Sunday, October 17, 2010

Project Food Blog #5: Pu-pizza! A Salvadorean Spin on Everyone's Favorite Pie

Voting for Round 5 of Project Food Blog is now open!  Please take the time to cast your vote for PGEW by following this link, or by using the widget in the left sidebar.  Every vote gets me one step closer to the next round, and maybe, just maybe, I'll be your Next Food Blog Star!  Thanks so much! - Kimberly

I've talked a lot about my Colombian roots here on PGEW.  From a traditional carne con hogao (not my finest photographic moment but the flavor of that sauce is dead on and cannot be rivaled by most Colombians!) to last year's After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party, among other things, I have mentioned my Colombian side a lot on ye olde blog.  But there is also the other half of my heritage, my dad's side: El Salvador.  That's right: my daddy is from the beautiful capital city of San Salvador, and even though I am not as familiar with the actual country as I'd like to be (it's sooo on my list of places to visit!), I am definitely familiar with the food.

When I was younger we regularly used to visit a Salvadorean/Mexican restaurant in Mountain View, CA, called El Calderón.  There, we were treated like family, since Lita, the owner, had known my dad since he was a teenager, new to the United States and ready to take on the restaurant world.  As he worked his way up the restaurant business ladder, he eventually ended up mentoring her and gave her business advice she still uses to this day.  So, because of these ties, he and my mom were like adoptive children and I was like a granddaughter to her, and visits to El Calderón were always filled with extra guanabana, lots of hugs, and plenty of lively conversation and laughter.  

Like most Salvadorean restaurants, El Calderón boasts a hefty menu of specialties from the motherland, namely the pupusas.  For those of you unfamiliar with pupusas, they're pretty much the delicacy of El Salvador, though other versions are served in places like Guatemala and Honduras.  From what I understand, those versions are nowhere near what the real Salvadorean pupusa should and could taste like, so if you're going for the real thing, be sure to get it from a true Salvadorean.  

If you've never tried them, pupusas are basically thick, cornmeal tortillas filled with either cheese, loroco (a type of cactus flower), frijoles (beans), chicharrón (deep fried pork or beef), or any combination of those (combinación).  Think of it as a thick quesadilla with the surprise wrapped up in the middle.  To me, that's what makes a pupusa special: instead of being able to see the filling by just flipping it open as you would a Mexican quesadilla, the fun is on the inside.  You're presented with this humble looking, fat little tortilla, and you end up with a cheesy, meaty center; sort of like discovering the cream center in a Twinkie (only far more delicious and infinitely less artificial).  Pupusas are usually accompanied by curtido, a pickled cabbage & carrot salad that some folks refer to as Salvadorean sauerkraut, as well as the smooth salsa roja found in many traditional Salvadorean restaurants.  One lends a bit of fire, the other cools things down; both offer just the perfect flavor accents for these delicious cheesy treats. 

So when I was faced with remixing a pizza recipe for Round 5 of Project Food Blog, I couldn't help but think of the pupusa as inspiration.  I wanted to do something truly unique and get more familiar with the other half of my heritage in the kitchen.  Playing around with pupusas seemed like the perfect way to accomplish this.  Pupusas are doughy and cheesy, and have all the makings of a perfect stuffed crust, which has become quite popular in many pizza houses today.  So I decided to use that as the "stuffed-crust" base for my pizza.  Naturally, I couldn't exactly go completely traditional with this one, since I was aiming for a more pizza-sized pie (pupusas are generally 5"-6" in diameter), so I didn't get to practice the fun hand technique that goes with making the real thing.  And let me tell you, after some scary moments almost losing my entire crust to my very hungry kitchen floor, I was beginning to think I should have opted for the more traditional sized crust instead!  Still, I perservered; this had to work, darnit!  It took some planning to figure out how to tackle the logistics of cooking the darned thing, such was the hugeness of my "crust".  With some luck and determination, I managed to get the entire 11" monster cooked without breaking it!  I was uber-proud of myself, especially since I didn't have another pair of hands to help me transfer the thing to & fro.

Now, even though I like having the pupusa "surprise" in the center, for this particular dish I figured I could use some of the most popular fillings as toppings instead, with a little extra cheese sprinkled on top for good measure. I made my own refried beans (because frankly, even the vegetarian canned version scares me) to use as a spread, and cooked my own chicharrón out of lean beef instead of pork because A) that's all I had and B) I prefer the flavor of beef to pork, especially in chicharrón form.  For the finishing touches, I sprinkled some curtido on top to add a tangy coolness and crunch and served some salsa roja on the side, just like they serve at traditional pupuserias.

