Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oaxaca Day 2

Today's blog comes from the beautiful hotel garden with some other turistas from Seattle and a grande Cerveza Indio. It has been nice talking to other people on this trip to find out places to eat and things to do. I am not sure that nine days is going to be enough time to accomplish everything ;)

My training for the trip has paid off so far. I seem to be hungry all the time and need only a minimal amount of sleep. I am able to take advantage of eating many different things here (for remarkably little dinero) and save the sleep for when I get home.

My Spanish has its moments. Of course, many of those moments are low. I am good at forming my initial inquiry and good when I get an expected response. But throw in something else, and I am a little shaky. This morning, I went to get some coffee and was doing great at saying good morning, finding out if the place was open, and putting in my order for coffee and pastry. The barista must have thought I was a local. A minute later, the machine broke and he started giving me a rapid explanation and question. I don't remember what I said in return, but it got a laugh from a few people in the shop. I sheepishly decided to ditch the coffee and pay for the pastry.

So, today was the Casa de Los Sabores cooking class taught by Reyna Mendoza. This was one of the teachers that Rick Bayless recommended and it was a treat. A few things about the class, Reyna speaks only minimal English but there is an assistant to help out (at least for a little while). The class had eight students consisting of seven English speakers and one Spanish speaker. Finally, the class was supposed to be mole negro (black mole), but ended up being a mole amarillo (yellow mole) and tamales instead. This worked out for the best because I wouldn't have to crash the tamale class taught here next week.

First, we had a trip to Mercado de la Merced. Reyna walked us through all of the interesting and colorful displays within the market. With her intrepreter, she explained things about items in the market.

Here Reyna talks about chiles.

More chiles. Many of these are available only here and people from as close as Mexico City have to come here for them.

Some dry goods. Notice the strings of gusanos (worms) over the lady on the left hand sides head.

Chickens, they will chop them up for you too.

The meat counter, that is chorizo Oaxaca draped over the center.

The vegetable stand. Here, the proprietor stands atop a mountain of vegetables to weigh and charge for the exchange.

The fruit stand. Those candied pumpkins looked so good, but we had to keep up with the class and didn't have time for the purchase.

Finally, the Dia de los Muertos candy stand. This stuff is everywhere for a few days, then disappears until next year.

Now it was time to go back to the class and get to work. Luckily, I got to walk with Reyna. My Spanish held true for the short trip and I was able to find out about some of her experiences and cooking style.

We put on our aprons and started doing prep work for making the mole amarillo. I had made this before and it would take me a couple hours. Reyna (with our help of course) had it completed in about 15 minutes.

First came the preparation of the chiles. Reyna said that this was the most important step in the entire process. We used pasilla Oaxaquenos and guajillos for this dish. After having their seeds and veins removed, they were toasted on the clay comal. The chiles for mole amarillo are supposed to be lightly toasted until they just start turning color, while chiles for mole negro are toasted until they turn dark. From here, they are put into scalding water for a few minutes where they come back to life.

The chiles are blended with masa fresca and some other ingredients (I left the recipe in the room but will fill in later).

The mole negro was already prepared so we will have to wait for another day to see that process.

Now Reyna had to blend the masa to the right consistency. Tamales based off a tortilla type base, the masa fresca in its base form is used. For tamales with a thicker form, the masa is blended with chicken broth to the consistency of thick cake batter.

Now it was time to make the tamales. We were making three kinds using three different techniques. The first is a tamale con mole amarillo y pollo. It was built on the tortilla style masa.

These were wrapped in a corn leaf and put into the tamales steamer to cook.

Next came the tamales con mole negro y pollo. These used the thinner masa mixture that was spread on a banana leaf. The ingredients mole and chicken were put on and the leaf was folded into thirds from each direction. The package was then tied and put into the tamale steamer.

Lastly, came the tamales con frijoles negra. These were also made with the thicker masa pressed into a tortilla form, but this time, we gently placed them into a corn husk. An avocado leaf was placed on the top and bottom of the tamale for flavor. A smaller piece of the husk is placed on the top to seal in the tamale. They were then placed into the tamale steamer.

