Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cooking Class: Mole Negro and Quesadillas

I just spent a most pleasant morning at a cooking class with Pilar Cabrera, chef of "La Olla" restaurant in Oaxaca. We have been consistently delighted with the food at her restaurant and as soon as C tasted her mole de fandango, he said I really ought to take her cooking class and get that recipe! So I did.

We started by preparing some of the ingredients for the mole. She had them already measured out.

We took the seeds out of the chiles and roasted the chiles and the garlic on a comal (a large flat ceramic dish) over a charcoal fire.

Pilar sauteed the other ingredients in a ceramic casserole over a charcoal fire, starting with the nuts,

then moving on to the raisins, the bread, the spices, and the plantain.

Finally, she toasted the chile seeds over the coals until they were black. That made for some seriously lung burning smoke.

Then we went to the market, where we bought ingredients for the rest of our meal. We bought huitlacoche and bean blossoms from this woman.

I learned a few new things there about some of the ingredients, like the difference between quesillo doble crema and plain quesillo. It made me wish I had more time to spend enjoying the new foods I learned about: queso botanero, a salsa sold at the butchers, blue corn tortillas and fresh salsas at the entrance, the best vendor for fresh vegetables...

Then we stopped at the molinillo, where they ground our mole ingredients in a big grinder. They had a different grinder for each of the things they grind: coffee, corn for tamales and tortillas, cooked black beans, rice for horchata, and the one for mole. They ground first all the spices, nuts, bread and plantains, then the dried chiles, adding just enough water to make a good paste.

Back at her house, we started with the rose petal sorbet: we cooked together sugar, milk, blanched almonds, and dried and fresh rose petals, then cooled it in an ice-water bath, blended them in a blender, then froze the mixture in an ice-cream freezer.

In the meantime, we prepared the ingredients for the quesadillas. We cleaned and sauteed huitlacoche with a bit of garlic and salt. Huitlachoche is a highly prized corn fungus that has a delicious mushroom taste - they call it the Oaxacan truffle. I never dared try it before this visit, but I'm so glad I have. We also sauteed pretty red blossoms from a bean plant - they kind of look like scarlet runner bean blossoms. We shredded quesillo doble crema, the stringy Oaxacan cheese that vaguely resembles fresh mozzarella. We chopped yerba santa and cleaned squash blossoms.

We toasted and peeled chiles de agua (hot green chiles) and tomatoes,

then I ground them into a salsa with a molcajete - starting with garlic and sea salt, then adding the chiles and then last the tomatoes and a bit of green onion. We made a minted rice with soaked and drained rice, sauteed in garlic and onion, then cooked with chicken broth and a few sprigs of mint. The staff did all the clean up as we went, and they also washed the produce and cooked the chicken for the mole. It was amazing how much faster so much cooking went with their skilled help.

We went back into the courtyard where we had cooked over the charcoal fire and cooked the mole,

then made little tortillas and made them into quesadillas with the different fillings: squash blossoms, bean flowers, and huitlacoche, all with a bit of hierbasanta, which is an herb you can only find here that tastes more like fennel than anything else I can think of.

After everyone else tasted some mescal with lime, orange, and sal de gusano (salt ground with chiles and -yuk- maguey worms), we sat down to a feast of quesadillas with the fresh roasted tomato salsa, mole and rice, and the rose petal sorbet for dessert.

Pilar was a good teacher, giving lots of details and answering lots of questions. She was very personable and patient (even with the British woman in our group who thinks Mexican food is "stodgy" and had never even heard of tamales - I still can't quite figure out why she took the class).

All in all, an excellent experience!

Mole Negro

Serves 10

4 chilhuacle chiles
8 mulato or ancho chiles
8 pasilla mexicana chiles
3 tsp. lard
1/4 c. almonds
1/4 c. raisins
1/4 c. pumpkin seeds
1/4 c. peanuts
1/4 c. pecans
4 slices of egg bread
1/4 c. sesame seeds
1 tsp. dried thyme, marjoram and oregano
2 cinnamon sticks
1/8 tsp. anise
3 whole cloves
1/8 tsp cumin
3 whole black peppercorns
2 plantains, cut in slices
1 tomato, roasted
3 tomatillos, roasted
3 cloves of garlic, roasted
1/2 medium onion, roasted
4 cups chicken broth
8 pieces of cooked chicken
3 tsp. sugar
1/2 cup Oaxacan chocolate
salt to taste
4 avocado leaves

1. Clean the dried chiles with a damp cloth. Open the chiles by making a lengthwise slit down one side of each. Take out the seeds, veins, and stems. Reserve the seeds.

2. Fry the chiles in a saucepan. Remove each chile from the saucepan as soon as it begins to change colors and blister, and place them in a bowl lined with absorbent paper towels.

3. Fry the raisins until they puff up and brown a bit. Remove the raisins and add the almonds, pecans, and peanuts, frying for 5 minutes until they are a dark brown color. Fry the pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cinnamon, anise, cloves, cumin and black peppercorns, until they obtain a deep brown color, remove them and add the dried bread pieces in the remaining lard for 2 minutes, then remove.

4. Fry the plantains in oil until they are golden.

5. Roast the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion, and garlic on a comal. Peel the tomatoes.

6. Place in a food processor the spices, tomatoes, one plantain and 1 cup of chicken broth. Blend until the mixture is smooth. Transfer to a blender and blend again until as smooth as possible. Put into a bowl and set aside.

