Childhood memories of moulding corn-scented dough, finds Nicola Miller thankful for the knowledge and produce of expat Mexican chefs and comes up with her own version of the pellizcada
I was fortunate that my first encounter with fresh Mexican masa made from nixtamalized corn took place in the Play Doh Age when my little hands were perfect for moulding the intensely corn-scented dough into a variety of shapes and sizes, all of them excellent vehicles for the transport of delicious toppings and fillings into one’s mouth. I probably drove local cooks mad with my insistence on ‘helping’, although a cast iron tortilla press landing on a too-slow hand worked like a charm and improved my deftness no end.
One of my favourite things to make with masa is the pellizcada, a small tortilla possessed of a raised, hand-pinched rim which needs to be shaped while it is still hot so it resembles a miniature Victoria lily pad in shape, if not colour. This means its toppings are contained in a tidy heap which is handy because I always overfill. Even more importantly, the ‘floor’ of the pellizcada is pinched into tiny mountain chain-like ridges which encourages the salsa to flow in deliciously bright runnels of flavour when you raise the pellizcada to your mouth. Pellizcada means ‘pinched’ and they are just one of many kinds of antojito (“little craving”) to be sold by street vendors, mercados or fonditas to eat before or after one’s main meals, or at home.
Go to Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico and you will find pellizcadas acapulqueñas sold from tricycle carts with portable comals and pots filled with steaming corn-breathed tamales behind the cathedral, on the Boulevard de las Americas, the beaches at Calletilla, or close to the cliffs where the famous divers – and many tourists – hang out. Soft and pliable, these pellizcadas are filled with black or refried pinto beans, salsa and sometimes Mexican cheese, all traditional, although you will also find pellizcadas fried in shrimp fat before being filled with seafood. At their simplest, they are topped with crumbled chicharrónes (like pork crackling). I long to return, but in the meantime I can live vicariously through the Mexican diaspora who have made the UK and Ireland their home. I learn from them constantly and am grateful for the fact that they have worked so hard to introduce Mexican produce to these isles.
Lily Ramirez-Foran lives in Dublin and is the founder of Picado Mexican, a shop and website which sells high quality Mexican foods and online and in-person Mexican cookery classes, along with her recipes. Funnily enough, the night before I contacted her, Lily had been making pellizcadas with her mother via videocall whilst here in Suffolk, I had been watching Chef Quirarte make pellizcadas de camarón (with shrimp) on Televisa Monterrey. Lily was born in Monterrey but she told me about the food of her youth, bought and eaten in the small town of Mante in Tamaulipas.
“I love pellizcadas; they are one of my favourite childhood food memories!” she told me. “My dad had a tortilla bakery across the town’s main market and there was a vendor there that made pellizcadas to die for. I used to save my allowances to go there on my own on a Saturday morning (I must have been around 12 years old) and get an order of five mixtas (pellizcadas with mixed fillings). My favourite was chicharrón en salsa verde and the egg cortadillo, a scrambled egg filling made with a salsa roja of what I now think it was Guajillo and Cascabel chillies.
“We spent a lot of time in the Huasteca Tamaulipeca, where they are commonly eaten instead of breakfast tacos,” Lily adds. “We fill them with spicy beans and Oaxacan cheese, or with green egg (which is basically scrambled egg with blended raw jalapeños, garlic and onion).
“I make them by hand as they are bigger than a Gordita or a sope. My mother taught me to shape them by hand years ago,” she tells me. “We pinch the edge and the inside of the base so puddles of deliciousness can form, then cook them on a comal with a drip of pork lard to crisp them up. In some parts of Mexico, they [deep] fry them, but not in Tamaulipas.”
Chef Quirate forms his pellizcadas by hand just as Lily and I do, but I cannot claim that the filling I have chosen is in anyway traditional; it is very much a distillation of what I have, what I remember, and what I most like which is as good a summary of the evolution of home and street cooking as you are likely to get. I cook very much in the spirit of what has gone before whilst honouring the amazing chefs and cooks of Mexico who are constantly evolving and synthesising aspects of their own multi-streamed heritage to produce exciting and imaginative things to eat.