We made a few other things including a cactus salad and salsa. Finally, the tamales were ready and it was time to eat.

I think that this is enough for today. Off to explore the sites. Hasta luego.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Oaxaca Day 1

Hallelujah, I made it! It was quite an adventure getting here, but here I sit with my grande cerveza Victoria on the top balcony of the hotel Palomar San Miguel overlooking one of the Oaxacan mountain ranges and writing this post. I haven't taken a lot of pictures yet, but have a few to whet your appetite.

First, I want to vent about my trip from Los Angeles to Oaxaca. Okay, I like to have things planned out. I got a call from Mexicana Airlines a couple days before leaving that the Los Angeles to Mexico City leg of my journey was going to start an hour later than scheduled. That's alright, I had given myself a 3 1/2 hour cushion to get through immigration, screening, security, finding my gate, and whatever other barriers they would put in front of me. Now that time was cut to 2 1/2 hours. No problemo.

Jump to the day of the flight. I made my way to the gate in Los Angeles and everything was going smoothly. All of the sudden, there was a Spanish announcement that the flight was being delayed 2 hours. No explanation, no English announcement. I talked to a few agents who would always say, "don't worry, there will be a Mexicana Airlines representative when you arrive in Mexico City to assist you." Of course there was no representative there when we arrived and I had 30 minutes to get off my current plane and onto the next one. So I followed the cattle herd and luckily found a hidden information booth that no one else noticed. I got directions downstairs to the immigrations area, cruised through the H1N1 screening, went back upstairs to the gates, and navigated to the already boarding flight to Oaxaca. Finally, I could relax and think about what was awaiting me.

Upon arriving in Oaxaca City, I boarded a taxi with others going to the central district. We sped through town and eventually got dropped off at the hotel I am staying at. My friend Shane arrived at the hotel a little while later and we set off to explore the area and get some nourishment.

We made our way to the zocolo and found a nice outdoor restaurant. I was a little disappointed in the tinga de puerco torta I had. Maybe my expectations were unrealistically high. There were some good points though. When we sat down, we were given an amazing plate of peanuts. They were probably baked with lime juice and seasoning. We also got to hear some good music while we sat there. A girl I'm guessing to be 8 with an accordian was playing and singing songs. She was awesome, but didn't know "Guadalajara" so we sent her away. A little later, a full mariachi band came by and did know my request and "El Rey". Of course we had to hear them play.

After that, we cruised through the rest of the zocolo and a few other blocks. On one, we found these huge sand displays that were built depicting Day of the Dead characters. Apparantly, they are only here for a couple of days, then, like the rest of the holiday stuff, is gone until the next year.

Of course, there are alters built everywhere for deceased family members. Marigolds are in season and is the flower sold everywhere and used most in alters. Other decorations vary, pictures, plates of food, drink, musical instruments, cigarettes, candles, fruits, vegetables, you name it.

An interesting thing around here is the number of massive, old, beautiful churches. I haven't figured out which one is which yet, but I am planning on going to church in one on Sunday.

That is about it so far. People are a little fearful of having their pictures taken down here. Something about the camera taking their souls. They seem to be okay if you buy something from them though. Talk about selling your soul.

I have one more picture por me esposa. Looks like these guys make a pretty good living.

Tomorrow is the black mole class with Reyna Mendoza. Hope to post again afterward. Hasta luego.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oaxaca Preview

Alas, it is time to embark on a quest to absorb the Oaxacan culture, food, drink, and celebration. It is time to dance with the dead, cook with the legendary cooks of Oaxaca, and of course, eat grasshoppers.

But first, here is an overview of the land and the trip.

The state of Oaxaca is Mexico's fifth largest state by area, tenth by population, and provides 16 percent of the countries GDP.

The Valley of Oaxaca sits in a temperate highland valley with year-round balmy, springlike climate. Three fertile valleys stretch out of the city providing a vast assortment of produce and tropical fruits. Over half the population are involved with agriculture, typically on a small family farm. Once a week, a family member bundles up produce, fruit, and poultry from the farm to take to the area's native market and barter for other family essentials.

