Forty days and 40 nights of vegetarian eating are underway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Don’t cry for us, Argentina; there’s no hardship here, as local Catholics look forward to meatless specialties known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods) reserved for the spring. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, cherished recipes are culled from handwritten family notebooks to feed legions of hungry pageant participants.
Pre-dawn firecrackers and skyrockets set off by priests in church yards get everyone up to take part in processions during Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. The events are widely regarded as some of Mexico’s most elaborate, starring thousands of emotional believers dressed in costume without a single paid actor in sight.
Good Friday is the culmination of weeks of nonstop pageantry with long, unbearably slow and tortuous dragging of crosses through cobblestoned streets to the dispirited beat of a single drum. As they perspire in the hot afternoon sun, solemn men and women in dark dress with purple sashes brace heavy saint statues on their shoulders, but press forward. Children through seniors represent angels and ancient mourners, and wave after wave of their faithful parishioners trod onward in the depths of despair. Parade watchers are stacked along the route in hushed silence. Devotion runs deep and true.
Gorditas among the Lenten offerings
Marching like this brings on a mean hunger. Besides a gazillion bean dishes, most regional Lenten répertoires are rounded out by cheese-stuffed fat tortillas lovingly called gorditas, “or little fat ones”; pipiánes, protein-rich pumpkin-seed sauces poured over vegetables; patties made with countless nonmeat combinations; and soups galore. And then we have Gorditas de Piloncillo. Certainly not your typical gordita, and about as well known today as hardtack, its beginning is centuries old — with a bit of delightful religiosity thanks to the Spanish-Mexican addiction to tradition.
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Generations of local women have sold them outside the San Juan de Dios church (a half block from the market) from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays only during Lent. Today at least a dozen ladies in embroidered aprons from surrounding neighborhoods sit, all lined up curbside, each pan-frying sublimely sweet, crisp tortilla turnovers. It’s hard to choose whom to buy from, but I look for sellers with smiling faces taking pesos with one hand and cooking with the other, or better yet, with an assistant handling cash. Another tip: Stay clear when the church school recess bell rings — chaos reigns as screaming kids stampede to be first in line.
For years I thought teeny, wooden tortilla presses I saw in Mexican markets were toys. Man oh man am I surprised as I watch grown women gently press out children’s tea-party-sized, 3-inch tortillas! Remedios Martinez, sitting under her signature shade umbrella, grabs a tiny ball of masa (corn dough) flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon), anise seeds and ground chile — she likes guajillo but says others use cascabel — and then presses it into a thin tortilla. She drops a teaspoon of crumbled piloncillo (raw brown sugar) in the center, folds it over and slides it into shimmering-hot vegetable oil to crisp and brown.
Not at all like the more usual regional offering — round, stuffed gorditas — these delicate mini tacos are really different. The spoonful of sugar dramatically transforms into a crunchy glaze as the gordita cools and hardens with an interior as brittle as a candied apple. God can definitely be found biting into a Gordita de Piloncillo.
Gorditas de Piloncillo (Sweet, Crisp Turnovers)
Remedios Martinez miraculously cranks out 800 Gorditas de Piloncillo each day from her street-side, oilcloth-covered folding card table and mesquite wood-fired brazier; they remain crunchy for about four hours and then lose their glamour.
Makes about 30
2 cups masa harina
3 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)
2 tablespoons anise seeds
3 tablespoons ground or flaked dried guajillo or cascabel chile
½ pound grated piloncillo (raw brown sugar available in cones), or dark brown sugar
1. Using a stand mixer, mix the masa harina, canela, anise seeds and chile with about 2 cups warm water to get a soft dough.
2. Pull off rounded tablespoons of dough and form into small balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp tea towel to keep the balls moist until the dough runs out.
3. Using a freezer baggie, cut 2 squares of the thick plastic slightly larger than the diameter of the press and place one on the bottom part of a tortilla press. Center a masa ball on the plastic. Cover the masa with the other square of plastic. Lower the top of the press and gently push on the handle. Open the press, turn the tortilla (with plastic) 180 degrees, and push again to make a small, 3-inch round. Open the press. The tortilla will have plastic stuck on the top and bottom. Peel away the top plastic, then gently flip the tortilla over into your other hand and carefully peel that plastic away. Put 1 teaspoon piloncillo in the center, fold over and press the edges together. Lay on a tray. Repeat with a few others.
4. Pour vegetable oil ¼-inch deep into a wide skillet and heat to rippling hot 360 F to 370 F. Test the heat by dropping a small piece of dough into the oil. It should sizzle and turn deep golden within 10 seconds.
5. Slide three or four gorditas at a time into the hot oil. Turn until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove to an opened-up paper bag to drain and crisp.
6. Repeat in batches of three or four with the remaining dough.
Top photo: Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky