Monday, November 23, 2009

Beginning Tamales

It is comforting to know that I have a Mexicatessen and Mexican bakery within three miles of my house. La Esperanza Bakery and Store near Franklin and Fruitridge in Sacramento. The bakery is well known for its pink sugar cookies, little pastries called porquitos, tres leches cake, and special wedding cakes.

A few doors down, sits La Esperanza Mexican Food Products. This little place is bulging with carnitas, chicharones, dried chiles, Mexican spices, utensils, cheese, beans, and of course, masa. This isn't run of the mill simple masa from dry masa harina flour. This is the real deal.

First is the masa para tortillas. This made by cooking corn kernels with calcium oxide and allowing to soak overnight. The following day, the corn kernels are rubbed loose of their softened skins. The corn, now called nixtamalizado, is drained and taken to a mill to grind. The firm dough is ready for tortillas, antojitos like sopes or gorditas, and some types of tamales. When I tell you that they sell the stuff for $0.75 a pound, it hardly seems worth making it yourself. A pound makes about 10 x 5 1/2" tortillas. These tortillas are better than anything you will ever get at the grocery store.

When this masa is mixed with flavorful pork manteca (lard) to a light and fluffy consistency, it becomes masa para tamales. When I pick the masa up, it is still warm from being processed and is costs $o.75 a pound to purchase in five point increments. A pound makes between 12 and 18 tamales, depending on their thickness.

At this point, I have gone through 25 pounds of masa. I have not yet been disappointed in any of the results, but still consider myself only a beginner at this point. For my first few rounds of tamales, I wanted to experiment with different wrappings. Traditionally, corn husks are used. I have also found a couple of Mexican markets that supply banana leaves. We also used corn leaves in one of the classes I took in Oaxaca, but I haven't seen them sold here and, because of their loose form around the tamale, require a thicker, tortilla grade masa to keep from falling apart in the steamer.

Banana leaf tamales are a little larger than ones wrapped in corn husks. They end up looking like beautiful wrapped presents when they are done. Sometimes, even the masa takes on a green shade on the outer layer.

The problem that I have with banana leaves, is the fragility of the leaf itself. The basic process is to soak the frozen leaves in hot water or steam them until they become pliable. Next, unfold the leaf entirely. I look for sections that are roughly 6 x 8 inches without any tears. Sometimes, I am lucky at finding these, sometimes they are scarce. One thing that I have discovered is to use the entire bag of frozen leaves at one time. Refreezing and defrosting them increases the risk of tears. All it takes is a little one to have the masa oozing out during the steaming process.

The technique for making the banana leaf tamales is relatively simple. Spread a thin layer of masa over the center of the leaf.

Now take two tablespoons of filling and two tablespoons of , I am using shredded tongue with a veracruzana sauce (you really can put anything inside of a tamale).

Fold the left third of the leaf over the middle third covering the masa. Next, fold the right third of the leaf over the middle third. Repeat the same technique with the bottom and top of the leaf to complete the rectangular package.

A good use of those left over leaf scraps is to tear them into sections a quarter inch wide and to use them to tie the tamale across the center perpendicular with the leaf strands.

Steaming the tamales is a pretty simple process. These ones take an hour to cook throughout. Take one out at that time and remove from the wrapper. If it separates easily, it is ready for eating. If it sticks to the sides, steam a little longer.

Corn husk tamales are more commonly prepared. The husks are sold everywhere in a variety of quantities. I even saw a six foot tall stack sold for $120. Instead, I have been purchasing the modest six inch thick supply.

Now for the tamale. I have been focusing on untraditional varieties to see the capabilities of these delicacies. Here is one for a dessert tamale recipe for Tamale Dulce con Chocolate, Nuez, y Cereza is adapted from "Tamales" by Daniel Hoyer.

Fold some brown sugar into around three pounds of masa. The amount to add wasn't clear, but I added about a cup in all, a little at a time until I could just make out the flavor of the brown sugar upon tasting the masa.

Next, fold the following ingredients into the sweet masa:
  • 12 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chunks
  • 1 1/2 cups of dried sour cherries
  • 1 1/4 cups of pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons of Mexican vanilla
Now, it's time to rejuvenate the corn husks. The easiest way is to put them in a large bowl and cover them with steaming hot water. Put something on top of the husks to keep them submerged. In about 15 minutes, they will be ready for filling.

For these tamales, I take a heaping tablespoon of the masa mixture and spread with the tablespoon to a rectangular shape at the bottom of the husk. My current folding technique is to fold the bottom third up and to top third down. Finally, fold the sides together and wrap a single husk tie around the tamale with a knot.

After steaming for an hour, this batch came out beautiful.