The end result of all this work?  A tantalizing pu-pizza!  It even sounds like fun, doesn't it?  Let's check it out.

Pu-pizza! (serves 4-6; total cost per serving: $3.25)
Should you want to make regular pupusas, these ingredients work just fine!  Just make them much smaller, and stuff the "toppings" inside if you want more than just cheese, and you'll be set!  

Pupusa "Crust"
2 c corn flour/masa harina 
2 1/2 c warm water
1 t salt
1 1/2 c shredded Monterey Jack cheese or Queso Oaxaca
1 t olive oil

Prepare the masa by adding the water and salt to a large bowl.  Slowly add the corn flour/masa harina and stir together until you have a thick paste.  Continue working the masa until it begins to firm up and you can knead it and form it into two large balls.  Line a large board with a sheet of wax paper.  Place one of the masa balls on the lined board and begin to flatten it into a large disc (about 10" in diameter).  Repeat with the next ball of masa.

Heat a large skillet until completely hot.  Brush lightly with oil and carefully transfer one of the discs of masa into the skillet.  Add the cheese, taking care to stay in the center and leave about 1/2" of space from the edge.  Transfer the second disc of masa on top and pinch the two together lightly (don't burn yourself!).  Cook over medium high heat for about 8 minutes on each side. 

Homemade Refried Beans
1 c dried pinto beans
2 quarts water
1 c finely chopped yellow onion
1 T salt
1 T cooking oil
1/2 t cumin
1 t ground black pepper
1/4 c chicken or vegetable broth

Soak the beans in water for at least an hour, then drain.  Cook in the 2 quarts of water until tender, about 45 minutes.  Drain and set aside.  In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil and add the onion.  Cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent, then add the beans, salt, cumin and pepper.  Continue to cook until the beans begin to break down and split apart, about 20 minutes.  Add the broth.  Using a potato masher or the back of your cooking spoon, smash about half the beans until they reach a paste-like consistency, and leave the rest intact. Remove from heat and set aside.  

Chicharron de Res (Beef Chicharron)
In Latin America chicharrón recipes vary from household to household.  This is my version of the kind of chicharrón that is commonly used in Salvadorean pupusas.  It's a much finer, minced version which lends itself to stuffing into traditional pupusas without the risk of ruining the dough.  As a pu-pizza topping, it lends just the right amount of smoky texture to accompany the homemade refried beans and all that gooey, melty cheese.

1 lb lean beef (flank steak, London Broil, etc), cut into thin strips
1 T salt, divided
1 t ground cumin, divided
1 t crushed red chile flakes (optional)
1 T + 2 T cooking oil

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat.  Add the beef strips and season with 1/2 tablespoon of salt, 1/2 t cumin, and the red chile flakes.  Stir fry for about 5-6 minutes, or until the beef is completely cooked through.  Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes until it is warm but still easy to handle.  Using a good knife (or a food processor if you're pressed for time), finely mince the cooked meat.

Heat the remaining oil in a medium skillet and add the minced meat.  Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The end result should be nicely browned, crispy meat.  Drain on a plate with paper towels if desired (some folks like to keep the oil to keep things moist), and set aside.

Curtido (Salvadorean Pickled Cabbage Slaw)
No pupusa is complete without a generous side of curtido!  This pickled cabbage & carrot slaw lends a lovely tangy flavor that seems to enhance the rest of the pupusa, while adding just the right amount of lightly crunchy texture.  No pupusas?  No worries!  This is also delicious over some regular rice & beans.

1 small head of cabbage, shredded
2 quarts water
1 large carrot, grated
1 small yellow onion, sliced
1/2 c white vinegar
1/4 c water
1 T salt
1 T dried oregano
1 t freshly ground black pepper

Blanch the cabbage in the 2 quarts of water for no more than 30 seconds.  Drain, rinse with cold water, then drain again.  Place the blanched cabbage, and the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix together until completely combined.  Cover and allow to marinate for about an hour at room temperature before refrigerating (this is crucial to ensure the proper flavor).  Place in airtight glass containers and refrigerate until ready to use.

Assemble your pu-pizza:
Preheat the oven to 450°.  Spread about 3/4 cup refried beans in an even layer on the pupusa crust.  Sprinkle with extra grated cheese and place in the oven for about 7 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.  Remove from oven.  Sprinkle the pu-pizza with chicharrón, then drizzle a generous amount of salsa roja on the pizza.  Lastly, sprinkle liberally with drained curtido.  Cut into individual slices, serve with extra salsa & curtido if desired, and enjoy!

