Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Do you have a Panaderia Tortilleria in your hometown? Chances are you do, they are Mexican bakeries with all kinds of delicious foods inside. We are a melting pot of cultures, even in NW Arkansas you can sample Indian, Thai, Mongolian, Szechuan, Cantonese, Salvadorian, and Mexican. I love trying new recipes and no matter where we've lived, I try my hand at regional favorites. In Texas, that included making tamales, gorditas and sopes. Masa Harina is the secret ingredient, but it's not easy to get the same results as Mamacita's kitchen turns out. Just like a Southern Grandma's biscuits, technique is key. So, since my Moma was not a Mamacita... I have trouble making something as simple as a sope!

In Mexico, the sope (pronounced “SOH-peh”) is as common as a taco for lunch. Street vendors turn them out in minutes while you wait, and salivate! They are open face sandwiches, similar to a tostada, but the sope is made of fresh masa formed into a boat shape vessel to get the delicious fillings from plate to your mouth easily. They can be hand held, but the best ones require a plate and a fork to get every last bite! 

My local Panaderia sells the sope shells, freshly made and ready to slip onto a warm griddle to crisp (or a quick dip into hot oil and drained), then topped with chopped brisket, pork or chicken it turns leftover meat into a delicacy! From Rick Bayles' Mexico One Plate at a Time, here is the simple recipe for sopes. I love the way he writes recipes, you taste the country as well as the food! This recipe is long but not complicated, it's technique that he teaches.

"Every culture has its small bites–sushi, dim sum, tapas, mezze. But in Mexico, these flavorful tidbits fall into a different kind of category: “antojitos,” the foods you crave. These are the snacks and street foods, as well as the special-occasion treats, that Mexicans love best–the stuff that comforts the soul and sets the heart racing."
1 pound (2 cups) fresh corn masa for tortillas (OR 1 3/4 cups powdered masa harina mixed with a scant 1 cup + 2 tablespoons warm water) 
2 tablespoons lard or 2 tablespoons shortening 
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup brothy beans, coarsely pureed with a little broth 
8 ounces chorizo sausage
vegetable oil (for frying) 
green tomatillo sauce 
mexican queso fresco 
mexican crema or thinned sour cream
shredded lettuce
radishes, sliced paper thin

Forming and griddle baking the sopes: Heat a well seasoned or nonstick griddle or heavy skillet over medium. Put the mash (fresh or reconstituted) into a bowl and knead in 3/4 teaspoon salt. If necessary, knead in a few drops of water to give the masa the consistency of soft cookie dough. Divide into 5 pieces, roll into balls and cover with plastic to keep them from drying out.
One by one, form the fat little tortillas that will become the sopes: Line a tortilla press with two pieces of plastic cut to fit the plates (be on the safe side, cut them from a food storage bag; the thicker plastic usually works better for beginners). Place a ball into the plastic lined press, gently pat and press it into a evenly flat disc, about 3/8 inch thick (the original recipe says 1/4" thick, with practice maybe I can do this!) and 2 and 1/2 inches in diameter. With the fat little tortilla still on the plastic, flip it over onto one hand, dough side down and peel off the plastic. Lay the tortilla on the hot skillet and bake for about a minute per side, until lightly browned-- in doing so you are transforming the tortilla into a sope, a little masa boat!  Do the same with all of the balls, allowing each to cool and forming into sope/masa boats. Cover with plastic and set aside. 
For the Filling: Simmer the beans down to a thick bean soup consistency. Take out half the beans and mash, add back enough of the brothy beans to make a refried consistency. (Also adapted from the usual method of re-frying the beans.) In a small skillet heat 1 T. oil over medium heat. Add the chorizo and cook, breaking up any pieces. When cooked drain off fat and cover with foil-place in oven to keep warm. (I used leftover grilled chicken.)
Frying the shells: Add the oil to a heavy skillet 3/4 of an inch deep. Fry the shells one at a time until lightly browned. Drain on paper towels then place in a cast iron skillet to keep warm in the oven. Repeat until shells are done. (You just have to do this step, no baking the shells. It's a flavor thing... the crispy/soft shell, the spicy filling and the cool creamy toppings!)
Finishing the Dish: Layer in this order- Shell, refried beans, chorizo, tomatillo sauce. cheese, lettuce, radish slices, crema.

One more note Herdez is making a great new Taqueria Salsa made from tomatillos and morita peppers, just like the familar smoky sauce you find on dinner tables all over Mexico! I found it at Walmart.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Main Street Cafe- Hackett, Arkansas

The noon crowd that gathers at the Main Street Cafe in Hackett, Arkansas are hungry, hardworking folks. I looked around the room and saw the faces of middle America. The ones who live simple lives and like it, the ones who struggle to pay taxes and most likely the ones that Congressman Steve Womack talked about last week at the Town Hall meetings held for District 3.

We can't help but worry our future, it's apparent that Washington is clueless to what we face with higher prices for gas, groceries, utilities... the list goes on. Unlike government, these folks would be in sad shape if they didn't have the money to cover their debts. Miss a few payments to the bank and the farm that pays your bills is in jeopardy. Lord help us if we get sick, because health care plans are hard to pay for when your work is your cattle.

The cafe was full the day we visited. Friends and neighbors of the small community of Hackett, a town of roughly 800 people gather at the Main Street Cafe to talk politics, to exhange the news and share their worries and their joys. 

Most of them ordered the Blue Plate Special of fried catfish, fries and brown beans. Table by table, they left... off to an afternoon of hard work. Another day, another dollar.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Local Flavor

Daddy called it "Local Flavor," the Mom and Pop places that hide away in small towns along your trip. The one's that you might drive right by and miss out on a life experience if you judge the book by it's cover. I heard him say it over and over throughout my childhood. We visited many places just like the Main Street Cafe as we traveled to and from my Grandparents in another state.

Aunt B. and Uncle George had just such a place in mind to take us to when we visited last week. The town of Hackett, Arkansas had so much to offer that it's going to be a week of blogs! We got there early, just a few minutes before noon. The hometown hangout had a few tables taken, the choice tables were near the window air unit that was struggling in the River Valley heat. It was near 100 that day and we were glad to be inside with our head in the shade!

I started taking pictures and it wasn't long until a nice young man struck up a conversation. Come to find out he had just moved back to Hackett from Rogers, our stomping grounds. He had worked up here for a while and missed home.

Rural Hackett is farms and stone quarries, Fort Smith and Van Buren are close-by if you need to run to Target. It's not the middle of the boondocks, in fact it's only a few miles from "civilization." But for those who choose to live there, it's all about lifestyle. These are the people who choose to march to a different drum.

They go to high school ball games and church potlucks. They bake cakes and cookies to raise money for the senior class trip and they carry covered dishes when someone loses a loved one.

Hugs and Biscuits, the local convenience store sets right across the street from the cafe and if you live in Hackett, it's where you fill your tank and get your morning sausage biscuit. It's where you talk politics and no one gets their nose out of joint cause you're friends, in some cases you're lifetime friends. All those "Local Flavor" experiences taught me a valuable lesson in life. It taught me to never pass by the small places, or miss out on the simple pleasures in life. He didn't know that he taught me to never judge a book by it's cover, whether it was a place or a person.
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