Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.
In-house Food Adventures
As we mentioned in Oaxaca Diary 1, the city of Oaxaca (or Oaxaca de Juarez, as it is also known) is considered the culinary capital of Mexico and is known as one of the greatest food cities in the entire world. There is plenty of food tradition here, some of it – like the beverage tejate – is hundreds and hundreds of years old; and then some of it – such as corn on the cob with mayonnaise, lime juice, cheese, and chili powder – is… not. Of course, all the culinary specialities were created using local ingredients and methods. In other words, avocado foam will not be garnishing any of your street snacks. But when the food is good enough on its own, cleverness is no match for flavor.
The thought of staying in an apartment in Oaxaca had me excited for many months before we arrived, because I knew we would have a kitchen. Exactly what kind of kitchen, how big, what appliances and cookware would be provided… I had no idea but was hoping for the best. It turns out the kitchen is fine – not large or extravagant, but it has the necessities. We would be able to make smoothies in the blender (and by the way, why couldn’t someone come up with a better name than “smoothie” before it was too late? It’s awful. And now it’s stuck with us forever. It’s even less original than “brownie,” which is so a part of our vernacular that no one every notices what a lazy moniker that one is as well. But I just feel stupid when I have to say “smoothie”. Anyway…), cook in the oven or on the stove top, and reheat things in the microwave. It is working just fine, it even has nice view of the courtyard to boot.
We had already with us some pantry supplies such as black beans, rice, cooking oils, salt, etc., so all we had to do was fill in the blanks with fresh produce and maybe a meat or two. This is what makes the markets so awesome. Sure, you have to remember that if it’s not in season or if it’s not grown in this part of the world, you can’t or shouldn’t buy it. How many times have you seen a beautiful pint of strawberries (on sale!) in the grocery store in the middle of winter in Minnesota, all nice and bright red and perfectly shaped, only to get them home, have them taste like absolutely nothing and then they start to mold within a day? I learned that lesson long ago: eat what’s in season and what is freshest. That’s what makes shopping at the mercados so simple. For the most part, if it’s there, it should be just fine to eat.
As I mentioned in the first post, my head was spinning from the dozens of different kinds of chiles, both fresh and dried, spices, and even fruits and vegetables that I couldn’t name to save my life. Never saw them before. And then the sellers – they want to help you and of course they want to make a sale, but they just happen to be speaking in the fourth and newest language I’ve tried to learn in my life. “Yes, yes, I’m sure you are correct and I’m sure that what you are saying would be very helpful to me, but I missed 78% of the words you just hurled at me.”
I won’t waste your time telling you the boring things we’ve prepared, so here are some of the more fun of our Oaxacan kitchen experiments.
1. Plantains: We’ve made fried plantains, which are always tasty. You slowly cook them in oil until they are browned – super simple. Topped with a little sugar or yogurt, and you’ve got a winning dessert. We’ve also cooked them in water, mashed them, and stuffed them – ready for this – with Oaxacan quesillo (think string cheese but better) and a segment of jalapeño pepper, then fried these little torpedos until brown and the cheese was melted. It was a recipe from our Mexican cookbook. Yes, it was a little strange. Maybe stranger still since we actually made them for breakfast one morning, but I would try them again – maybe as an appetizer before dinner?
2. Black beans: nothing too interesting here except that we added the very Mexican herb epazote to the beans (in addition to a carrot, an onion, and some garlic) and that we didn’t soak the beans beforehand. After two hours, they had a lot of flavor. They are ready to eat as they are, or you can put them in the blender (probably with a little liquid), puree them, and then you are ready to make refried beans, which we’ve also done quite successfully here.
3. Bread: Erik is the bread maker of the household, and one day he had the irrepressible urge to make French bread. The recipe was basic, but he enjoyed the experience of making and kneading the dough (without a stand mixer, btw), and we both enjoyed the experience of eating fresh bread. We haven’t found any good butter around here (finding a stick of butter in the mountains of margarine in the stores is a hard enough task) but after mixing our yellowish dairy spread with plenty of raw garlic and dried thyme, we had a tasty little snack.
4. Pasta sauce: okay, not traditionally Mexican, but when you use Mexican chorizo, a couple different types of chiles, Mexican oregano, and some random herbs and spices that we just have too much of, it can be kind of Mexican. Tomatoes, sad to say, are usually not anything too exciting at the markets. 95% of what you will find are bland-tasting Roma varieties, but they worked fine for making sauce. Served with a Mexican cabernet sauvignon, some simply prepared fava beans, and the garlic bread mentioned above, it was a tasty meal with Mexican flair.
5. Garbanzos dulces: I mentioned this in the previous post, but if you missed it I want to give a shout-out to this crazy awesome dessert. Another Mexican recipe, this is nothing more than garbanzos, panela (Mexican dark brown sugar), pineapple, and Mexican cinnamon – and plenty of time peeling garbanzos (you can’t use canned beans in this recipe). I will definitely be making this one again later in life.
