¡Muchos saludos a todos!
Manuel and I had a fine summer filled with food and travel in southern Mexico and Guatemala. Four ladies joined us as we wound up our adventures with a personal tour of Oaxacan traditional markets, which will loom large in our memories. The best mole powders and pastes are made and sold all over Oaxaca City, and as usual we wound up eating our way through the Big Seven Moles of Oaxaca… and it occurred to me that I have never listed these for my foodie friends.
Plenty of people believe “mole” means “bad chocolate sauce”. As it turns out, mole is not a Spanish word at all–it’s Nahuatl, the language the Aztecs were speaking long before the Spanish showed up. Mole is the same word in Nahuatl as salsa in Spanish, which is to say that it means, simply, “sauce”. These great sauces developed fully during the early days of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, and Oaxaca is the epicenter of this great culinary tradition. There is some discussion and dispute as to just which moles make the cut, but the Big Seven generally runs something like this.
NUMBER ONE, first always, is Oaxacan Black Mole. This deepest and most complex delicacy virtually represents the Day of the Dead to the Oaxacan people, gracing many altars during this baroque celebration of death. It contains 30 or more ingredients which may include the regional Chilhuacle Negro (an endangered chile found only around Oaxaca City), mulato, Mexican pasilla, guajillo, and ancho chiles; a burnt tortilla, egg bread, plantain, onion, garlic, sesame, almonds, peanuts, avocado leaf, thyme, marjoram, black pepper, allspice, star anise and cloves. Flavors are balanced with salt and dark brown piloncillo, the first step in Mexican sugar making, usually molded into cones or bars. The preparation of this mole is elaborate, best passed down from cook to cook. It is sold as a spice paste which is melted into homemade chicken stock to serve with poached turkey or chicken, white rice and steamed vegetables.
NUMBER TWO is Amarillo (yellow) or Amarillito (little yellow), a very versatile mole which may be served as a stew with a variety of meats, and/or a combination of steamed chayote, green beans and potatoes and corn masa dumplings. It may contain the ancho, guajilllo, chilcostle and costeño amarillo chiles, as well as Roma tomatoes, onion, garlic, whole cumin seed, cloves, black pepper and toasted tortillas, fresh cilantro and hierba santa, a perfumed herb known as “root beer plant” in the north, as it contains the same fragrant oils used in making the stuff.
NUMBER THREE is Coloradito (light red) from Oaxaca’s Central Valleys. It is a thick , light, sweet sauce made from the chilcostle, guajillo, ancho and pasilla chiles; egg bread, Mexican rustic chocolate, Roma tomato, garlic, salt and dark sweet piloncillo. It may be served with chicken, pork or beef and steamed white rice, garnished with toasted sesame seeds.
FOUR – Verde, or green mole. This is a light, fresh, herbal sauce made with toasted pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, serrano chile, oregano, marjoram, thyme, cloves, allspice, onion, garlic and fresh epazote and hoja santa. Many people serve this mole with stewed white beans as well as light meats or seafood.
NUMBER FIVE is the rare, magical CHICHILO NEGRO made from the complex Chilhuacle Negro, the Mexican pasilla and mulato chiles; tiny tomatillos, red Romas, marjoram, black pepper, cloves and toasted tortillas.
NUMBER SIX is the controversial Manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer), a sweet, fruity mole served with pork and steamed rice for a colorful tropical banquet of a dish which may include fried plantains, ripe pineapple, sweet potatoes, apple, pear and peach along with the rare Chilhuacle Rojo chile of Oaxaca, and the ancho, guajillo, mulato and Mexican pasilla. Some cooks argue that this is really a stew, though the line is a thin one if you consider the Amarillo, Estofado and Almendrado.
In SEVENTH place is Mole Rojo made with the Chilhuacle Rojo, ancho (and perhaps the guajillo, pasilla and cascabel), plus sesame seed, almonds, Mexican rustic chocolate, garlic, onion and fresh epazote.
This spot is shared by Estofado de Pollo con Aceitunas (Stewed Chicken with Olives), which is pretty much the same as Pollo Almendrado (Almond Chicken). These delicious, elaborate stews are made and served with green olives, capers, toasted almonds and pickled jalapeño chiles.
