The idea of making tortillas at home might seem daunting, says Bricia Lopez, a second-generation co-owner, along with her siblings, of Los Angeles Oaxacan institution Guelaguetza. But "I think sometimes people will spend more time making pancakes in the morning than to make a tortilla, which can come together very easily."
Even easier than making tortillas at home are memelas, slightly thicker than tortillas and pinched around the edges.
"I moved to L.A. when I was 10 years old; that was my breakfast for the first 10 years of my life," says Lopez, whose most recent cookbook is " Asada: The Art of Mexican Grilling." "They are the thing you eat for breakfast in Oaxaca, 365 days of the year."
The warm memelas are smeared with aciento, which is made with pork fat, and topped with refried black bean puree scented with avocado leaf and then Oaxacan string cheese.
"It's just so ingrained in who I am that, you know, now that I'm a grown woman, I just forget how special that is," Lopez said. "I want my son to eat that again. I want to re-create that at home. ... It's a part of the Oaxacan culture."
Memelas are an excellent introduction to masa, because you don't have to make them as thin as tortillas. "Memelas can be a bit thicker," Lopez says. "You want to be able to pinch them. You want to be able to still play around with them. Tortillas are so thin that if you pinched it, it will just break through. Memelas are a little more forgiving for those starting out with making any sort of masa vehicle.
"Start with great-quality masa and some water. Figure out the dough consistency. ... Start making them. I think it's a beautiful thing."
Black bean and Oaxacan cheese memelas
Time: One hour 30 minutes
Yields: Makes about 10 memelas
For the aciento
½ pound chicharron
¾ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 cloves roasted garlic
For the salsa
6 dried morita chiles, stems removed
3 dried guajillo chiles
1 pound tomatillos Milperos
4 garlic cloves
For the memelas
½ pound (2 cups) masa harina
11 ounces (1¼cups plus 2 tablespoons) hot water
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup Refried Black Bean Puree
Queso fresco or queso oaxaca
1. Make the aciento: Put the chicharron, olive oil, salt and roasted garlic in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth.
2. Make the salsa: In a comal or large cast-iron skillet under medium heat, add the chiles, tomatillos and garlic. Mix well and toast until tomatillos are blistered and the garlic and chiles are toasted, about 10 minutes. Remove peel from the garlic once it is toasted.
In a saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, turn off the heat and add chiles. Let soak for 30 minutes. When softened, remove chiles and reserve; discard the water.
Add soaked chiles, tomatillos and garlic to a blender jar. Blend until smooth and add salt to taste.
3. Make the memelas: Put the masa harina in a large bowl. In a separate container, stir the hot water and salt until the salt is dissolved. Pour the salted water over the masa harina, kneading masa harina and salted water together until it is a dough-like consistency; it should be moist but not stick to your hands. Assemble the masa into balls weighing 55 grams each and set aside.
Press each one individually on a plastic-lined tortilla press. Each ball should be about 5 inches after pressing.
4. Bring the comal or a cast-iron pan to medium heat. When the pan is hot, carefully transfer each memela to the comal, cooking each side for about 2 minutes until the memela is fully cooked. Remove from the comal.
Spread about ½ teaspoon of aciento on each memela and layer with 1½ teaspoons of black beans on top. Place back on the hot comal, bean side up, until the bottom gets a bit crispy, and top with crumbled queso fresco (or queso oaxaca, pulled into strings) and salsa as desired. Cook for about a minute until the queso and salsa have warmed. Remove from heat and serve hot.
This makes more aciento and salsa than you will need for the memelas. Save for another use, in a covered container in the refrigerator, for up to five days. For the aciento, Lopez uses a combination of chicharron de tiritas and chicharron delgado, which can be found at the hot deli section of Mexican markets.
Refried black bean puree
Time: One hour 30 minutes
Yields: Makes 4½ cups
Bricia Lopez makes refried black bean puree with avocado leaves and chile de arbol for her memelas. These beans are delicious topped with fresh quesillo. Avocado leaves are available at Mexican markets.
1 pound dry black beans, picked over and rinsed
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
½ small white onion
Salt to taste
1 chile de arbol
2 dried avocado leaves
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
¼ small white onion, finely chopped
1. In a stock pot, add the beans and garlic. Cut the ½ onion into quarters and drop them into the pot. Cover the beans with water. Bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook the beans until they are tender. This can take anywhere from one to two hours, depending on how old the beans are. If the liquid is evaporating too fast and the beans start to show, bring an additional 1 or 2 cups of water to a boil and add to the pot.
3. Once the beans are nearly fully cooked (they should be tender), salt to taste, stir and continue cooking for an additional 10 minutes. Once the beans are tender to the bite, remove the garlic cloves. Add the beans and ½ cup of cooking liquid (or water if necessary) to a blender. Add chile de arbol and avocado leaves and puree until smooth. Set aside.
4. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan. Once hot, add the chopped onion and cook, stirring, until it starts to soften. Add the black bean mixture and fry, stirring until the beans are hot, about 10 minutes.