6. Chocolate Caliente: It was my hope to make my own chocolate mix here in Oaxaca. It is a very easy thing to do, but because I was afraid of having more than we could use and storing it, etc., we decided to go ahead and buy some from Mayordomo, the major chocolate outlet here. Hot chocolate is everywhere and is served is every restaurant. Most of the chocolates have plenty of sugar but also Mexican cinnamon and often ground nuts such as almonds or walnuts. We don’t make it every day, but almost.
7. MOLE COLORADITO! Yes, we made a mole. Originally I had hoped to make mole negro, which is a dark mole, but it requires a couple of tricky chiles to find this time of year (even here) and requires the blackening of several of the ingredients, which we didn’t want to attempt in our little kitchen. So we went with the slightly simpler mole coloradito. It took a good part of the day, required more than 20 ingredients, necessitated the use of the world’s cheapest blender and a stove which does not turn down low enough to simmer, but it was pretty successful…
[Quick mole refresher: pronounced “MOH-lay”, it is a sauce used in Mexico, and Oaxaca is famous for its seven moles, named mainly for their resulting colors: mole negro, colorado (or rojo), amarillo, verde, chichilo, coloradito, and mancha manteles (“tablecloth stainer”). Mole Coloradito is reddish-orangish in color (notice the sides of this website). Each mole has a distinct and rather long list of ingredients as well as slightly different cooking methods. Yes, some of them include chocolate, but we’re not talking about covering your steak with chocolate sauce. The test of a good mole, it is said, is that when it is done it doesn’t taste like any one of the separate ingredients; instead it is a perfect combination of them all, resulting in one new flavor.]
The first thing we did was cook a chicken. Yes, we bought the chicken from a chicken guy at the market, not a prepackaged chicken at a grocery store, and requested the butcher to cut it up for us, which he did in about 10 seconds. We wanted to serve the mole over the chicken, but we also wanted to use the chicken stock to prepare the sauce. Mexican chicken stock is lighter than French stocks, the cooking time being about an hour as opposed to three or four (which I would do in the States). Although poaching chicken may not be a favorite cooking method for many people, especially in the U.S. because the chicken often gets dried out and tough, it is traditional here and – this is weird – it just works better here. Because of the biology of the chickens themselves here (I can’t go into more details because… well, I’m not that smart, but these are not factory-produced birds constantly tipping onto their beaks because their breasts are freakishly large) poaching chicken is a very successful preparation here and very tasty – and then you have stock to use as well!
Next we had to prepare all ingredients for the mole, including nuts and seeds, dried chiles, cinnamon and cloves, raisins, onions, tomatoes, garlic – you get the idea. Oh – and chocolate, of course! The chiles needed to be deseeded and then toasted.
I was such a genius and a little worried about getting the mole done in time that day that I plowed ahead with the chiles before taking the time to put in my contact lenses. Later on, even though I had washed my hands three times, my eyes and I would regret this oversight probably more than almost any other mistake of my past. Everything – everything - got toasted: chiles, seeds, spices, onions, garlic. We were a little toasting assembly line.
After everything was toasted and the dried (and toasted) chiles had soaked in hot water for a while to soften them up, everything headed for the blender. I’m not complaining: it was wonderful to know that we would have a blender in the apartment, because they just seem to use blenders more here in Mexico. But this blender probably cost less than the ingredients going into it for the mole. I’m not sure what it was designed for, but it wasn’t for grinding cinnamon sticks and almonds. It took a lot of patience, a lot of scraping, and a lot of small batches, but we pureed all of our ingredients into a reddish-brownish, gloppy liquid. This needed to be cooked down into a paste, the act of which made our stove look like a prop in a bloody horror movie, and then it was ready to go.
To make the paste into a sauce, we added a couple of pureed tomatoes and about a quart of our freshly made chicken stock to a cup of our paste; we cooked it down until we liked the consistency, and it was time to eat. Partnered with some garlic and chile rice and a simple avocado salad, this was a pretty impressive meal for two gringos in a humble but well-meaning kitchen. The mole coloradito is slightly spicy not only because of the chiles but because all the seeds are also used in the mixture. The flavor is challenging to describe… it actually tastes like “red”. It’s complex, a little tangy, and a little bright; it’s not deep and heavy like a dark mole, but it’s still very rich and flavorful. Traditionally mole is used as a sauce over meats, but as this is a vegetarian recipe at its heart (you can thin it with water instead of chicken stock), this can be used over rice or something like that as well – and because of the nuts and seeds it has a decent amount of protein.
And now we are still eating the mole, because we made quite a lot. I hope my sister is game for trying it in a few weeks when we see her near Tulum. Oh – another great thing: according to the recipe book, the mole paste will keep unrefrigerated for weeks or refrigerated for about a year! This knowledge will bring you comfort as you walk through the market, passing countless tubs of different kinds of mole pastes just sitting out in the open.
I don’t think we’ll be doing too many more cooking extravaganzas in the apartment because we are leaving in just over a week but still have plenty of already-made food to get through (mole coloradito, anyone?) and want to keep enjoying the foods from the restaurants and vendors outside the house. And that will be the next post – foods from around Oaxaca. ¡Buen provecho!