Last summer I had the pleasure of interviewing several people who worked on the Somerville Arts Council’s Nibble cookbook, which highlights the cultural diversity and creative culture of Union Square. And this summer I was invited to attend one of the Nibble cooking classes taking place at Kitchen Inc. (201 Somerville Ave.) to learn all about Salvadoran cuisine.
The class was led by Juan Carlos Menjivar (pictured above), a native of La Palma, Chalatenango, El Salvador, and attended by about 10 other Somervillians. Some of the attendees were, like me, relative newcomers to the area, having lived in the city for five or six years, while others have been Somerville residents for several decades. Rachel Strutt, program manager at the Somerville Arts Council and the force behind Nibble, Somerville Arts Council intern and recent Tufts University graduate Rebecca Small and Kitchen Inc. manager Joanna Ray were also in attendance.
After brief introductions, Menjivar took us into the kitchen to get to work. He explained each dish as we made it and after demonstrating proper technique, let us get our hands dirty.
We started by making pupusas (pictured above), which are crafted out of a dough made from corn flour and water that feels sort of like whipped mashed potatoes in your hands. We filled them with beans and cheese and the aroma of them pan-frying on the stove filled the kitchen as we moved into the next dish, Salvadoran enchiladas (pictured below).
These were nothing like any other enchiladas I’d ever had. They were made with little flat fried tortillas (also made of corn flour and water, but tinted a reddish hue with achiote powder) and topped with a mixture of chicken, carrots, potatoes and spices as well as a lightly fermented cabbage slaw (curtido) and some cheese.
The third dish of the night was an empanada-like item called pasteles. They too were made from the corn flour, water and achiote powder dough and filled with the chicken mixture. We topped these creations with one of the simplest and best salsas I’ve ever had–a mixture of puréed tomato, green pepper, cilantro, salt, pepper and other spices that was then heated on the stove.
To drink, Menjivar made two sweet beverages. The first was agua de marañan, which he whipped up using large cashew fruits, which I’d never seen in person, but were a sight to behold. Menjivar also made an electric pink beverage called agua de cebada.
When all of the dishes were ready, we sat down together to sample our creations. Each was incredibly flavorful and unique. And the fact that we learned so much about El Salvador and each other in the process made them taste even better.
After the savory part of the meal was finished, we retreated back to the kitchen to whip up some dessert. For the last dish, Menjivar fried whole plantains and then sliced them lengthwise before filling them with a warm custard. The result, Canoas de Plantano (pictured below), may have been my favorite part of the whole night!
The Salvadoran meal was just the first in a series of upcoming Nibble cooking classes taking place this summer. The next class, Tapas Puertorriqueñas with Chef Alberto Cabre of Casa B is sold out, but there are spaces available in the other two. On Tuesday, July 23, visit Reliable Market and then learn to make spring rolls and kale soba salad, or on Tuesday, August 6, learn to make Chiles en Nogada (a complex dish that hails from Puebla, Mexico, and represents the Mexican flag through its colors) in an English-Spanish bilingual class.
[Updated 8/14/13: The Somerville Arts Council has added several more cooking classes to the schedule, including another one featuring the food of El Salvador with Juan Carlos Menjivar. You can check them out here.]
Disclosure: I attended the Nibble cooking class for free, but all opinions are my own.