I hope this list inspires you to go even unto Oaxaca City in search of the Big Seven!
I shock myself how long I let it go between posts! I have been wanting to talk to you about MEXICAN BEANS… it’s truly surprising how many people show up to cook and confess that they have no idea how to make a pot of beans.
Beans are magical. Plant them and climb the stalk all the way to heaven; cook up a pot and feed a crowd for a pittance. Black, white, red, yellow or the beautiful spotted pintos I grew up on in Arizona–beans are packed with nutrition and phenomenal fiber which is so lacking in the modern diet. Quick like a bunny I would like to share my best tips for stewing up a good batch of beans.
Pick through your beans. They come from the field, and if you fail, your guests may bill you for ensuing dental emergencies! Wash well in a few changes of fresh water to remove dust and dirt.
Manuel and I like the quick soak method. You can soak beans overnight, but then you really need to throw out the soaking water (along with vitamins and minerals), which may even begin to ferment. We like to start with a quarter pot of beans (no matter what size pot you are cooking in) covered to 3/4 with water. Bring to a boil, turn off the fire, cover and let stand for an hour.
After an hour add extra hot water if necessary. If you add cold it stops the cooking and makes beans tough, so keep your tea kettle handy while cooking your beans. Bring to a simmer, add a medium white onion, roughly chopped, a clove or three of garlic, roughly chopped… and simmer until you can mash a bean against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. At this point you may add salt to taste and continue to cook until the beans are well cooked.
If you can get them, do what the Oaxacans do and toast two or three dried avocado leaves on your comal or over an open flame until they release their fragrance and simmer those into your beans, removing at the end of cooking like big dang bay leaves! Alternatively, at the end of cooking, add a big handful of rough chopped epazote, a traditional bitter herb critical to southern Mexican cooking, and let the heat of the beans finish building in the extra flavor. If you cannot find fresh epazote in your market, get the seeds. It will grow anywhere you can grow basil, and it will take your Mexican dishes to a whole new level. It even reseeds for me here in Cabo where we struggle for every drop of water!
A good indicator of well cooked beans is the smell–absolutely irresistible! I like to continue the cooking process after the hour of quick soak in my big crock pot. Overnight on low, the deep, rich fragrance of well cooked beans wakes us to breakfast beans that always hit the spot with fresh chopped onion, whole wheat or corn tortillas, some cheese and ripe avocado.
People want to know how to deal with the wind produced by beans, and have heard all kinds of lore for creating “fart free” beans! The truth is, most people are not used to eating the amount of fiber we were designed to eat to maintain healthy digestive systems. The trick is to start eating small quantities of beans and other fiber rich foods at a sitting, slowly increasing until your system becomes accustomed to the good stuff. Well worth the effort!
Beans freeze beautifully. We bag them up to serve the two of us for a few days, and pull a fresh bag out of the freezer as needed. To make refried beans, simply puree well cooked beans–black or pinto or whatever takes your fancy. Heat a quarter sized splash of cooking oil in a deep skillet and pour the pureed beans onto the oil. It will splatter, so be careful! Stir and “fry” the beans until they are as thick as you like. That’s all there is to it–virtually fat free homemade refried beans that sit perfectly on a tostada, burrito or huevos rancheros.
One last thing. If your beans refuse to soften, those are antique beans! If you get this year’s crop your beans may be softened and ready to add salt in as little as an hour and a half. If after three or four hours of dedicated cooking your beans are balking, you may want to compost those suckers, follow your local Mexican population to where they are buying their beans and get a fresh batch.
There you have it, MEXICAN BEANS! Who knew they were so simple, nutritious and delicious? On a southern or southwestern note, make a big pan of hot cornbread with your pot of beans and bask in one of the true delights of being a human being…
I have no idea where the time has gone, but here I am getting my seventh season in the kitchen underway. It has been exciting having cooks from all over the planet drop by to cook up traditional Mexican foods that have wound up in kitchens from Thailand to Sweden!
