On The Range: Gorditas

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On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

Be careful how you use the term "gordita". It can get you into trouble real fast.

Like many food-related expressions in Mexican culture, gordita has more than one meaning. You can use it colloquially as a term of endearment for a Rubenesque or full-figured young woman, like the English terms "little butterball" or "pleasingly plump"...

Um...doesn't really sound all that endearing, after all. Well, needless to say you must know your lady real well before addressing her in this fashion. Otherwise the response may hit like a ton of bricks.

Gorditas are also small masa tortillas patted into a circle, cooked over a griddle, then dropped into hot oil, where they balloon into a shape similar to a puffy taco, only thicker. The resulting pockets are then split and stuffed with guisos, chicken, chorizo, eggs, cheese, or whatever strikes the chefs fancy that day. The finished dish is a Mexican cousin of the El Salvadoran pupusa.

In his book Mexico: One Plate at a Time, Rick Bayless describes his love of the crispy/soft dough pockets:

"Like the taco, the gordita lies at the heart--and guts--of everyday street and marketplace cooking. In an instant, I can transport myself back fifteen years (my pre-restaurant days) when I had the luxury of hours to roam the aisles of the brightly lit, modern Auguascalientes market of west-central Mexico, where hundreds of thick, griddle-formed gorditas ballooned into flaky round snacks. Like most of the other hungry amblers, I always had trouble choosing from the many fillings beautifully displayed in cazuelas rigged up over stainless steel steam tables. Most were definitively flavored stewy dishes, simple homey concoctions, always including the classic carne desperado (shredded beef) so beloved in west-central and Northern Mexico. Irresistible fare."

Surprisingly, Diana Kennedy often likes to eat her gorditas cold. Discussing Gorditas Hidualguenses in her book My Mexico, she writes "I find these little gorditas totally addictive; I can even eat them cold. They are best eaten when they have been sitting around a little while to give the lard inside time to permeate and flavor the masa."

Similar to the notion that pizza is always better the next morning.

Like most chefs, the late Matt Martinez was rather traditional with his gordita fillings, preferring shredded roast beef, chicken, or pork roast along with beans, guacamole, and salsa. Only his suggestion of adding crumbled, fresh goat cheese into the mix betrays his iconoclastic spirit. Stephan Pyles' version from his book New Tastes from Texas is more daring, combining black-eyed peas and crab meat with tequila-orange vinaigrette into a heady blend of Southern and Mexican cookery.

If you wish to avoid the lunchtime crowds at Mena's Tex-Mex Grill, you best not come at the stroke of noon. Here, the gorditas come two to an order, with your choice of chorizo, pastor, or rajas con queso as fillings. The little puff balls are more chewy than crispy, but the tender pastor and the robust chorizo really make the dish.

That's it. Just make sure you use the term in its correct context. Otherwise, be prepared to do what millions of schoolchildren in the 1950s were taught:

Duck. And cover.

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