If you think about it, every great culinary culture has a flavor that is central to their cuisines. The Chinese have their soy sauce. For India it's curry. Garlic and basil will have you speaking Italian. And for Mexican food it's "masa", the bread of Latin life.
Don't ask me how they know, but anthropologists claim to have proof that maize (corn) was part of the diet of natives to the Americas as much as 7,500 years ago. Somewhere along the timeline they started treating the corn with lime (CaO if you're a chemist) which increased its nutritional value, especially the niacin. The Mayans called it "Kana," which meant "our Mother," so it must have been important.
In the 1500s, the Europeans introduced lard to the mix, and the basic recipe was formed that survives to this day.
Most familiar to us in the form of tamales and tortillas, Latin countries all have their regional variations based on this ancient ingredient. The recipe which follows is for "pupusas," a Salvadoran masa cake which includes cooked potato and cheese. They resemble Mexico's "sopes" and "gorditas" or the "arepas" of Venezuela. Besides being a lot easier to make than say tamales, they are versatile. You can top them with just about anything - leftover shredded chicken and salsa, pickled onions and sour cream, chorizo and crumbled cheese.
We made about 700 of them for a food competition at Squaw Valley (took second place out of about 40 restaurants, thanks for asking) and had a few left over. We were eating them with strawberry jam, maple syrup and melted gouda and bacon.
Masa flour can be purchased at most grocery stores and is not hard to make, but the results are no better than buying it already prepared as a dough. You can find it in most grocery stores. Video Centro Market on Highway 50 or the new Mercado on Clearview Drive will definitely have it.
A warning to the vegetarians: The prepared masa will probably contain lard and/or meat stock. To stay true to your cause, make your own using Quaker brand masa, follow the directions for tamales and substitute shortening for the lard, warm water for the stock and bump up the salt a little.
For the competition we topped them with "picadillo," a seasoned beef that shows the influence of Spain and the Caribbean on Latin America's cuisine. They make a great appetizer or adventurous lunch when served with a salad.
Little masa cakes with potato and cheese
makes about 16
11Ú2 cups prepared masa
1 tsp. baking powder
2 medium sized baking potatoes
salt to taste
about 1Ú2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
Peel and boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until completely cooked. Drain and allow to cool for 3 or 4 minutes. Mash until smooth. Mix the prepared masa, baking powder and salt together with the potatoes, and knead the dough until a soft, smooth dough is formed. Divide the dough into 16 balls about 11Ú2 inches in diameter. Using your thumb, make a dent in each ball. Stuff the dent with 2 teaspoons of grated cheese. Squeeze the opening closed to seal it and flatten the balls into patties about 1Ú4 inch thick. Can be made up to this point and stored refrigerated under a damp towel.
Heat a large frying pan over medium heat with enough oil to cover the bottom. Add the pupusas and press each one down gently with the back of a spatula for a few seconds. Cook for about two minutes or until golden brown then flip them and repeat the pressing-frying procedure for another two minutes or until golden.
Drain on paper towels if you think it's necessary then place on plates or serving platter. Top with picadillo and garnish with sliced radish and a drizzle of sour cream.
Spanish seasoned beef with almonds and raisins for 12 plus
1 pound cooked, shredded beef (see note)
1 medium onion, diced
1 tsp. fresh minced garlic
2 cups peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes, about 4 or canned diced tomatoes, drained and chopped.
1Ú2 cup chicken stock
2 T. of cider vinegar
1Ú4 tsp. ground cloves
1Ú2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cumin
1Ú2 tsp. ground black pepper
1Ú2 cup raisins
1Ú2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
8 large stuffed green olives, chopped
We use shredded beef because it's on hand for our enchiladas. A pound and a half of good ground beef or pork can be substituted. Just brown it, drain it and proceed.
For shredded beef, take a 11Ú2 pound piece of beef, the $2.50 to $3 a pound variety (it's not that important) and place it in a pot with enough water to cover. Add 4 or 5 whole cloves of garlic, 4 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon black pepper corns and a quartered onion and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about two hours or until fork tender.
Remove the pot from heat and let the meat cool in the stock.
Cutting against the grain, cut the cooked beef into thick slices, about 3Ú4 inch thick. Using your fingers or a couple of forks, shred the beef.
In a large skillet, heat enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes and cook for 3 or 4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients along with the meat and simmer for about 10 minutes. The stew should be fairly thick but not dry or pasty. Cook more to thicken or add stock if too thick. Taste for salt. Either cool to be reheated later or serve warm. Top each pupusa with about two big tablespoons of beef.
• Brian Shaw is the owner of Cafe del Rio in Virginia City.