I spent my summer as always in South Central Mexico traveling with Manuel, and recently we were invited to a very old and authentic Oaxacan restaurant in Mexico City’s beautiful Estrella district for supper. Being close to Day of the Dead, we enjoyed looking over the ornate Oaxacan altars, replete with favorite foods prepared to welcome the spirit friends of the owners and workers of Tanguyu- – meaning “clay doll” in the Zapotec language. All dishes are prepared at the moment they are served, and my enmoladas — like enchiladas but prepared with mole instead of a chile sauce — were memorable indeed. I wound up with a kilo of the mole colorado paste to take home, the best way to teach yourself to recreate a mole you particularly enjoy.
After supper, Manuel’s brother-in-law Pepe insisted we needed to “drop by” mass at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, conveniently located near Tanguyu. We walked into the enormous courtyard of the Basilica, packed with faithful Guadalupanos from all over Mexico and other parts of Latin America and the world in general, many of whom were settling in for the night on tarps with all their luggage serving as backrests. Surely some folks don’t have the resources for a hotel, while others just as surely spend the night in vigil as an act of faith. Everyone seemed right at home in the front yard of our local Goddess, swapping homemade tamales and other foods while watching professional groups of grandly outfitted Aztec dancers with animal head and three foot long quetzal feather headdresses and full body and face paint pound out the traditional Danza, a physical meditation performed within clouds of copal incense to the deep thrum of ceremonial drums you can feel inside your chest like a universal heartbeat. They dance while holding the standard of the Virgin aloft, solid proof of the successful grafting of indigenous and European faiths in Guadalupe, the Mother of Us All.
Pepe’s intuition turned out to be pretty magical indeed. As mass ended, the courtyard exploded in tower after tower of world class fireworks, spinning and gyrating images of different areas of Southern Mexico that specialize in the creation of these surreal, splendid creations, as well as animals, flowers, birds, and of course many images of the Virgin Herself outlined in glorious fire. Rocket after rocket shot into the night sky, erupting in multi-colored displays of flowers, gigantic bubbles and even white shimmering rain falling down on the ecstatic crowd below for over two hours, accompanied by whizzes, whistles, snap-crackle-pops, and deep booms. None of us had ever seen a display of this magnitude, and it turns out the mass was a special one for the fireworks makers of Mexico, who do this only once a year… and we just happened to be present!
I never cease to be amazed by the surreal quality and the endless variety of life in this fantastic country. In my kitchen I always encourage people to come to South Central Mexico for lunch! You will never look at Mexican food the same way.
It’s been a fantastic season, starting out slow on the heels of Odile… we did our first classes last October out of my home kitchen with an ice box, feeling very much like we’d slipped through a time warp back into the old Cabo,,, Ten months and a whole bunch of construction later, the Casa de Colores is better than ever with a brand new metal structure roof and gigantic deck, plus a whole lot more.
It’s Tlaxcala’s thousand year old pre-Hispanic market, and these tamales are sold by ancestors of the original vendors… still made from lake fish stuffed with tiny lake fish, wrapped in the inner membrane of the cactus tequila is made from–mixiote–then charred directly in glowing coals until cooked to smoky perfection. Such a shock to first world eyes to see not only pre-Hispanic, but pre-HISTORIC cooking still going on in Mexico, like the ancient recipe for stone soup, cooked by adding hot rocks to each bowl!
I turn 60 in October, and Manuel will be 64. As he is a huge Beatles fan, it has to be a major celebration–we’re thinking Cuba, or possibly Chiapas/Guatemala… stay tuned. In any case we will be crawling through markets collecting ideas and ingredients for my seventh season, which will begin on October 15th. Hope to see you there.
Have a great summer, and keep cooking MEXICAN!
Greetings from south of the border! Today I’m going to attempt the impossible–a semi-comprehensive article summing up the Mexican salsa experience. It’s tough because the subject is pretty broad, there being an ideal sauce for virtually every dish in every region of Mexican cooking. Salsas, moles, pipianes and adobos are the highest, most indisputable privilege of this vibrant, resonant, complex and amazingly varied World Heritage cuisine.
Salsas have always held an important place on the Mexican table by ancient prehispanic custom. A diner may preview coming attractions by scooping up a bit of raw or cooked salsa with a warm tortilla, crisp tortilla chip or piece of bread as a simple appetizer, and salsas will enhance and adorn antojitos, rice dishes, soups, salads and cooked dishes, adding rich dimensions of flavor, texture and heat.
