The comal appeared in my life on my first waking in Costa Rica. Sizzling on a gas burner, giving off the delightful aroma of toasting harina de maiz and welcoming me to desayuno Central American style, it appeared deceptively battered and cheap. In typical Great White Savior style, I determined to send a "good quality" pan to my sister-in-law as soon as I touched earth back in New Jersey.
I am happy to admit how wrong I was.
A comal is perfectly round and slightly concave,and is, in most of the markets in Central America, available in cast aluminum. As such, these useful pans are much lighter than equivalently sized cast iron pans would be. Cast aluminum is also porous, as cast iron is, and the pores and grooves absorb and retain a thin coating of oil. Each of the comales I saw had developed a dark band around the outer rim, about a hand's width broad, which was a naturally non-stick surface. The centers usually remained light, but were equally non-stick.
Buying a comal requires an investment of about, in Costa Rica, 2,800 colones. At the exchange rate in January of 2006, this was about 5.75 USD. So I bought one for myself and another as a spare and a third for a friend. Once back in New Jersey, I took the time to season it properly. I chose the oven-and-oil method. After washing the pan in hot, soapy water, I coated the pan with vegetable oil, then let it sit in a 350 degree (Fahrenheit) oven for an hour. I grabbed the ear-like handles with oven mits and immediately scrubbed it clean again, and topped it all off with a fresh coating of vegetable oil. Each time I store the pan, I re-coat it with a half-teaspoon of vegetable oil.
If there is one weakness of the comal, it is the handles. They are not in any way separate from the pan, and so they heat up just as much as the pan does. So, a hapless comal user might just wind up with a handle-shaped brand on her hand for her troubles, or little burns on forearms. Caution is recommended.
When selecting a comal, keep in mind the size of your range. Having a comal the diameter of a truck tire might be appealing but if you've only an average sized range, you won't enjoy using your new pan. Look at the pan you intend to buy. Check to see that the thickness is even. Check also for flaws in the cooking surface. Flaws in the handles would also be small disasters waiting to happen.
The following is a recipe I learned for the Costa Rican version of empanadas, which are more like Salvadorean pupusas, but with a difference. Go ahead and cook these on your new comal. You'll like them.
2 tazas harina de maiz, also called masa
1 taza queso blanco, rallado (grated)
1 y 1/4 taza agua
Un poquito de sabor de pollo
Let this mixture rest. Choose your filling. Black beans, cheese, chicken, anything really. Then press a small ball of the dough flat, push a small amount of filling into the dough, and fold your circle, pinching the edges shut. Press the half-circle in your hand a little flatter, so that it will fry evenly.
Heat your comal to a medium heat and add oil. Fry each empanada until it is golden brown and crisp. As each is finished, move it to the cooler outer edge of the comal to keep warm. Serve with Natilla(cultured sour cream) or salsa.