I still have a long ways to go before mastering the technique. At least they always come out delicious, even if ugly at this stage.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Oaxaca Review

Made it back home now. Of course, having a traveling companion that speaks fluent Spanish, there were no hiccups during any of the return flights. After ten days in Mexico, that small barbecue chicken pizza at LAX while waiting for the final flight to home sure tasted good.

A few days later, I am looking over pictures from the trip to write this 'missing links' post and longing for that fresh masa that was such a central part of cooking in Oaxaca. This versatile dough is used in such things as soft tortillas, crispy tlayuda shells, tamales, and as a sauce thickener. After a little searching, I was able to find a place not far from where I live that makes masa fresca. When I picked up my first ten pounds, it was still warm from the grinder and had a light and fluffy consistency. My experimental batch of tamales were the best I have ever tasted and I am looking forward to putting together a post on tamale making soon.

It is time for the miscellaneous filler pieces that I was either too tired to include where they belonged or couldn't find a good place for them.

The chiles of Mexico poster is from La Casa de los Sabores cooking school. I thought it was a good way of identifying all of the possibilities for use in the Mexican kitchen.

A tip for working with chiles from Socarro at Cocina Oaxaquena, oil your hands. It keeps the spices from being absorbed so you wouldn't feel the effects if you were to do something like rub your eye. Another technique is to wear disposable rubber gloves.

I saw quite a variety of comals around town. The clay variety were used primarily for toasting and tortillas. The majority were wood burning and were used very hot. Here is the fire under the Seasons of My Heart cooking school comal.

Propane driven comals with metal tops are used by the taco vendors. The hot middle area is used to heat up tortillas and cook ingredients while the sides are used to keep things warm. Notice how clean the stainless steel is scrubbed, not like a seasoned iron skillet.

This wood burning metal box comal with a clay top is from the Cocina Oaxaquena cooking class and was popular around town. A cal and water paste is spread on the top prior to cooking tortillas to prevent sticking.

Talking about tortillas, Oscar at Casa Crespo gave some timing secrets for the tortilla dough to rise. He said it works on both masa fresca and masa harina types. On a hot comal (or griddle), put the tortilla on for 10 seconds on one side. Turn over for 1 minute. Then turn over again for the final 30 seconds. The dough should puff during the final phase indicating it is ready.

Another thing I wanted to talk about is reconstituted mole. It comes in two forms, mole paste and mole powder.

I brought back a few of the mole pastes and got to recreate the mole negro already. It was almost as good as the stuff we made from scratch in cooking class. All that I did was add pureed tomatoes and tomatillos along with some chicken stock and blended together. Keep adding chicken stock until the consistency is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. It made a fabulous tamale sauce.

As for the mole powders, I tried a few samples in the markets and was pretty disappointed. There was a vast selection of flavors, but they didn't seem like they would be very tasty following the same technique as with the mole pastes. I asked Susana at Seasons of My Heart about them just to make sure. She added that they wouldn't be served in a Mexican household. Enough said, I left this stuff for the other tourists to buy.

A couple more points about moles.
  • Locals fold a piece of tortilla and use as a spoon to eat the sauce.
  • Mole tastes better on the second day, it is better to plan your party then.
Next, I wanted to cover something we made at Seasons of My Heart called Tetelas de Juxtlahuaca. It is a long name for a pretty simple corn tortilla stuffed with black bean paste. You basically spread the bean paste over the entire pressed tortilla dough. Then you make three folds and put on the comal to cook. These things were delicious, beautiful, and simple.

There are some interesting taxi cabs around the town as well. In addition to the standard car taxis cutting off pedestrians and honking horns, these three wheelers sit around outside the local markets to pick up customers.

Finally, the bike carts. The true work horse of Oaxaca. I have seen these things all over town performing all sorts of duties and carrying everything imaginable.
  • Water jugs
  • 5 gallon coffee pots
  • Popcorn
  • Postres (desserts)
  • Raspas (snow cones)
  • Elotes (corn ears)
  • Recyclables
  • Hot dogs (wrapped in bacon)
  • Hamburgers
  • Papas (chips and long curly fries)
  • Oaxacan hot chocolate
  • Garbage cans and brooms
  • Flowers
  • Candy
  • Propane tanks
  • And of course, tacos

I could have stayed for another ten days and would have never run out of things to talk about. Oaxaca is a unique and colorful Mexican destination. It is a great place to eat and to learn about food very different from what Americans would call traditional Mexican. I hope to experiment with things that I was taught up in upcoming months. I think that my family has even succumbed to a Mexican Christmas this year. Hasta luego.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Oaxaca Day 9

After a day off, I am ready to get back into the kitchen. Today is the Casa Crespo cooking class led by Oscar Carrizosa. This was another class that was taught entirely in English and is only a short walk from the hotel. The number one activity in all of Oaxaca, according to TripAdvisor, this was going to be a great way to conclude the cooking expedition.