My pellizcadas are made from blue corn masa harina and filled with shards of fried streaky bacon, water chestnuts (to stand in for the juicy jicama that I cannot source at this time), slivers of crunchy pear, rings of jalapeños and red chillies, and spring onion, all on a base of salsa verde. The salsa is made from tomatillos and because you will find it hard to locate these fruits in their fresh state in winter, I have suggested you use Gran Luchito tomatillo salsa which is an acceptable substitute and sold in a lot of supermarkets, or a can of Herdez salsa verde which can be bought from online suppliers of Mexican products or speciality food stores. The bacon is a nod to the flavour of chicharrónes whilst the pears and water chestnuts add textural contrast. This is a lively pellizcada, and one I would eat at breakfast time if you are looking for something a little different.
BLUE CORN PELLIZCADAS WITH BACON, PEAR, CHILLIES, AND SALSA
Makes 4 large
For the pellizcadas:
At least 360ml warm water (you may need more)
1 tablespoon melted lard, bacon grease or duck fat
225g blue masa harina (I buy mine from Mexigrocers or The Cool Chile Co.)
2 teaspoons salt
For the topping:
A jar of Gran Luchito tomatillo salsa or another brand of salsa verde, one tablespoonful per pellizcada
2 slices streaky bacon per pellizcada, fried until crisp then kept warm in low oven.
2 small jalapeños, deseeded and sliced into rings
1 medium red chili, deseeded and sliced into rings
Four radishes, thinly sliced
Slices of water chestnut, two per pellizcada, cubed
1 medium crispy pear, peel left on, cut into small cubes plus two small thin slices per pellizcada
A large fistful of coriander, roughly chopped
One large spring onion, green and white parts sliced into rings
The zest of half a lime
A teaspoon of sea salt
To make the pellizcadas: Dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the masa harina into a large bowl, stir to loosen any clumps then pour in the melted fat. Using a fork, whisk in the water, remembering to add it bit by bit. You are looking to produce a soft, silky and pliable dough so go cautiously when adding the water. Knead lightly until smooth, form into a large ball, then cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
While the dough is resting, fry your bacon in a wide, flat and heavy-based frying pan,
drain when crisp and place in a very low oven to keep warm. Strain the bacon fat from the pan into a bowl and wipe the pan out. Add a tablespoon of bacon fat to the pan and heat until it is hot.
Place a clean tea towel onto your workbench.
Divide the dough into four portions, each one about the size of a clementine. I keep my hands damp for this. When you have a smooth ball, place it onto the tea towel and flatten it into a disc using your hands. If it is a bit tacky to the touch, cover your hands with another tea towel before pressing. Each disc should be about the size of a fried egg, not too thin, not too thick, about 3mm deep. You may have some leftover dough, which can be frozen or made into tortillas.
Place the disc of dough into the hot pan and let it fry on one side until it is speckled with brown spots and starting to dry out a bit. Flip over with a spatula onto a metal baking tray and, using your fingers, pinch all around the edges to form a rim. Do not worry about it looking tidy. It is not meant to be uniform. Then, pinch the surface of the base to form little ridges. If you do not have asbestos fingers, place a folded sheet of non-fluffy kitchen paper between them to help blunt the heat. Place back in the hot pan rim side up and continue to fry until it holds its form. Now, carefully flip it over and fry until the rim starts to catch in places then remove from the pan and keep warm while you fry the rest of the dough discs.
Using a pestle and mortar, pound the lime zest with the salt.To dress, ladle a tablespoon of salsa onto each base so it nestles in its nooks and crannies. Now, curl your bacon strips on top and scatter the pear, water chestnuts, radishes, chillies, spring onions and coriander on top as artistically or haphazardly as you like. I tend to chuck the pear slices on top. Add a shake of hot sauce if you wish and scatter over the lime salt.
Find Lily on Twitter: @LilyRamirezFora and online at picadomexican.com.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020