by Marilyn Noble
One of the key initiatives of the Slow Food movement is the Ark of Taste, a catalog of rare and endangered foods and food traditions from around the world. In the U.S., the Ark catalog is administered by several regional committees. Anyone can nominate a food or tradition to the Ark, and then the regional committee works to approve the nomination and board it on the Ark. Once a product receives U.S. approval, it moves on to the international committee for boarding on the International Ark of Taste.
The standards are stringent. Products boarded to the Ark have to meet certain criteria:
They must be endangered. These foods are disappearing from the world because of risk factors that may be biological, commercial, or cultural.
They must be good. Desirable eating qualities make these foods prized in their local regions.
They must be clean. These foods have the potential to be grown, raised, or produced without harm to the environment, and they have a link to the place and community that consider them an integral part of their traditions.
They must be fair. Anyone can champion, produce, share, or sell these foods. No trademarked or commercial items are allowed.
The goal of the Ark program is to bring awareness to these foods so that they can be produced by small stakeholders (eat them to save them) or protected from too much love so that native populations can grow, thrive, and once again be a part of the foodways of a region.
The Southwest Mountain Regional Committee (covering Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana) has boarded several products to the Ark of Taste in the past few months. One of the easiest and most accessible traditions is that of Sonoran Flat Enchiladas, or Enchiladas Chatas.
Enchiladas Chatas used to be commonplace on the menus and in the kitchens of the borderlands in Arizona and Sonora. But with the rise of large-scale commercial tortillerias and the wane of home cooking, the demand for fresh masa made from local corn dwindled, and so did the popularity of these corn cakes smothered in red chile sauce. You can still find them on a handful of restaurant menus around Tucson, but they’re also very easy to make at home.
For the most authentic experience, look for fresh masa made from non-GMO corn, but if you can’t find it, you can also use masa harina, ground corn that can be reconstituted with water. Some cooks also use canned enchilada sauce, but it’s so easy to make red sauce and it tastes so much better that I would recommend taking the extra few minutes. Finally, in many places you’ll see these garnished with shredded cheddar cheese, but if you can find good queso fresco, it adds a nice salty tang to the finished product.
Sonoran Flat Enchiladas
When we were in college, we used to frequent Grande Tortilla Factory in the neighborhood near St. Mary’s Hospital. I bought fresh masa and queso there and made these at least once a week. They fit the bill for starving students — tasty, filling, and cheap.
2 pounds masa
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons grated cheese
Oil for deep frying
Mix together masa, salt, and baking soda. Add the cheese and blend well. Shape into balls the size of hen’s eggs. Place each ball between layers of clean dry cloth or wax paper and press with a flat plate to 2 1/2 inches in diameter.
Heat the oil to 365 degrees F. and fry the cakes for 5 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper.
1 tablespoon lard or oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup red chile powder
2 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
In a heavy skillet, heat the oil. Add the garlic slices and fry until they’re just beginning to brown. Remove the garlic immediately. Sprinkle the flour into the hot oil, stirring constantly until golden brown. Add the chile powder or sauce and the water. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook until thickened. Add the salt, tasting and adjusting as needed.
1 pound cheese, grated
2 heads lettuce, shredded
1 cup green or black olives, chopped
1/2 cup chopped green onions
To assemble, place the corn cakes in the hot sauce for about 3 minutes. Remove to a large platter. Pour over any remaining sauce and sprinkle with cheese, lettuce, olive and green onions. Serve immediately.
Marilyn Noble is Rio Nuevo’s cookbook and blog editor, and has written four cookbooks including Southwest Comfort Food and The Essential Southwest Cookbook. She is also the co-chair of the Southwest/Mountain Ark of Taste committee and the Colorado governor for Slow Food USA.