Cooking Class in Oaxaca
Mexican food is on the top of my favorite ethnic cuisines. In my humble and very personal opinion a mole is the acme of Mexican cuisine, and on top of that is mole negro or black mole. Part of our mission while in Mexico was to find a true mole negro and maybe even attempt to learn how to (egad) make one.
I searched high and low for a culinary academy that could teach me the way of the mole. All research pointed towards Oaxaca as the mecca for most mole lovers (mole Poblano is from Puebla). Shreesh Taskar of “A Long Drive” fame attended a school in Oaxaca that called my attention, but upon further inspection it seemed a little watered down in the ‘authentic” department. I don’t mean the food they make, but the experience itself (and a little pricey). I realized my vision was that of an elderly Mexican grandma who learned how to cook from her mother and so on and so forth. After some more research I found Grace Meng and her great blog One Fork, One Spoon. Her blog and I am sure her upcoming book are not to be missed. In One Fork, One Spoon she relates her experiences in Oaxaca, amongst these experiences were two cooking classes. One class was at the home of a local lady, my ticket. I contacted Grace and she was kind enough to reply and in turn put me in touch with Soledad Ramirez Heras.
My vision could become reality. When I called Soledad, she was very excited to hear Grace had sent me and she added that a class was scheduled for the following day (2 people). I was a touch disappointed to learn that I would have to “share” the time and the class would focus on mole colorado which is very similar to mole negro, but without chocolate. I was thoroughly exhilarated nonetheless. The directions were: “meet us at the Zocalo at 7:30am.”
In the morning while on the bus ride to the Zocalo I realized I had never seen her before, but I told myself that an older lady with two tourists would be relatively easy to spot. I arrived at the Zocalo, ordered a galleta flavored atole and a pork tamal sat down to eat and wait. Sure enough, just as I finished my breakfast a little lady and two young tourists seemed to be looking for someone. Soledad is a little younger than the wrinkly lady in my vision, but perfect. After brief introductions we headed for the mercado libre to get our introduction to ingredients.
What a wonderful place, the market. Lacey and I frequent markets, from La Boqueria in Barcelona to the smallest town mercado in Mexico they are a wonderful place to see fresh ingredients and what the locals really use. Going to a market with a local is priceless. We could have spent the whole day talking about dried peppers alone and the uses for each one of them. Some even looked the same to my untrained eye, but upon grabbing one and rubbing it or ripping it open you could immediately distinguish them. Some are smoked some are air dried, some spicy, some sweet, worlds of flavors in big bags sitting on the ground.
Peppers are truly the most important ingredient in a mole, but there is a stunning list of supporting actors. We walked along the busy stalls and purchased garlic, fresh cheese, cinnamon, fresh pork lard, etc. On the bus ride to her house on the outskirts of town, she told me about her childhood and her house. How when they first bought their house and property there was absolutely nothing around them and the nearest neighbors where pretty far off. As we arrived I imagined seeing the transformation of her little hillside house from no neighboring houses to very tightly packed neighborhood.
As soon as we arrived Soledad served us a wonderful typical breakfast, cafe de olla and some sweet bread. After our breakfast we were assigned jobs. Peeling diminutive Mexican garlic, de-leafing thyme, oregano and most importantly de-seeding the chilis. While working I was a little sad that we where in a regular western kitchen, I was hoping for the kitchen of my vision: a comal over a wood fire, a stone metate and a molcajete. As if reading my mind she lead us outside and down a flight of stairs to the Mexican kitchen of my dreams. Not only was it a wood fire kitchen the comal was made of clay and there was a beautiful very old looking metate next to the fire. Really old school and just what I wanted.
Soledad’s husband started two fires, a wood fire for the comal and a hardwood charcoal fire in a small grill. The comal on its little pedestal over the fire was used to toast most ingredients, including the chilis. The little barbecue grill was used to roast tomatoes. Everything got its turn over the fire. “The heat brings out the flavor” is what Soledad told us with a flash of her big smile. The smells of each ingredient changed after just a few seconds over the fire, it was wonderful.
After everything had its proper level of toast it was time to grind. Everything is soaked in a hen stock Soledad’s daughter was cooking as we prepped. The soak is to rehydrate the dry ingredients and impart the flavor of the hen stock (a lot richer than chicken stock). I was ready for the arduous task of grinding and blending the ingredients on the metate, Rock on rock, but when I asked Soledad how long it would take she looked at me and smiled; “we do not use the metate anymore, we use the blender.” She added that it would take hours to get it to the proper consistency if we did it by hand, so modern appliances win. I can’t win ‘em all. Before adding the stock-tomato-rest of ingredients to the blender we added “pan de yema” (egg yolk bread) to the mixture and blended away until we got a very smooth consistency. Passed through a sieve the mixture was surprisingly liquidy and already had a great flavor, but no depth. The flavors were not “married” yet. So back to the fire.
Soledad placed a beautiful clay pot on the small grill we used for the tomatoes. The wonderfully silky pork lard finally came out to play, a big dollop in the surprisingly hot clay pot. All the ingredients went in and we stirred the pot continuously as we sat and enjoyed wonderful stories about Oaxaca from Soledad’s husband. The evolution of the flavors was nothing less than alchemy. Every ten minutes or so I would taste the mole and it was a completely different sauce each time. The flavors melded and a completely different, new flavor was born. After a little over an hour the mole was done and it was heaven, if I may say so myself. The ingredient’s individual flavors had merged into ONE flavor, no ingredient stood out any mother than another. It is hard for me to describe the very delicate flavor of this mole.
Soledad taught us how to make tamales with corn husk wrapping, and then let us make tamales with red mole and the hen that came from the aforementioned stock. We finished cooking sometime late afternoon and sat down for a wonderful meal: Red mole chicken tamales and steamed chicken and rice with red mole and Jamaica water and orange water as the perfect accompanying drinks.
I am forever grateful to Soledad and Grace Meng for this wonderful experience.