Sunday, February 24, 2008

Eating Oaxaca—Part Four

The Cooking Class

La Casa de Los Sabores Cooking School is a class act. They are very well organized yet have an approachable, easy to like, informal style.

Wednesday morning was the day of my private class with Pilar.

As usual, our day began with a nice breakfast in the patio dining room.

At 9:30, Pilar and I went out to the Mercado de La Merced, about 6 blocks to the east the B&B. The Merced is a local, neighborhood mercado, and as such, attracts very little tourist trade. Thus it is generaly cheaper and less busy than the better known mercados closer to Centro, and the famed, but overwhelming, Mercado de Los Abastos.

Enroute, Pilar pointed out a small store in which there were about 6 electrified molinos, at the service of the market vendors who needed products ground. Among those products might be chiles, café, maíz or moles. These molinos are essential to the Oxacan cuisine.

We soon reached the Mercado. About one-third of it is vacant of active stalls. The reason, Pilar explained, is that many younger members of the families that operate the stalls have migrated, or have no interest in continuing the work of their parents. The other two thirds is quite active, although it was not thronged at the time of our visit.

I'd been given a slip of paper with a shopping list on it, as well as other items which might be of interest to see, but which we did not need. These are the items.

Lista Del Mercado
Masa para tortillas
Garbanzo molido
Pechuga de pollo

Things to identify but don't buy
Chile Pasilla Oaxaqueña
Chiles de Agua
Gusanos de Maguey

Pilar was determined to buy the breast of a free-range chicken. At the first stand where we looked, the chicken was killed the day before. That wasn't fresh enough. Around the corner, at another pollería, we found what we wanted. A free range chicken does not look very attractive; the skin is pale and not golden. They also take longer to cook, as they have had a diet of insects and life of exercise. But their meat is more savory than the marigold petal-fed, confined chickens.

The carnicería, run by a young woman, was doing a slow business, as it was Miércoles de Las Cenizas. She was one of the few woman carniceras.

Buying the vegetables went quickly. Miltomates are a much smaller variety of tomatillos or tomates verdes, and are said to have superior flavor. I think we got ours pre-husked, as the papery husks are time consuming to remove.

At the masa counter, two grinds were available; fine and coarse. The first is intended for tortillas and antojitos, the second for tamales.

Nearby is another small stand selling chocolateatole: a drink very much of Southern México, made up of two parts: a hot, drink of cracked corn, and a cold foam of chocolate that is added on top. I thought that it wasn't bad, but somewhat of an acquired taste. It evoked thoughts of the Emperor Moctezuma, and his golden goblet of foamy, unsweetened xocolatl, thickened with maíz and spiked with chile.

We made a stop at the dried chiles stand, where I also bought some special Oaxacan chiles to take home.

On the other side of the mercado, a woman sat on the floor, selling fresh herbs. We bought hierbasanta and hierbabuena, and I bought some hojas de aguacate and hierbasanta . One plant was especially aromatic; a tall, leafy stalk of cedrón. Its aroma was that of lemon and something less definable. I later learned that it's called lemon verbena in English. Later, we had an agua fresca de limón at Pilar's restaurant, La Olla, and I think it may have been made with the cedrón.

The class is very well organized. Everything that is needed is at hand when the food preparation begins; some of the standard ingredients are already setup beforehand, and that the pace is quick but not hurried. However, it pays to give the cooking close attention, for if you don't, you may miss something.

We were back at the kitchen before 11 a.m. Marí immediately got the chicken cooking in a pot of water. Pilar and I started the prep; first the dessert, Pay de Requesón con Salsa de Chocolate Oaxaqueño; then the antojitos, Memelitas con quesillo; next, the Salsa de Tres Chiles: morita, chipotle, y pasilla de Oxacaca, plus onion, garlic and miltomates asados.

Our next task was a very simple Sopa de Garbanzos con hierbabuena y epazote, using some of the stock from the chicken cooking.
Finally, the vegetables and the herbs for the Mole Verde were prepared. The ejotes were cooked briefly and then shocked in ice water. The chayotes were cubed and also cooked.

Next, a goodly lump of masa was blended with water and put to cook and thicken in a cazuela de barro. The concept is to complete all processes in the Mole Verde before adding the herb mixture. This serves to preserve an attractive color. Finally, the herbs, hoja santa, perejíl, and some chile were blended with stock. (I need to look at the recipe to see if more miltomates were used in the mole.)

The viscosity of the mole was adjusted, salt to taste, and ¡ya listo!

We sat down, Pilar, Susan and I at the nicely set table, and began our meal with a small glass of mescal joven. I recall the label was "Místico".

The memelitas are very much like sopes, but smaller and thinner, lightly anointed with asiento, griddled on the comal, and garnished with Oaxacan string cheese, quesillo. With it we ate a zesty Salsa de Tres Chiles.

Then the simple but delicious Sopa de Garbanzos, with its mellow, toasty flavor enhanced by hierbabuena, epazote and chile pasilla de Oaxaca.

The Mole Verde de Pollo was presented as large, boneless strips of breast meat on a pooled background of mole. It was delicious, with a complex, herbal flavor.

Dessert, Pay de Requesón, was light and pleasant, without the heavy richness of a cream cheese cake. The Chocolate Sauce was nice, but not especially memorable.

In all, an interesting class, one that went by all too quickly, but, in my opinion, worth the expense.

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