mixes that Salvadoran style cream, which tastes a bit like a sour cream, into her shredded cheese before adding it into the dough. She says it helps the filling stay in the middle of the dough and not have the pupusa fall apart. Compared to other restaurants’ pupusas, her’s are much less dry and greasy, meaning they’re more enjoyable. You can, of course, add any filling you’d like to the inside, but Maria typically skips the meat since it may add hours or an extra day to your cooking time.
The dough consistency is the most important part, and I was watching Maria for most of the day but especially to start out the dish,
since she’s the pro and I was there to learn. She taught me how to form a ball in your hand, how to then scoop from the middle out to form a disk, then how to place a ball of the cheese mixture in the middle and fold up and crimp the edges to make a dumpling.
Finally, forming a ball with the cheese-filled dough, then flattening the ball into a 1/4-inch thin disk, and smoothing over any cracks in the edges. The process was very daunting at first, but once I had Maria explain each step and I practiced, my pupusas went from small and misshapen to perfect circles.
The dish is typically served with a vinegar-infused cabbage salad that one would pick a bit up using the pupusa, like a finger food.
Maria chose to adjust her cabbage by adding a lot of lime juice instead of vinegar because she’s a big fan of citrus flavors. She also adds chopped cilantro to add some more flavor, and it creates a pico de gallo-esque salad. Some of her family even eats the salad by itself since it’s so good. Overall, the result is a deliciously-fresh crunch on top of the soft, salty, ooey-gooey cheese, and it’s perfect.