Gorditas, or “little fat ones,” are deep-fried corn masa pockets, overflowing with meat, beans, and toppings best known in Southern New Mexico and south of the border. In the gordita’s family tree are distant cousins made of a masa base with a filling, such as Venezuelan arepas, Salvadoran pupusas, and Mexican sopes.
Gorditas: THE CUTEST DARNED MASA POCKETS
I first stumbled onto the chubby New Mexican-style gordita decades ago at the Hatch Chile Festival. I saw other fair-goers juggling a disc-like dish, a golden masa pocket, overflowing with beef and condiments. I headed to the truck everyone pointed at, to score a gordita or three for myself.
The base was a just-fried crispy corn shell, more like a pita pocket than a taco shell. I bit into a smear of refried beans and a picadillo mixture of ground beef and potato zipped up with piquant New Mexican red. Over that was sprinkled shredded lettuce and grated cheese. It was all crowned with a simple tomato-jalapeno salsa. At that moment, the melding of flavors and textures seemed like the best dish I had ever devoured.
THEY DESERVE WIDER RECOGNITION
As good as gorditas are, it’s surprising they haven’t spread more widely north of Hatch. Similar dishes from Mexico inspired them originally, though the chile flavoring in the beef picadillo filling gives them a distinctive New Mexico touch. The late Emma Jean Cervantes, one of the state’s leading women in agriculture, and a founder of the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, talked to me about gorditas in years past. Emma Jean lived most of her life in the Mesilla Valley.
She speculated that the popularity of gorditas in her area sprang from their functionality as a sturdy all-in-one meal for farm workers to take to the fields. The masa envelope would hold the filling without getting too soggy by midday. Often workers would build a small communal fire and heat the gorditas on a griddle or grill placed over it. Other common fillings include chile con carne, prepared with either green or red chile, pork chicharrones, or beans with guacamole. They can be served with the common local-style tomato-and-jalapeno salsa, or with any other favorite version.
In Santa Fe, it’s still more common to find a south-of-the-border style gordita. You can find it on menus at the Mexican cafes on the city’s south side. The fillings vary, but might be carnitas, pork al pastor, or chicken.
New Mexican Gorditas Recipe
Here’s how to make the delicious treat, New Mexico-style, at home.
Makes eight 5- to 6-inch gorditas, enough for four main-dish servings
4 to 8 fresh jalapeño chiles
1½ cups chopped tomatoes, fresh or diced canned tomatoes, drained
¼ teaspoon vinegar
½ teaspoon salt or garlic salt, or more to taste
Ground Beef Filling
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds freshly ground beef chuck
1 medium russet potato, peeled, parboiled, and diced fine
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground dried New Mexican red chile
½ teaspoon salt or more to taste
½ teaspoon crumbled dried Mexican oregano or marjoram, optional
¾ cup beef stock, chicken stock, or water
2 cups masa harina
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or vegetable shortening
1 1/3 cups warm water, or more as needed
Vegetable oil for deep frying
¾ cup refried beans, or well-seasoned mashed cooked pinto beans, warmed, optional
Shredded lettuce and grated mild Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, for garnish
Place the jalapeños in a small saucepan and cover with water by an inch or two. Place the pan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Drain and when cool enough to handle, slice away stems and seeds. Wear rubber gloves to handle the chiles. Mince one jalapeño and reserve.
Transfer jalapeños to a food processor and add the tomatoes and salt. Pulse until mostly smooth. Stir in the minced jalapeño. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Warm the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes until softened. Add the meat and fry until it has lost all pink color. Stir in the potato, flour, chile, salt, and oregano. Pour in the stock. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for another 10 minutes or until the potato bits are very soft and most of the liquid has evaporated.
Combine the masa harina, flour, salt, and baking powder in a food processor. Add the lard and process just until mealy. Pour in the water and process until the dough becomes smooth and moist. Add a little more water, if needed, for the desired consistency. Take the dough out of the processor, form it into a ball and cover it in plastic wrap. Let the dough sit for at least 20 minutes and up to an hour.
Divide the dough into 8 smaller balls and flatten each to about 1/2-inch thickness, rounding any rough edges. Cover the dough rounds loosely with more plastic wrap.
In a Dutch oven or large heavy saucepan, heat 3 to 4 inches of oil to 365° F. Fry the dough rounds in batches, cooking them for 4 to 5 minutes until golden and crisp. Turn them or hold them under the oil with tongs, if needed, for even cooking. Drain and repeat with the remaining dough.
Slice a gordita open on the edge, cutting about a third of the way around it. Wrap a couple of thicknesses of paper towel around the gordita while you work if it’s too hot to handle. With your fingers or a spoon, scrape out any uncooked dough from the center, leaving a hollow to fill later. Repeat with the remaining gorditas.
If using the beans, coat the insides of the gorditas with a generous tablespoon in each, and then spoon in the ground beef mixture to fill the gorditas about two-thirds full. Top with lettuce and cheese, and serve immediately, accompanied by salsa.
The salsa can be made early in the day you plan to serve it. The ground beef filling can be made a day ahead. Dough can be formed and kept covered for an hour before frying. Once fried, the gordita shells can be kept warm in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 200° F oven for about 1 hour.
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.