*   *   *

Eso si que estuvo delicioso!  (That was sure delicious!)  But I couldn't possibly leave without dessert, especially now that I was taking that culinary trek to El Salvador.  There are too many sweets to ignore in both of my mother countries, so I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to enjoy some of what Central America had to offer; with a South American twist, of course.  I decided to make dessert pizza inspired by a couple of traditional sweet Salvadorean dishes: platanos con crema (sweet plantains with cream) and quesadilla Salvadoreña (Salvadorean coffee cake).  The sweet plantains are usually served on their own as a side to pupusas and yucca con chicarrón, while the Salvadorean quesadilla is enjoyed with coffee for dessert.  I decided to tweak the quesadilla recipe a bit before combining the two, and ended up with a dessert completely my own!  And I must say I am more than pleased with the result!  With some extra queso fresco and a guayaba (guava) sauce, this is sweet, moist, cheesy, and 100% delicious.  This is so sinful it almost hurts!  Here's how to make this happen in your own homes.

Salvadorean Dessert Pizza with Platanos y Guayaba (serves 4; total cost per serving: ~ $2.50)

Salvadorean Quesadilla "Crust"
1 c rice flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 lb grated queso fresco (parmesan cheese can also be used in a pinch)
1 1/4 c sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 c milk
1 stick (1/2 c) butter, melted

1 medium ripe plantain, chopped
1/2 t cinnamon
1 T brown sugar
1/2 c guava paste
1/4 c butter, divided
1/4 c water
1/4 c queso fresco, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Sift the flour and baking powder together into a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine the grated cheese, eggs, sugar and milk, and beat together with an electric mixer until smooth.  Add the melted butter and mix to combine.  Finally, add the flour mixture in small increments, whisking together to combine in between.  Your batter should be thick and creamy.  Pour the batter into a greased 9" pie pan and bake for 25 minutes, or until the center is dry when tested with a toothpick.  Cool on a rack for another 15-20 minutes before removing from pan.

In a small skillet, melt the butter and add the chopped plantains, cinnamon and sugar.  In a small saucepan, melt the rest of the butter and guava paste together over medium low heat, thinning with water as you go along.  Cook for about 10 minutes or until the mixture is smooth and spreadable.

Assemble your dessert pizza by spreading a generous amount of guava sauce on the Salvadorean quesadilla.  Spoon the sauteed plantains on top, sprinkle with plenty of queso fresco, and enjoy!

*    *    *

Once again, I'm ever-so-grateful to Project Food Blog for squeezing the best out of me as a food blogger.  Before this, I would have never thought I could make pupusas at home, let alone the mammoth variation I put together!  I know it's a bit different, and I'd had other ideas about what to make for this particular challenge, but I am SO glad I chose to honor my heritage and tackle some Salvadorean cuisine with a couple of twists!  It required a bit of effort but it was definitely a delight to finally have pupusas - or a variation thereof - in my own little home.  Now that I know it's not as scary as I thought it would be, especially because I was inducted into the world of pupusa-making by tackling something even crazier like one 11-inches in size, I am all for making these for myself from now on.  That and the fact that I could eat my weight in curtido and never get tired of it, of course!

As for my dessert pizza, I am beyond thrilled with how it turned out.  The tweaks I made gave me the texture I was looking for: dense, smooth, and slightly custard-like (the traditional Salvadorean quesadilla is slightly more cake-y in texture).  The toppings were just wonderful, with each flavor complementing the next, and the slightly sweet "quesadilla" making the perfect base.  I have the feeling I'll be making this one a LOT during the winter!  It's a comfort-food with a slightly tropical twist; what's not to love?

Thanks for taking the time to read this entry!  I hope it gave you some insight into a different culture whose cuisine is often overlooked.  I'm so glad I finally represent both sides of my incredibly rich heritage on PGEW, about which I'm extremely proud!  Gotta love pizza for being one of those foods that you can tweak in almost any unique way you can think of; and I have to admit this is about unique as it gets!