7. Place the toasted chiles and 1 1/2 cups of chicken broth into the food processor, then blender. Blend until the mixture is a smooth paste.

8. Heat the remaining unused lard in a deep, very hot pot (le crueset or cast iron are good substitutes for the ceramic dish) and pour the blended chiles into the pot. Cook for 3 minutes, then add the spice mixture and cook for 3 more minutes. Add more chicken broth as needed.
Add the sugar and chocolate, and stir for 5 minutes. The sauce is ready when, while stirring, you can see the depth of the pot.

9. Add the rest of the chicken broth and avocado leaves. Season with salt. Cook for 3 more minutes over medium heat. Add the pieces of chicken before serving.

Please note that I added photos (finally) to my post about the baptism.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

El Bautizo

Our hosts, Carlos and Concepcion graciously invited us to join them this morning at a baptism for a little girl that they are (now) Godparents to. We expressed some reluctance to impose, but they encouraged us to come, and we were glad we did. It was an interesting experience.

There's a little goldfinch that likes to fly around and eat ants on the pomelo tree in front of me. It's distracting and beautiful. This is a shot of Z on the balcony in front of our room by the pomelo tree.

Anyway, back to the baptism. We first waited about an hour for the priest to come out of the cathedral by the Zocalo - they had arranged to pick him up and take him out to the village where the baptism was (in Teotitlan del Valle, known for it's wool carpet weaving). Once we arrived, we went into the courtyard of the family. There was livestock on the left, everything from goats, burros and cows to chickens and geese. On the right was the family's living space, with an open space in the middle and arches around, opening onto covered patio spaces, then closed rooms beyond those. You can kind of see the women's table and a few of the animals in the background of this photo.

Lots of women were working in the courtyard, stirring large pots over open fires, grinding on metates, and whisking up foamy drinks. One pot was about 3 feet in diameter. Other women were sitting around a table eating already and when we went in, the priest, a little old man dressed in a wrinkled tracksuit and running shoes, sat right down at the table with the women and started to eat (which was a great source of amusement to everyone else, since traditionally the women and men eat at different tables, and he didn't bother with the formalities that were still to come).

We went into the family's chapel - kind of a long room with an altar at one end - and sat in a row of chairs. Then the family gathered and stood in precise order of their importance to the occasion, with women in front in one row and men in another row behind. Our hosts made formal statements about how pleased they were to be the Padrinos (Godparents) and how they wished the best for the little girl. Then the family returned with their thanks for coming and taking part. Our hosts presented the family with gifts - the girl's little white satin baptism dress (and socks and shoes and hat, and everything) as well as a couple of cases of beer. The mother took the dress and kissed it and passed it down the line of women, each of whom looked at it and kissed it, then they gave a formal thank you for their generosity. Then we all went down the line, kind of like in a wedding reception, and shook hands and said good morning.

Finally they invited us all out to have breakfast on the patio. We sat down and first they offered everyone a drink of Mezcal (a local drink made from agave that's kind of like tequila, I'm told) and they brought us each a large plate of an assortment of sweet breads - about 6 per person, with a little mug of hot chocolate. Carlos and Concepcion (who had warned us that we'd be given more bread than any person could possibly eat), joked that we had to eat it all before we could leave the table.

You can see the looms in the background of this photo, as well as how delighted (or amused and nervous) they were to have us there. They brought out trays piled high with huge handmade corn tortillas, about 1 1/2 feet in diameter, with a little saucer of salt on each stack. Then we each got an enormous bowl of "higaditos", a kind of soup with turkey broth, shredded turkey bits, and scrambled eggs, half a tomato floating on top with some hot sauce in it. That alone was more than 3 of us could eat in one sitting. Then we got bowls of "espuma", which was what the women had been grinding and beating into a froth in the courtyard. It was a hot, mildly sweet drink, kind of like a chocolate atole, with a good 3 inches of foam on top. There's a great post about how they make it here, which looks like what I saw them doing. When we couldn't eat anymore, they brought us bags to put our bread in to take home.

We drove over to the church, which had been built centuries ago with stones from the local ruins - they had the Zapotec carvings on them. The inside of the church was more simple than many we've seen, mainly because it wasn't loaded with baroque gold-leaf carvings, but it had lots of decorative painting on the interior walls. We sat through the baptism and mass, which went longer than expected, apparently. The priest really wanted everyone to take communion and dragged that part out for a long time, staring at each person until most surrendered and took it. He stared at me long enough for everyone else to turn and see who he was looking at. Pretty uncomfortable! The baptism itself was lovely, though. The church bells rang and they set off firecrackers just outside the church. The godparents promised, along with the parents, to care for and protect the little girl throughout her life.

We drove back to the house for another round of formal thank yous and shaking hands and giving hugs down the line and mezcal served in little brightly painted gourds. They insisted that we at least take the gourds as a momento, and someone joked that these women didn't know how to make tejate, which is a local drink that is usually served in gourds like those, as if the mescal were the worst tejate they'd ever drunk, when they are nothing alike.

Tejate is a kind of cold drink made, according to wickipedia, from "toasted maize flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey pits and flor de cacao (chocolate blossoms). These are finely ground into a paste. The paste is mixed with water, usually by hand, and when it is ready, the flor de cacao rises to the top to form a pasty foam." It tastes kind of nutty.

We left around noon, but Carlos told us the next day they'd stayed until quite late at night for the dinner and dance. I was touched by the display of generosity and the commitment to celebration in spite of financial limitations.