Pupusa Party: A hands-on lesson in Salvadoran cuisine
As much as I absolutely love sharing my epicurean adventures and accompanying foibles for the Aspen Times Weekly, pennies a word doesn’t pay the bills — at least not until my number comes up in that sweet, sweet employee housing lottery.
Monday through Friday, you’ll find me at my day job as the director of marketing and communications at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village. Anderson Ranch is 56-year-old non-profit, tucked into a five-acre campus with studio spaces, a gallery, a small boutique and, pursuant to my side gig, a full-service café.
I was at my desk on a gray and dreary day a few weeks ago when the email alert dinged and the subject line “Pupusa Party!” came across my screen. I immediately perked up. I love food parties! I love learning! I especially love lunchtime work food parties learning how to make something new!
This event was spearheaded by my colleague Zenayda Villacorta. Originally from El Salvador, Zenayda has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for six years, and you’ve likely seen her friendly face as our Café cashier if you’ve enjoyed a meal on the Ranch campus. When I talked to her about the party, she told me, “Cooking and eating Salvadoran food is something that I love because it reminds me of the good times my family and I had in El Salvador. It also reminds me of my culture and where I came from. I love teaching and showing people a little about the wonderful things we have there.”
Ten staff members were invited to prepare the pupusas, which the entire staff (of about 30) would then eat together as a team. It was a crowded field of those who wanted to make the food (we are mostly artists who work with our hands, after all).
Naturally, as a fierce competitor, I muscled my way into the cooking process.
We lined up at a table filled with various bowls of dough, fillings and vegetable oil. Plates were also set out so we had a spot for the pupusas once they were ready for griddling. I suggest creating a similar assembly line if you’re planning to prepare these yourself. And wear an apron, as you’ll be covered in oil.
I knew very little about Salvadoran cuisine before this; after some pre-party research, I learned it is characterized by the use of maize, pork and seafood. Pupusas are commonly filled with pork, refried beans and ayote (squash). We had fillings of pork, refried beans and cheese, grated zucchini also with cheese, and a vegan option with black beans and vegan cheese. We were lucky enough to have our co-workers Emilia, Idalia, Josh and Josue make the fillings ahead of time, so the rest of us could dive into putting the pupusas together.
There is definitely an art to this; you don’t want excess dough, and the filling has to be on the dry side, otherwise these are difficult to shape and prone to cracking. It’s also essential to use lots of oil, rubbed all over your hands and periodically added to the pupusa as you roll and flatten it.
Once you get the hang of it, these are fun, with oil flying around while you slap them into shape, and are a great recipe to make with kids or a small group.
PUPUSAS (recipe courtesy Zenayda Villacorta)
Curtido (Cabbage Slaw)
½ head green cabbage, cored and shredded
1 small white onion, sliced
2 medium carrots, grated
4C boiling water
1C distilled white vinegar
1T dried oregano
2t kosher salt
In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, onion, and carrots. Pour the boiling water over the vegetables and toss. Let sit for 10 minutes, then drain.
In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, combine the vinegar, oregano, and salt. Pour over the slaw and toss to coat. Once thoroughly mixed, transfer the curtido and any leftover liquid in the bowl to an airtight jar or container.
Chill for at least 20 minutes in the refrigerator, or chill overnight for best results.
10 medium very ripe tomatoes
1 sweet green chili
½ large onion
1T olive oil
1 liter of water
3 or 4 garlic cloves
3T chicken boullion
Salt and oregano to taste
Blend tomatoes, onion, salt, clove, garlic and water.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high.
Add salsa to the pan and stir in chicken bouillon.
Bring mixture to a low boil and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until a lot of the liquid has been reduced.
Cool and refrigerate before serving.
4C masa harina
3C cold water
In a large bowl, whisk together masa harina and salt, then add water.
Use your hands to mix until the dough comes together with a clay-like texture.
1T vegetable oil
1lb boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch (2-cm) cubes
1 medium tomato, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
1 small white onion, diced
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.
Add the pork shoulder and salt.
Cook for 15 minutes without disturbing.
If the pork is browning too quickly, reduce heat to medium.
Turn pork over and let cook on the other side for 10 minutes more, or until crispy and golden.
Transfer the pork to a food processor and add tomato, pepper and onion.
Pulse until a thick paste forms (the mixture should not be watery).
Bean and Cheese Filling
3C refried beans
2C grated queso Oaxaca or salted mozzarella
Mix together and heat it in the microwave for three minutes. Mix them together again until smooth.
To Prepare Pupusas
Fill a small bowl with water and vegetable oil and set it near your work station. You’ll wet your fingers with the mixture as you work to keep dough from sticking to your hands.
Take a golf ball-sized portion of dough and roll into a ball, then flatten into an even round.
Fill dough round with your choice of filling.
Fold the dough over the filling until it’s completely sealed (like a dumpling).
Pat out the ball between your hands until flat.
If pupusa cracks, patch with a bit of dough and a little oil.
Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Cook pupusa in a large cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium heat until center slightly puffs up and pupusa is browned in spots, 3–4 minutes per side.
If filling leaks out, scrape the pan after pupusa has cooked.
Serve hot with curtido and salsa on the side.
We felt like we made 4,000 at the party (we actually made about 100), but, after some laughs, trial and error, were all very proud of ourselves. Practice made perfect, and it was a joy to learn more about the traditions and flavors important to some of my friends in the Roaring Fork Valley’s robust Latinx community. Give this a try!
Katherine Roberts is a mid-Valley based writer and marketing professional who admits here for the first time that she secretly ate five pupusas at the party, even though everyone else only took three. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org