With the experience of having seeded and toasted chiles, grilled tomatoes, and mashed items in the molcajete, it was nice to have a backstage crew and a blender to handle the mundane tasks. This allowed more time to crank out a lot of dishes in a short amount of time.

We sat around the garden setting of Casa Crespo drinking coffee and eating bread with tuna (prickly cactus fruit) jam when Oscar came over and sat with our group of six students and asked what we would like to make. Of course there was silence before Oscar began to list off a number of moles and their primary ingredients for the main course. It was interesting that he offered some moles that I hadn't heard of before, like a fruit mole. In addition to classic Oaxacan cooking, Oscar also provides a avant-garde approach using traditional ingredients with modern flare. In the end, we chose mostly classic dishes, but there were a few twists included.

Today's market trip was at Mercado Sanchez Pascuas. Oscar didn't spend as much time telling about ingredients that the market offered, but did make some keen observations.
  • small chiles are spicier and used in salsas
  • large chiles are milder and used in sauces
  • dark colored beans are preferred from Mexico City through Central America
  • light colored beans are preferred from the norther border south through Mexico City
After the market trip, Oscar took us to a small mill, molinas de moler, to pick up some fresh masa. This place was fascinating as I had envisioned a much larger operation and machinery for this work. This is where locals bring things like corn and chile pulp or chocolate ingredients to be ground into a mash for doing things like making moles, tortillas, and tamales.

This one is used to make masa fresca (fresh masa).

Here is one for grinding chiles. The first picture is a little out of focus, but you can see how the operation works.

We returned to Casa Crespo to start working on our lunch. Today's aggressive agenda was to make three salsas (green, roasted tomato, and passion fruit), guacamole, tortillas, quesadillas with squash flowers and cheese, tortilla soup, plantain croquettes, almendrado mole (almond mole), horchata, and Oaxaqueno chocolate ice cream. This was a lot, but with the ingredients already prepared, these were quick dishes to make.

I will explain making some of these dishes in upcoming posts as I attempt to recreate them at home, but for now, the focus is on the almond mole. It is a lightly flavored, creamy mole that goes good with chicken and fish.

Fry 1/4 of a white onion and 3/4 cup of peeled almonds in oil until the onion becomes translucent.

Add a couple of garlic cloves and 8 blanched tomatoes (with their skin and seeds removed) to the mixture and cook for 3 minutes over low heat.

Once everything has cooled, add the spices thyme, oregano, canela stick, peppercorns, a clove, a large slice of bread, and 2 cups of chicken broth to a blender.

Blend the mixture smooth, then add to a tablespoon of melted lard and a couple of bay leaves over medium heat for 5 minutes stirring continuously to avoid sticking.

Cover and let cook for an additional 10 minutes over low heat. Pour over chicken pieces and garnish with sliced almonds, green olives, and pickled jalapenos. Pretty simple.

The lunch was delicious. After the class concluded, we talked to Oscar about local markets and he mentioned one called Mercado de Abastos. It was just a few blocks away from the previously mentioned Benito Juarez and Veinte de Novembre so I didn't think much of it, but it was the next to last day of the trip and I wanted to do a little gift and souvenir shopping before leaving.

Words and pictures cannot describe the magnitude of this market. I'd say it was a mile square and filled with rows and rows and rows of items for sale. There was everything imaginable here: new stuff, used stuff, live stuff, stuffed stuff. There was furniture, clothes, fruits, vegetables, kitchen supplies, I could go on and on, but it would be pointless. It is a good thing that I didn't have an extra hand free to buy and fill another suitcase because there were bargains galore.

After all that walking through the market, it was time for our last dinner in town. JP and I both wanted to try a little more mole before leaving. He chose mole negro and I picked mole estofado.

That is it for today. Tomorrow we head back home, but I plan on doing one more post of a few cooking shorts and observations of some of the unsung Oaxacan heros, the bike cart vendors. Hasta la vista.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oaxaca Day 8

I have had a little time to accept that today's cooking class has been canceled. Luckily, we have one more confirmed for tomorrow so I won't be leaving Oaxaca on such a bad note.

Today, we will be doing some exploring of Mercado Benito Juarez (unprepared foods, clothing, leather goods, embroidered goods, cooking supplies, jewelry, mezcal, etc.) and Mercado Veinte de Novembre (a massive food court where you get yelled at to look at each places menu, watch your food being prepared, and get bothered by relentless beggars and wandering merchants while you eat). The two places are directly across the street from each other, but either one only have a small entrance hidden among outside vendors selling the same stuff as inside. I probably haven't made it sound very good, but it is exciting to wander around here. I am just not as comfortable taking pictures without the cooking class instructor softening the merchants.

