Panuchos, Hints and Family Drama

by Matt on June 23, 2007


Many years ago, after months of swearing and cursing to the powers that be, I was graciously offered an assistant. My work load had become too unmanageable and it was deemed a good time to bring on someone to help. After a few basic interviews I decided on a lovely girl by the name of Maria*. Full of smiles, Maria and I developed an immediate rapport and she was a great employee– when we worked, that is. We spent much of our time chatting in Spanish (mine broken, thank you very much) while I listened to tales of her family that rivaled any overly dramatic novela on television. There were disappearing family members who reappeared in strange places with new names, the closeted gay nephew who kept his nightly drag performances hidden from the family, the lonely and nosey spinster aunt, a stoic and overbearing Catholic mother who ran the show, numeous forbidden loves and a cast of colorful characters that added to the already unreal familial history. I loved hearing about her family.

I always looked forward to seeing her every morning. I had so many questions!  How could her aunt not notice her nephew’s perfectly plucked eyebrows and stained lips without being suspicious? Did her cousin really work for the government as a mercenary before becoming a baker? Was the family home back in El Salvador as beautiful as the photos she shared with me and how soon could I visit? Many times her tales would spill over into our lunch hour, where we’d continue them over plates of pupusas piled high with cortido. Before meeting her I never really explored Salvadorian food, but she seemed to know every cafe and pupuseria in the Southland. It didn’t take long to realize how much I loved pupusas, those little cheese- and meat-filled tortillas that are served with a vinegar cabbage slaw on top. Do you ever have those moments when you discover someone or something exists that you wish you knew about sooner?  That was my experience with Maria and pupusas.

Fast forward to last month. I had a freelance job shooting some comida Yucateca and other than what I’ve ordered in a restaurant or learned from Rick Bayless I shamefully don’t know too much about it.  I’ve never been to the Yucatan (hint hint, my dearest Adam!) and my family history is Northern Mexico with a cuisine all its own. Of course that opened a floodgate to my obsessive ways and I had to research more so that I would feel comfortable with it and wouldn’t you know I stumbled onto Panuchos, a cousin to the Central American pupusas. Crunchy corn tortillas are fried with a layer of smooth black beans inside and topped with various condiments like tomatoes, lime wedges, pickled onions or avocados. They’re usually antojitos meaning appetizers or small snacks and they’re utterly heavenly and easy to eat. They all but disappeared immediately–always a good sign if you ask me.  And while it was fantastic discovering all the other major dishes of the Yucatan, panuchos have become a favorite at our house.



This recipe comes from two of my favorite ladies, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. They’re delightful gals and have great restaurants here in Los Angeles. I’ve explored a few panucho recipes and really dig this one. Also, if you’re near a Latin market you may find masa harina already made in dough form; it saves some time. And if you don’t want to go through the effort of making black beans you can use a high quality canned version.

2 cups finely ground masa harina
1 3/8 cups cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup refried black beans, pureed
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 cups shredded roasted chicken
1 cup roasted tomato salsa
1 cup picked red onions, see recipe
1 cup avocado, peeled, seeded and sliced


In a large bowl combine first three ingredients and stir until smooth. The dough should be slightly sticky and form a ball when pressed together. To test, flatten a small piece of dough between your palms. If the edges crack, add water to the dough, a tablespoon at a time, until a test piece does not crack.

Divide the masa into 12 pieces and form each into a ball.  Press or roll each into a 4-inch circle.  Heat a dry cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat and cook the tortillas.  When cool enough to handle, pick up each puffed tortilla and make a 1 1/2-inch slit about 1/4-inch from the edge to make a pocket, being careful not to cut all the way through the tortilla.  Puree the refried black beans and stuff 2 teaspoons of the bean puree in each pocket.  Flatten to seal and spread the beans evenly.  Reserve the stuffed tortillas and cover with a barely damp cloth.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over high heat.  Fry the stuffed tortillas in batches, adding more oil as necessary, until they are a little crisp around the edges but still pliable.  Drain on paper towels.  Then place on a tray and keep warm in a 200 degree oven.
Heat the chicken in a small pan over low heat.  Remove the tray of panuchos from the oven.  Top each with a tablespoon salsa. Sprinkle on the chicken and pickled red onions and top each with a small avocado slice.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves six.

For the Yucatan Pickled Red Onions:
This recipe comes from Epicurious and is so simple. I wouldn’t skip it as the vinegary onions are perfect with the fried corn flavor of the panucho. Plus they turn a very pretty shade of pink. Probably like Maria’s cousin’s lipstick.

2 red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme
salt and pepper to taste


Place onions in a saucepan, add water to cover, bring to a boil and remove from heat. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process. Place the onions in a non-reactive container with the remaining ingredients and allow to sit for several hours before serving. They keep up to one week in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3 cups.


*Maria is not her real name. Since I’ve blabbed on and on about her personal life I figured I’d at least change her name to protect what little privacy I’ve left her. And also, hopefully soon, I’ll be able to learn all about the food of the Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico. Not that I’d ever pressure my husband into taking me somewhere through something public like a blog or anything.

Secret Message To My Partner : Adam my dear I am going to wake you up every day at 5:05am with new and important bits of information about Mérida and I will not stop until we visit. Consider yourself warned.