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Mexican Antojitos - Papadzules

The gastronomy of the southern state of Yucatán is fairly unique in Mexico. This remote region, with its swamps and jungles, was inaccessible and cut off from the rest of the country, and its cuisine evolved around very specific ingredients, both native and external. It is the land of the Maya and their magnificent temples, and its strategic location, jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico, has exposed it to foreign influences throughout its history, before as well as after the Conquest. It was only in the 1950s that the construction of a highway ended its isolation and brought it closer to central Mexico.


Palenque © Philip Hood


Papadzules are a very Yucatecan antojito which is typically served at breakfast in the markets and on the streets. The word translates as “food of the lords”, a grand name indeed, but it is in fact a very simple dish: tortillas dipped in a pumpkin seed sauce, rolled around a filling of hard boiled eggs and topped with a tomato sauce, chopped habañero chillies and “cebollas curtidas”, pickled onions. The first mouthful tends to be a disappointment, as the initial impression is one of blandness, but somehow, it all grows on you and by the last mouthful, you are hooked on the subtle complexity of the flavours and textures: the faint sweetness of the tortilla, the nutty, creamy opulence of the gritty green sauce, the chewy, rubbery egg stuffing, the sharp mellowness of the tomatoes, the occasional burst of fire from the chilli and bite from the onion – it is a dish of extreme and exciting contrasts which all somehow manage to work harmoniously together.

One of the main characteristics of papadzules is the garnish of bright green pumpkin seed oil, which oozes out of the paste used to make the sauce. The pumpkin seeds are available ready toasted and ground in the markets and, once moistened with a bit of water or stock, the paste has to be kneaded by hand until the oil starts to separate. It is then drizzled over the papadzules just before serving. However, if you are a 21st century cook prone to using electrical appliances whenever possible, your chances of coaxing some oil out of a paste made in a food processor are slim, unless you are prepared to spend some time squeezing, pummelling and generally manhandling the mass of ground pumpkin seeds. Luckily the final flavour of the dish is not particularly affected by the oil itself, which is very delicious but also very delicate – and the easiest way to make your papadzules look absolutely Yucatecan and authentic is to buy a bottle of cold pressed pumpkin seed oil (expensive but well worth it!) and add a slick of it to the finished dish.

The Mexican herb epazote is traditional in the pumpkin seed sauce. It is fairly widely available in its dried form, but if you cannot find it either fresh or dried, just leave it out.

Papadzules

Makes 6 papadzules

For the pickled onions:-
225 g/1/2 lb onions, peeled and sliced
1 hot fresh red chilli
1 bay leaf
½ tsp salt
125 ml/1/2 cup white wine or cider vinegar

For the tomato sauce:-
500 g/18 oz tomatoes, halved
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
45 ml/3 tbsp olive oil
250 g/9 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pumpkin seed sauce:-
375 ml/1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or water with 5 ml/1 tsp bouillon powder
1 stalk epazote, fresh or dried (optional)
100 g/4 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
250 g/9 oz hulled pumpkin seeds
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the papadzules:-
6 eggs, hard boiled, shelled, coarsely chopped and seasoned
6 corn tortillas
1 habañero or other hot fresh chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
Pumpkin seed oil (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

The pickled onions benefit from sitting for a day or two to develop flavour and mellow so make them ahead of time if possible. Blanch the onions in boiling water for one minute and drain well. Place in a china or glass bowl, add the whole chilli, bay leaf and salt, pour over the vinegar and set aside for 3 hours at least, or for up to three days in the refrigerator.

For the tomato sauce, heat the grill to high. Line the grill pan with kitchen foil and place the tomato halves, cut side up, and garlic cloves on it. Grill 10 cm/4 in from the heat for about 20 minutes, until soft and slightly blackened, turning the garlic cloves over half way through. Cool, then peel the garlic and place it in a food processor with the tomatoes and any juices. Season and process to a chunky purée.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and cook the onions, stirring often, until they are soft and starting to brown. Add the tomato purée and check the seasoning. The sauce can be prepared several days ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen. Reheat before serving.

Place the stock or water in a saucepan with the epazote, onions and garlic cloves, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain.

Cook the pumpkin seeds in a heavy frying pan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they pop and just start to brown – 4 to 5 minutes. Be careful not to let them scorch or the sauce will be bitter. Cool slightly and set 2 tbsp aside for the garnish. Grind the remainder finely in a food processor. With the motor running, slowly pour in the stock to make a creamy sauce. Season and keep warm or reheat very gently.

When you are ready to make the papadzules, heat the oven to its lowest setting and put a serving dish to warm. Place a tortilla on a plate, spoon some pumpkin seed sauce and one sixth of the egg in the centre and roll it up. Repeat with the remaining tortillas. Place the papadzules in the serving dish, drizzle with the remaining pumpkin seed sauce and then the tomato sauce. Sprinkle with sliced chilli, pickled onions and the reserved pumpkin seeds.

Drizzle with pumpkin seed oil and serve immediately.

Buén provecho!

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