In prehispanic Mexico mulli (now know as mole) meant sauce, as does the Spanish word salsa. Over hundreds of years moles have come to include not only relatively simple sauces but an astoundingly baroque collection of fine sauces which may be served on steamed vegetables, poultry, pork and even beef, these versions generally being considered fiesta food. Unfortunately mole is widely misinterpreted, many people believing it to be a bad chocolate sauce. A mole may or may not include chocolate to balance its finely tuned flavors, but at no time should it ever taste like Hershey’s! A mole might be light, fresh and herbal, and take under a hour to prepare, but it will warrant five stars… that’s mole. If you have the opportunity to try one, ask for a sample. If you love it, you’re in for a big treat, and if not–you’ve dodged that culinary bullet. A mole is only as good as the cook.
The pipianes are fairly thick, textured salsas based on toasted pumpkin seeds and other nuts and seeds, giving them a rustic texture and nutty, creamy flavor. They may be served thick to enrobe meats or vegetables, or may be thinned with flavorful stock and served as a festive soup. Pipian may be red or green, depending on whether red tomatoes or green tomatillos are used as a base.
There are myriad recipes and techniques used in the preparation of these magical sauces which are the heart and soul of traditional Mexican cooking. I would like to include a highly simplified run-down, the steps of salsa as I present them to cooks in my my kitchen.
Simply chop or dice fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes, white onion, and serrano chile, fold them together, season with sea salt to taste and add freshly chopped cilantro, if desired, at the moment it is served and you have a fresh Salsa Mexicana or Salsa Cruda. Add chopped or diced red radish and some peeled, seeded diced cucumber and voila! You have Pico de Gallo! The original Pico de Gallo from Jalisco is made with equal proportions of peeled, diced jicama and peeled, diced sweet orange sections, sprinkled with toasted, ground dried chile. These delicate raw salsas, which are actually fresh relishes, salads or raw chutneys, are good for one day only.
Char red Roma tomatoes or green tomatillos, a slice of white onion, a few cloves of garlic and a few serrano chiles on a hot, dry comal until everything chars, softens and sweetens. Grind in a stone molcajete or, as modern cooks do, in the good old Osterizer. If you use a blender, pulse and leave plenty of texture to mimic a salsa ground in a stone or earth bowl, season with sea salt to taste and you have what are known as salsas de molcajete, with their light, fresh, semi-cooked flavor and texture.
If you puree your molcajete salsa (or the same ingredients raw, or simmered briefly in hot water until softened), you may then use a technique called “frying” a salsa. Heat a splash of oil in a deep soup pot, pour your red or green salsa directly onto the hot oil (be careful as it will splatter!) and “fry” until the head of foam that initially rises has fallen and the bubble are popping thick, about ten minutes. This thickened, “fried” version will have the lovely texture, concentrated flavor and color of a marinara. The red version makes a wonderful Salsa Ranchera.
The next step would be to add a dried chile, or combination of dried chiles, to your red or green salsa. Toast your chosen chiles on a dry comal to maximize flavors, soak in boiling water to soften and add to instantly create a completely different salsa such as Salsa de Chile Ancho, Chile Guajillo, or Chile Pasilla (from left to right, below).
Any of these salsas may be used in any number of dishes with widely varying and always delicious results. Although it is impossible to present a full discussion of salsas in such little time and space, I hope this gets you in the kitchen COOKING MEXICAN!
I give everyone in my kitchen the same homework: Buy a real comal, give your chile powder away to Texans, get a selection of whole dried chiles (at least the top three if possible), teach yourself to toast light, medium and dark… and now you’re cooking MEXICAN! Not Southwestern or, God forbid, Tex Mex–MEXICAN!I say God Forbid Tex Mex because it is a renegade cuisine, light years removed from traditional Southern Mexican cooking. I say renegade because it breaks the law of traditional Mexican cooking, the same law that rules the great Oriental cuisines which are based on balance rather than any special secret blend of herbs and spices. If you get it in your mouth and it’s got balance, you instantly know you are eating the good stuff!
