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Masa, A Heavenly Gift to Cooks and Eaters

by Kelley Lavin.

While on a recent trip to my home state of Arizona, I began to ponder the nature of heavenly gifts. Unlike so many travelers before me, I didn’t contemplate the famous red rocks of Sedona or the ethereal fragrance of the desert after a short winter rain.

What moved me and brought back taste memories was my first bite of masa, the earthy corn dough found under the corn husk wrapping of a tamale. It struck me that the Israelites in the Bible may not have had their terminology quite right; could it be they actually received masa not manna as the gift from heaven? Who else but a divine being could possibly create such a simple foodstuff used in such heavenly Mexican dishes like sopes, enchiladas and tamales?

And who can argue with the Aztecs who, after they first figured out how to grind corn into life-sustaining masa, officially named corn the sacred plant of their religion. Whatever gods you believe in, if you love Mexican food, you should thank them for masa.

Masa is the Spanish word for “dough.” In Mexico, masa, made from specially prepared corn, is used to make corn tortillas and tamales. While buying fresh masa can be difficult (it’s usually found at a tortilla factory or Latino specialty markets,) most larger supermarkets today carry masa harina (corn masa flour) in their Mexican food sections. Quaker and Maseca are two of the best known brands.

For the first-time masa chef I suggest making sopes as the easiest way to learn how to use masa harina. Sopes are considered antojitos, which charmingly translates to “little whims.” Although sopes can be eaten any time of the day, these toothsome morsels are usually placed in the appetizer portion of a menu in better Mexican restaurants in the U.S. They are perfect for party appetizers because of their small size and ease of eating.

Sopes are small cakes of masa, formed into bowl-like shapes then baked on a griddle and topped with any number of meats, vegetables and cheeses. From black beans and chorizo, shredded chicken or beef simmered in chiles to just a freshly made guacamole. Almost any type of filling will be complimented by the chewy yet crunchy texture of the sope.

The most inventive and elegant sope I have ever tasted was at Mexique, a wonderful restaurant located in Chicago. Mexique’s Trio of Sopes are wildly inventive combinations of flavor and texture including Escargot and Chimichurri Butter; Shrimp Provencal with Avocado Mousse and Sweet Plaintains; and a Xico mole (named for a region in Mexico) mixed with shreds of coconut.

Located at 1529 W. Chicago Avenue, Mexique is a food lover’s must-stop in Chicago. For foodies who want to go a step beyond Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill empire to taste the next generation of Mexican-inspired world class food, don’t miss this restaurant. While you are there, make sure to meet chef-owner Carlos Gaytan. My choice to be the next great Food Network star, Gaytan will charm you with his warm personality, stylish restaurant and incredible food.

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Savory Sopes
(from Chelsie Kenyon, About.com Guide)
Ingredients:

3 cups masa harina
2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon salt
Oil for frying
Toppings (see below for suggestions)
Preparation:

Mix together masa, 2 cups of water and salt until a soft dough forms. Add in additional water by the tablespoonful if dough seems too dry. Knead on a lightly floured surface until all ingredients are well ombined and dough is softened, about 5 minutes.

Make small balls out of the dough. 1-inch for small (think large marble,) 2-inch for regular size (think walnut,) 3-inch for large sopes (think golf ball.)

Press each ball by hand to about 1/2 inch thick. Or sandwich a ball between two pieces of parchment paper and press with a plate. Or you can roll the dough out to 1/2 inch thick and cut out with cookie or biscuit cutters.

Find a glass, or an object with a smaller diameter than the dough patties. The idea is to press the object into the sopes dough to flatten the center more while creating a raised edge. Do this through the parchment paper to prevent sticking.

Fry in a 1/4 inch of hot oil on both sides until lightly golden brown and cooked through.

Top and serve immediately with cheese, beans, avocado, guacamole, salsa, pico de gallo, chorizo, and chicken. For other topping ideas and recipes, go to Savory Sopes on About.com

(For more recipes and coupons for masa harina, go to mimaseca.com)

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