Country #9: El Salvador

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This week’s recipe prompted the unanimous verdict that I need to start making a “Katya’s Favorites,” or list of the best things that I have made from the various countries. And the reason is Quesadilla Salvadoreña. More on that later.
When I studied in Spain, I took a class called Historia económica de latinoamérica (History of Latin American Economics). It was the best course I took there, and was incredibly detailed. One of the most important (and obvious) things that we discussed was diversification of exports, and how the lack of diversification among most Latin American countries (Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina being some of the exceptions) tended to really screw those countries over. For example, nearly 100% of Cuba’s economy was dependent on the export of cane sugar, and when beet sugar was discovered (a kind of sugar made from beets rather than sugar cane that was much cheaper to produce), it nearly put Cuba out of business as an independent nation. El Salvador had a similar issue in the 1800s, during which their main product was indigo. Then came the introduction of chemical dyes into the market, and El Salvador had to immediately switch to coffee production, which created a whole new series of issues in which former landowners had to sign their land away for coffee plantations.
I chose El Salvador this week for an unimpressive reason: I had a craving for fried plantains. I first tasted them when I was in Costa Rica during sophomore year of high school and have been addicted ever since. Whenever we went to Guanachapi’s in Waltham (an El Salvadorian/Guatamalan restaurant), we’d order their addictive plantains, but since moving out of Waltham, they are the main thing that I miss. So I learned how to make my own! The discovery of Sunrise Market (a cheap Latin market on Brighton Ave. in Allston) was a revelation.
The only thing that didn’t really work this time were the pupusas. I am clearly having dough issues and need to take some classes. Granted, this was my first time working with maseca, or Mexican corn flour, and the dough tends to be pretty dry and difficult to work with, but I look forward to getting better at it.
Now, the true revelation of this meal was quesadilla salvadoreña, which is not what we in the US know as a quesadilla. Technically, quesadilla literally means “cheesed,” i.e. anything that has had cheese involved with it. This particular quesadilla is a type of quick bread that for some inexplicable reason tastes like the most delicious cornbread you’ve ever had, despite the lack of cornmeal. Perhaps it tasted so amazing because I used double yolked eggs? All I can say is... wow. If you don’t make anything else I write about, make this recipe.

Pupusas (El Salvadorian stuffed tortillas)
Adapted from
2 cups masa harina (try to get Maseca brand)
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 cups warm water
1 cup filling*
1. Mix together the masa harina with the water and knead for about two minutes. Add more water as necessary (I started with one cup and ended up using nearly two), and continue kneading to make a moist but firm dough that does not crack on the edges when you press down. Cover and let rest for about 10 minutes.
2. Roll the dough into a log and cut into 8 pieces, then roll each piece into a ball.
3. Make an indentation in the ball, and put about a tablespoon of filling into the ball. Fold the dough over to enclose the filling, and press the ball down to form a disc, making sure the filling doesn't fall out.
4. (Here is where my steps didn't work so well) Put the disc between two pieces of plastic wrap or wax paper and roll it out to a diameter of 5-6 inches. Every time I did this, the filling came out! I bet it would work better with a tortilla press. After a while I got lazy and started rolling out flat tortillas, spreading some filling on one of them, placing a second one on top, and pinching the edges together. I wouldn't recommend this, because they came apart as they cooked.
5. Cook each pupusa for 1-2 minutes on each side in a lightly greased nonstick pan on medium-high heat. Serve with curtido.
*Filling can be almost anything you want. I used refried beans with jalapeños and grated cotija cheese, but you could use ground meat, other types of beans, really anything your heart desires. (They would be delicious with ground beef and refried beans together.)

Curtido (El Salvadorian cole slaw)
Adapted from
1/2 head cabbage (I used leftover chopped Napa cabbage, about 8 leaves)
1 grated carrot
4 cups boiling water
3 minced green onions
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 minced jalapeño pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Place the chopped/grated carrots and cabbage in a large heat-proof bowl. Pour the boiling water over the vegetables to cover them and let sit for about 5 or 10 minutes. Drain into a colander, and press to get as much liquid out as possible.
2. Put the veggies back into the bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Toss to incorporate, and let sit at room temperature for several hours. To store, put in a jar and chill in the refrigerator.

Plátanos fritos (fried plantains)
3 plantains
Plenty of oil
Salt and sour cream
1. Slice the plantains either lengthwise and in half, or into discs. (I switch it up depending on my mood.)
2. Heat a deep skillet of vegetable or canola oil to 350 degrees. Carefully place the slices plaintains in the oil and cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels, then sprinkle with salt and serve with sour cream.
ALWAYS be very careful when deep frying in a regular pan. If the oil spatters on you, it WILL hurt.

Quesadilla salvadoreña (El Salvadorian Quesadilla... meaningless translation.)
Adapted from
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 pound grated queso fresco (I used cotija cheese from Trader Joe's)
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten lightly
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 stick melted butter
Sesame seeds (optional) for sprinkling
1. Preheat oven to 350. Sift the flour and baking powder together into a bowl
2. Add the grated cheese, sugar, eggs, and milk to a separate bowl and beat until smooth. Add a little melted butter in, stir, then slowly stir in the rest. (You don't want the hot butter to cook the eggs!)
3. Slowly, add the flour mixture into the cheese mixture, stirring constantly until fully incorporated.
4. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan. The filling should come up about half way. If you're using the sesame seeds, sprinkle them on top. (I didn't think they added much in terms of flavor, but they were pretty.)
5. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool before serving. (Or don't. We devoured it right out of the oven.)


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