This land has long been sought after for its bounty and beauty. Hernan Cortes took over the valley in the 1520s for his personal domain, but its settlers kept coming back. Cortes pleaded his case to the Queen of Spain who anointed him the royal title of Marques del Valle de Oaxaca and gave him hundreds of thousands of acres and the rights to the labor of its people. In desperation, the townspeople petitioned the Queen of Spain for land to grow and sell vegetables and were granted one-league square in 1532. This area is now the state capital, Oaxaca Ciudad (Oaxaca City).

Oaxaca City is a colonial town who's streets still run along the same grid the city fathers laid out in 1529. In the heart of the city, resides the zocalo, the tree encrusted Plaza de Armas lined with sidewalk cafes, street vendors, musicians, dancers, and more. On the next block lies the Catedral de Oaxaca (Cathedral of Oaxaca). Originally built in 1550, it was rebuilt in 1733 because of a devestating earthquake. On the other side of the zocalo, lies Mercado Juarez (Juarez Market) to bargain for just about anything that the area provides.

Alright, enough about the area. This trip was planned to coincide with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration that occurs annually on November 1st (All Saints Day) and 2nd (All Souls Day). Instead of mourning the dead, Mexicans celebrate their memory during this ancient tradition. The holiday amounts to a joyous reunion of all family members, living and dead. Cemeteries are polished and decorated with flowers and candles. Alters are built with pictures, mementos, favorite foods, and drinks of the deceased.

Last, but certainly not least, are the cooking classes. I have signed up for 5 so far and hope to bribe my way into a 6th. Here is the agenda:
  • 10/30 La Casa de los Sabores - mole negro with Reyna Mendoza
  • 10/31 La Cocina Mexicana - TBD with Socorro Pinelo
  • 11/03 La Casa de los Sabores - tamales with Pilar Cabrera
  • 11/04 Seasons of My Heart - guisado with Susana Trilling
  • 11/05 Alma Mi Tierra - TBD with Nora Valencia
  • 11/06 Casa Crespo - TBD with Sanchez Pascuas
I'll be covering these items and more once I get immersed into the area and can supplement them with pictures.

Para todo mal, mezcal, para toda bien, tambien.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chocolate Chile Ice Cream

With the Summer heat finally loosening its grip, what better time to make a creamy, frozen treat with a bit of a kick.

Adapted from Rick Bayless "Mexico, One Plate At a Time" PBS series.

The first step is to make the chile infusion. Remove the stem and seeds from one or two large, dried pasilla negro chiles. Over medium heat, toast the chiles, pressing it flat against the skillet with a metal spatula until it is very aromatic—about 10 seconds per side.

Place the chile in a small saucepan, add 1 1/3 cups of half-and-half, 2 ounces of Mexican chocolate and 3 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate. Heat over medium until steaming (but not boiling).

Cover and let steep for 10 minutes, then pour into a blender jar and process until the chile is pureed.

Whisk together 4 egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar until thoroughly combined, then whisk in the chile-infused chocolate mixture.

Devise a double boiler. Set up a 4-quart saucepan, filled halfway with water, into which you can nestle a 3-quart stainless steel bowl. Bring the pot of water to a boil over high heat then reduce the temperature under the pot to maintain a gentle simmer. Pour the chocolate mixture into the double boiler top and place on pot of simmering water.

Wisk the mixture frequently, scraping down the sides of the bowl regularly with a rubber spatula, until the mixture thickens noticeably to a custard consistency, about 5 minutes.

The custard is sufficiently cooked when it reaches 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. You can also test it by dipping a wooden spoon into the custard, then running your finger through the custard: if the line holds clearly, the custard has thickened sufficiently.

To cool the base, fill a large bowl halfway with ice. Nestle a smaller bowl into the ice and pour the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into the bowl in the ice bath. Whisk the mixture until it is completely cool. Refrigerate if not using immediately.

Finally, it is time to freeze the ice cream. Stir in 1 1/3 cup of heavy cream, 1 1/2 teaspoon Mexican vanilla, and 2 tablespoons of KahlĂșa into the base. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Scrape into a freezer container and freeze for several hours to firm.