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 restaurant 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 (me-may-las), 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 (a maize dough), because you don't have to make them as thin as tortillas. "You want to be able to still play around with them," Lopez says. "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.
"Memelas are essentially a thicker tortilla that we pinch around" the edges, says Lopez, who layers them with aciento for fat and texture, black beans pureed with avocado leaves and then refried, Oaxaca cheese and a red salsa. Served warm, straight from the pan, they're delicious breakfast food.
After spreading with aciento and beans, return the memelas to the skillet or comal, top and desired and heat until the bottom crisps. (Los Angeles Times/TNS/Cody Long)
"The secret to a great memela is that when we flip it, we start pinching it," Lopez says, "and then you prepare it right on the comal. All the fat and all the cheese and all the salsa have to come together as one."
A tip from Lopez: A great substitute for aciento is duck fat. "I mean, it's duck fat, and who doesn't like that?"
The aciento, salsa and beans can be made up to five days in advance, so all one needs to do in the morning is cook and top the memelas.
Bricia Lopez's Black Bean and Oaxacan Cheese Memelas
- For the aciento (see note):
- ½ pound chicharron
- ¾ cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 cloves roasted garlic
- For the salsa (see note):
- 6 dried morita or chipotle chiles, stems removed
- 3 dried guajillo chiles
- 1 pound fresh tomatillos, preferably Milperos variety
- 4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- For the memelas:
- ½ pound (2 cups) masa harina
- 1 cup PLUS 6 tablespoons hot water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup Refried Black Bean Puree (recipe follows)
- Queso fresco or queso oaxaca pulled into strings
- Optional garnishes: Fried egg, thinly sliced radishes, cilantro, additional salsa
Make the aciento: Put the chicharron, olive oil, salt and roasted garlic in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth.
Make the salsa: In a comal or large cast-iron skillet on 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 peeled garlic to a blender jar. Blend until smooth and add salt to taste.
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. Divide and shape the masa into balls weighing 55 grams (scant 2 ounces) each and set aside. You should have 10 balls.
Press each one individually on a plastic-lined tortilla press (a gallon-size zip-close plastic bag that has been split open on each side works well). Each ball should be about 5 inches after pressing.
(Editor's note: If you don't have a tortilla press, you can press the masa using the bottom of a heavy skillet and a rolling pin. Place the masa ball inside the slit open plastic bag, center the skillet on top and press firmly. Even out with a rolling pin, if necessary.)
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, pinching it with your fingertips after flipping (you can use a damp towel to protect your fingers, if necessary), until the memela is fully cooked. Remove from the comal. (Lopez leaves the memelas on the comal while topping with the aciento and beans.)
Spread about ½ teaspoon of aciento on each memela and layer with 1 ½ 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.
Makes 10 memelas.
Note: 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 5 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. Duck fat can be substituted for the aciento.
Lopez makes refried black bean puree with avocado leaves and chile de arbol for her memelas. These beans are delicious topped with fresh quesillo (cheese). Avocado leaves are available at Mexican markets.
Bricia Lopez's Refried Black Bean Puree
- 1 pound dried black beans, picked over and rinsed
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 small white onion
- Salt to taste
- 1 chile de arbol
- 2 dried avocado leaves, optional
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a stock pot, add the beans and garlic. Cut the onion in half and then cut one half into quarters. Set the remaining onion half aside. Add the quarters to the pot. Cover the beans with water. Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook the beans until they are tender. This can take anywhere from 1 to 2 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.
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.
Finely chop half of the remaining onion. (You will have ¼ onion leftover; save it for another use.)
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.
Beans will keep, refrigerated, for up to 5 days.
Makes 4 ½ cups.