As promised, I want to finish the cooking portion of Seasons of My Heart. I have one of Susana's cookbooks, "Seasons of My Heart", so when I heard we were making a guisado, I went through the book to decide what was interesting, unique, and challenging. The two I came up with were mole estofado and mole chichilo and I emailed the request. While technically not guisados (which is cooked with meat while moles are put on top of meat) Susana was apparently happy to have someone ask for one of her dishes and decided upon her favorite mole, chichilo.

We started with a lecture on the dishes we were going to prepare: Tetelas de Juxtlahuaca (triangular corn turnovers stuffed with red beans), salsa of little green chiles, sopa de ajo con flor de calabaza (garlic soup with squash blossoms), appetizer salad, arroz con chepil (rice with chepil), budin de tamala y pan (bread pudding with pumpkin), and of course the mole chichilo.

Here is a look at the kitchen of Seasons of My Heart.

There were 18 students and 4 assistants working in the kitchen making a variety of dishes. Luckily, JP and I were able to get into the 5 person mole making crew.

This recipe is similar in difficulty to the mole negro with a similar wide assortment of ingredients.

In this class, we wore elastic gloves to handle the chiles. The chiles are sliced to discard the stem and retain the seeds.

The chiles were toasted on a comal until they were aromatic, changing color, and starting to smoke.

The chiles are now put into a container of hot water to soak for 20 minutes until soft. They were then drained and chile water retained.

Add chiles to fill blender half way up. Next, add about one inch worth of chile water to give enough liquid for the blades of the blender to turn. After blending all of the chiles, pass them through a food mill to remove the skins and set aside.

On the comal, grill tomatoes and tomatillos until they are blackened and soft, around 15 minutes.

While the tomatoes and tomatillos are roasting, add the canela, allspice, clove to the comal and toast lightly. Remove the spices and add the garlic and onion until they become translucent.

Remove the blackened tomatoes and tomatillos and remove their skins. It should peel of easily while they are still warm.

Put the tomato, tomatillo, and garlic through a blender with a little bit of stock to keep the blades turning. Finally run through a food mill to remove the seeds and set aside.

Place the chile seeds inside a couple of tortillas, then put on the comal. It starts smoking at first, then the oil in the seeds cause them to catch fire.

Finally, the fire stops on its own and the blackened tortillas and seeds are ready to be removed. Make sure to take all of the charcoal remains.

The chile seed mixture is put in hot water to cover and soak for 15 minutes. It is then rinsed and put in a fresh batch of hot water to soak for another 10 minutes.

Strain the chile seed mixture and discard the water. Put the chile seed mixture into a blender with 1 inch of stock. Blend thoroughly, run through a food mill, and set aside.

Heat a cast iron frying pan to medium, then add a little oil to fry the raisins, almonds, cumin, oregano, thyme, and marjoram.

After 5 minutes, add onions and continue cooking for 5 minutes longer until nutty brown. The aroma of these ingredients is amazing.

Add the spice mixture to a blender with an inch of stock and grind finely. Pass through a food mill and set aside.

The final preparation for the mole is to mix a handful of masa fresca with a couple of inches of meat stock in a blender and set aside. This will act as a thickening agent.

It is now time to start cooking the mole. The first step is to heat up a couple of tablespoons of lard in a large stockpot. Then fry the chile mixture, stirring constantly over a medium high heat, for 15 minutes until the sheen of the lard surfaces.

It is time to add the tomato mixture. Keep stirring for another 15 minutes to keep from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The sheen from the lard should again surface and the mixture will become bubbly.

Add the spice mixture and once it boils, add some stock to thin the sauce. Stir in the masa and stock mixture and blend together well. Keep stirring for another 20 minutes.

Toast a couple of avocado leaves over a flame and add to mixture along with the spice mixture. Simmer for another 30 minutes continuing to stir constantly. At this point, add salt and adjust based off of taste. Also taste for the pH level. Adding the chiles cause the acidity level to rise. Chicken stock acts as a basicity and adding some will help to neutralize.

While all this is happening, you will need to prepare the meat that is being served and cook potato wedges, green beans, and chayote. They chayotes here are huge.

Phew, that was a lot of work, but the result was delicious.

There were so many other things that were happening while preparing the mole. Shane was busy making the garlic soup with squash blossoms.

He also helped make the bread pudding with pumpkin. Both of these were awesome.

Seasons of My Heart was definitely the best cooking class to date. Maybe next time I will go on the week long course that they teach.

Tomorrow is the last cooking class of the trip, Casa Crespo. We will be deciding the menu when we arrive to the class. It is Trip Advisor's number one thing to do in Oaxaca and I am looking forward to it. Hasta luego.