Tlacoyo is the common name, a variation of the Nahuatl words tlatlaoyo and claclaoyo, given to an antojito typical of central Mexico: corn masa formed into a flattish elongated oval and stuffed often with ricotta, requeson, or a paste of fava beans. They vary enormously in size from very large—about 5 or 6 inches (13-15cm), in Santiago Tianguistenco, Estado de Mexico—to medium—about 4 inches (10cm) in Xochimilco—to very small—about 3 inches (7.5cm) in Sierra Norte de Puebla. Most traditional tlacoyos do not have lard and salt in the masa, and if not eaten the minute they are cooked they become very tough and dry, even when reheated.

Here is a recipe from the Sierra Norte de Puebla for the best I have tasted. Senora Hortensia Fagoaga, who gave me the recipe, said that her sister, a great expert, insists that the masa should be worked as much as possible so it becomes aerated and the lard distributed well. They can be eaten either alone or with the suggested topping.

Makes about 12 Tlacoyos

2 cups (500ml), 18 to 19 ounces/about 510g, Tortilla Masa (page 241)
2 tablespoons softened lard
Sea salt to taste
About 1 cup (250ml) bean paste (either black or dried fava) or well-drained ricotta

The Trimmings

About 1/2 cup (125ml) finely chopped white onion
About 1/3 cup (83ml) finely grated queso anejo, or 1/2 cup (125ml) crumbled queso fresco
1 1/4 cups (313ml) Salsa Verde (page 204) (optional)

Work together very well the masa, lard, and salt—the longer the better—until it is well aerated and very smooth. Divide into 12 equal pieces and roll each into a ball about 1 1/2 inches (3.75cm) in diameter. While you work with one, keep the rest of the balls covered with a damp cloth.

Heat an ungreased comal over medium heat.

Roll the ball into a cylindrical shape about 2 1/2 inches (6.25cm) long and 1 inch (2.5cm) wide. Place the dough in a tortilla press lined with a plastic bag (as if making tortillas) and press out, not too hard, to an oval shape about 3 inches (7.5cm) wide and about 4 inches (10cm) long. Place a scant tablespoon of the bean paste or ricotta in the middle of the dough and fold the sides over to cover the filling. Then pat out a flattish oval about 1/4 inch (62mm) thick. Place the tlacoyo on the warmed comal and cook over medium heat until the underside is opaque and shows dark brown speckles. Turn the tlacoyo over and cook on the second side, about 8 minutes on each side. The dough should be cooked through, but still soft, with a slightly crispy crust.

Sprinkle with the onion and cheese, and serve with the optional sauce.

Note: Like all antojitos of masa, ideally tlacoyos should be eaten right away, but this is not always practical. Once cooked, keep them under a damp towel and when ready to serve heat through gently, covered, on a warm comal. Then garnish and serve.

Salsa Verde

Mexican Green Tomato Sauce

A sauce made with tomate verde, known as tomatillos in the United States, is unique to Mexico. It is an uncooked table sauce, as I call it, as opposed to a green sauce in which meats, vegetables, or chicharron are added, or as a component of, say budin azteca, or tamales.

Of course, the sauce is more flavorful when made in a molcajete, although the tomate skins are rather tough to grind for the unpracticed or the cook in a hurry. With minor exceptions, the tomates are cooked.

Makes about 2 cups (500ml)

1 pound (450g) tomate verde, husks removed and rinsed
3 or more Serrano chiles, finely chopped
1/2 cup (125ml) loosely packed, roughly chopped cilantro, plus 2 tablespoons for the top
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons roughly chopped white onion
Sea salt to taste

Put the tomates whole in a small saucepan, barely cover with water, and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and continue cooking until soft but not falling apart, about 5 minutes depending on size. Drain, reserving the cooking water.

Using a molcajete: Mash and grind together the chiles, 1/2 cup (125ml) cilantro, the garlic, onion, and salt. Add the tomates a few at a time, crushing and grinding well after each addition and adding a little of the cooking liquid until you have a textured sauce of medium consistency. You will probably need about 1/2 cup (125ml) or even more of the cooking liquid.

Using a blender: Put 1/3 cup (83ml) of the cooking water into the blender jar. Add the chiles, 1/2 cup (125ml) cilantro, the garlic, and the onion and grind to a paste. Add the tomates a little at a time, blending with about 1/3 cup (83ml) more of the cooking liquid until you have a textured sauce of medium consistency. Add salt to taste. Although this sauce is much better eaten the same day on which it is made, it could be kept for a second day but I do not advise freezing. To serve: sprinkle the top with the extra cilantro.

Note: When tomate verde sauce is a component of a dish (and not a table sauce), use the same proportion of ingredients (although the cilantro is not always used) and cook the tomates with whole serranos. Drain, roughly chop the chiles, and blend all the ingredients with about 1 cup (250ml) of the cooking water until you have a fairly smooth sauce. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet and fry the sauce over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pan to avoid sticking. Continue cooking until the sauce has reduced and thickened to about 1 1/2 cups (375ml). This sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about three days and can be frozen for about one month. It tends to separate after defrosting, so give it a whirl in the blender.

Making Masa

Dried Corn Masa

Makes about 3 1/2 pounds (1.575kg), about 6 1/4 cups (1.75L)

2 pounds (450g) dried corn, about 5 cups (1.250L)
1 tablespoon powdered lime (calcium oxide; see page 243)

Run the dried corn kernels through your hands and discard any bits of extraneous stones, chaff, etc. Then rinse in cold water and drain.

Put the corn into a nonreactive pot and cover with cold water to 2 inches (5cm) about the surface of the corn. Skim off any bits of skin or hollow kernels that float to the surface. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, dissolve the lime in about 1/2 cup (125ml) cold water and add it through a fine strainer to the corn. Stir well to distribute the lime evenly—the corn will turn a bright yellow color—and cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time to prevent the kernels from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Test by rubbing a few kernels between your fingers, and when the paper skin slides off the kernel easily, it is done. This should take about 15 minutes (see Note). Take care not to let the corn cook beyond this point. If it does, then you will find yourself with a gummy masa that cannot be used for tortillas.

Remove pan from heat, cover, and set aside to soak overnight. This is now called nixtamal. The following day, rinse the corn well—the water will be yellow and slimy with the softened skins—rubbing off the loose skins. Some cooks are not too diligent about this when making tortilla masa—after all, the skins provide some roughage—but most cooks in Oaxaca refregar, or rub well, until the kernels are quite white, except for the pedicle at the top of the kernel, which remains yellow.

Drain the corn, now nixtamalizado, and take it to a mill (molino), where traditionally it is ground—with no water added—between round, flat grinding stones to give it a smooth, soft texture. The resulting dough, or masa, is now ready to be used for tortillas or antojitos like sopes or gorditas, or for some types of tamales.

Note: Weights will vary, of course, depending on how damp the masa is. Fifteen minutes is the amount of time needed to cook this amount of corn. Larger quantities of corn will take longer to cook, depending on your pot (a large amount will cook more quickly in a wide pot than in a deep pot). The exception is the small, flat local corn from the Isthmus of Oaxaca. These kernels may take as long as 45 minutes.

Some Useful Tortilla Measurements

1 1/2 pounds (680g) corn tortilla masa makes about 2 2/3 cups (666ml).
This quantity makes about 15 balls, each 1 1/2 inches (4cm) in diameter.
Pressed out well, a ball makes a tortilla of about 5 1/2 (14cm) wide.

Excerpted from From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, by Diana Kennedy. Published by Clarkson Potter, 2003.