If you enjoyed this Project Food Blog entry, please take the time to cast your vote starting Monday, October 18th at 6am Pacific Time.  All of your support has gotten me this far and I'd love to make it to Round 6 to show you what else Poor Girl can do.  I'm off to enjoy some of my dessert pizza now.  Thanks for reading!  - Kimberly


  1. Love it! Very creative...can't wait for voting to begin tomorrow!!

  2. Ay chica! Te amo! I love that you went to your roots for this one :) You've got my vote as usual!
    p.s. I'll see you in San Fran :)

  3. I have a pupusa every Sunday at the Hollywood Farmers Market. Those are traditional these are spectacular! GREG

  4. That ... LOOKS AMAZING! Impressed and so pleased to see some South American flavor entering this round of the competition! I would SO eat that!

  5. Very cool, Kimberly. You have my vote. I love this blog, by the way, I'm not sure I've ever commented.

  6. I love that you chose to incorporate foods from your heritage into the pizza challenge! What an incredibly creative idea. The pizzas look sooo tasty! YUM!

  7. And you even made us a dessert! What a great entry, loved reading about these pupusas, I have never heard of them! :) Good luck with PFB!

  8. Kimberly,
    I have always known that you have been able to cook since you were very small. But this time you not ONLY created something spectacular and UNIQUE but to have crated such a BRILLIANT and different TITLE really makes ME as your MOTHER extremely PROUD of your WRITING SKILLS.


  9. Thanks so much, everyone! I love that everyone's enjoying this, whether they've already tried pupusas or not!

    Mara - YAY!!! We'll finally be able to meet! :D

    Greg, a weekly pupusa @ Hollywood Farmers Market sounds so good! Wish my friendly farmers market sold those!

    Kelly, I'm sure you'd love this if you ate it! I'm just glad I didn't break the darned thing, lol!

    And Mama..... thank you, from the bottom of my heart! That's the best comment ever, though I could never have done any of this without you & your excellent teaching skills! Thank you & I love you! :)

    Now for some more of that dessert pizza... mmm...

  10. Kimberly, this is great stuff! I have to know, are the flours you use traditional, or are you Gluten Intolerant?

    I am, and I have to use these flours... Can't wait to try out your recipes! Lynda

  11. Lynda, nope! No dietary restrictions for me so far. But the traditional Salvadorean quesadilla is made w/rice flour and I actually happened to have some (can't go out & buy extra stuff right now!), so this worked out perfectly! Can't imagine this would taste the same w/regular wheat flour.

    Hope you like the end results! :)

  12. Kimberly, I am seriously crazy about your recipes. I just went vegetarian about a year and a half ago, and I went from missing meat every day to not missing it at all after trying out your deliiicious inexpensive vegetarian meals! I'm SO excited to make both of these when I get back from Mexico!!

  13. I want that dessert pizza. It looks so good-- cheese and fruit!

  14. Oh, those look so tasty!
    You have my vote!

  15. looks delicious! it's great to see your family's heritage cooking incorporated. good luck!

  16. Goodness...everyone is going ALL out for PFB!! You truly outdid yourself on this one too...I tried my first pupusa a year ago, and fell in love. I can't imagine it transformed it into pizza, that just sounds ridiculously amazing!!

  17. I was salivating reading your description!

  18. congratulations! I've been voting for you.

  19. Yum! Pupusas are amazing. We always get them when we are at the Saturday market in Portland. And to transform them into a pizza is genius. And those dessert pizzas? Dang. Looks scrumptious. You had me at platanos. =) I voted for you, yet again!

    Good luck! hope to see us both in round 6!! =)

  20. This is really brilliant! I bet curtido on a pizza was AWESOME!!!

  21. Look fun & tasty.

  22. ammmazing. Seriously, wonderful. Best of luck chica!

  23. Wow, that's a unique delicious-sounding pizza! And beautiful at that. I don't know how I'd decide between the entree and the dessert pizza :)


  24. Wow both of those variations of pizza look amazing! I've never had or even heard of pupusas before but I have to try this pizza out.

  25. I can't wait to try your versions of pizza and dessert. I just love spins on traditional items. Good luck, you've got my vote!

  26. Neat! I like how you made both the main pizza and the dessert pizza Salvadoran.

  27. I love me some Pupusas...and I am loving your pizza. Nicely done!

  28. Great idea! I love pupusas and cannot wait to try this!

  29. Not familiar with Salvadorean food, but this looks great.

  30. Definitely a creative rendition for Challenge #5! Great job and best of luck to you! You've got my vote!

  31. Your pizza look so good. I love the idea of putting something Salvadorean on a pizza. I will definitely try your recipes.

  32. We went with making our own pupusas over a month ago once you suggested it. They were so good! Of course it works for a pu-pizza too. :)

  33. Viva la pizza. . Your pizzas look beautiful, so inviting.



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