Tex Mex goes off the charts on three elements particularly: TM cooks will add PALM LOADS of dried chile powder, oregano and dried cumin powder to a dish! A traditional Mexican cook would never think of throwing a palm load of anything in a dish–spices are judiciously measured by what you can pick up with two fingers, three fingers or four fingers for a big batch of whatever is cooking, complex moles included.
So which chiles do you need to get started cooking real Mexican dishes, and how do they work?
The most used dried chile in Mexican cooking is the same as the most used fresh chile–it’s the poblano, but ripened to a deep red and sun dried. Now it’s called the ancho, and it’s as different from the poblano as raisins are from grapes.
Ancho is pictured on the left. Ancho in spanish means “wide” or “broad”, and it should be wide at the shoulders and narrow at the tip–a heart shaped chile just like its fresh counterpart, the poblano. Most people, when asked to sniff a bag of anchos and identify their perfume, will sing out “raisins”! Fruity and bittersweet, anchos come in all shapes and sizes, but a classic will be heart shaped and about 3×4*, If you are lucky enough to be able to cherry pick them from a bin, the fresh one will be shiny and flexible, though you can still work with them even if they’ve gone pretty potato chippy. If they’re small, but still nice and fresh, I like to stand and pick out a bunch of them to stuff with Chihuahua cheddar and simmer in a pink cilantro cream sauce as a highly memorable starter… Remember you can stuff any chile, fresh or dried, with any number of good things! Chile powder will never do that for you.
Note there is a confusing tendency in the North to call both poblano and ancho by the misnomer, “pasilla”. Study up and you’ll know what you’re buying.
If you’re buying chiles in a bag, give them the Charmin test–if they’re squeezably soft they’re fresh, though you can work with them even if they’re past their prime. Get them home, go through them to make sure none are buggy or mildewed. They’re not sprayed in the fields as they know we’re going to be eating them, so you can thwart their tendency to go buggy by storing with a handful of dried bay leaves, and/or freezing them.
Number two is the beautiful, stained glass red, leathery skinned guajillo, second from the left. We don’t use the fresh counterpart, the mirasol, but once it’s ripened red and sun dried the guajillo is a jewel red, flavor packed chile with legendary medicinal properties. It is inexpensive and widely available, and rather looked-down-upon by many Southern Mexican cooks, as being common. Even so, I could live happily forever after with the guajillo, and love to add it to a red salsa to make my favorite salsa diabla for deviled shrimp…
Next in line number three in South Central Mexico, will always be the Mexican pasilla for its deep complex flavors so critical to a good dark mole. It is midnight black, deeply wrinkled and can go to crazy lengths of 10″ or more! If it’s shiny and flexible it is an amazing chile to stuff with cheese or picadillo, and toasted, soaked and pureed on its own it makes a satisfying salsa with the addition of just a little garlic, onion and salt.
The little chile next to the impressive Mexican pasilla (not to be mistaken for the Oaxacan pasilla, which is another story altogether) doesn’t look like much, but it’s a powerhouse of flavor that has taken over the number three spot in the North. It’s the chipotle, and it’s a hot one, being a ripened, smoked jalapeno… and if you love smoke and heat, it’s an irresistable obsession. Use the dried version like a bay leaf, floating it in a pot of soup, stew or chile,anywhere you want smoke and heat, and remove it when you reach the levels you love. Buy cans of chipotle in adobo, puree them and keep in a squeezie bottle next to your ketchup. It will keep as long as ketchup and you can squeeeeeeze it anywhere you want that fabulous chipotle punch!
The mulato is pictured on the far right. It is a softer, sweeter, almost chocolaty version of the ancho, so if you can get your hands on it don’t hesitate to give it a try.
This should get you started. Now, how can you incorporate these gems in your cooking instead of the chile powder you just gave away to your Texan friends? Soak them in boiling water until they soften andthen puree, or better still, toast them on that comal you bought as part of your earlier homework and <em>then</em> soak them–this will bring out flavors you never imagined. Simply puree and add to any dish. The guajillo is the only one of the top three that should be sieved into your dish to remove the leathery skins that will not break down in cooking. Any of the others, including chipotle, can be toasted and cut or crumbled into your soup, stew or chile and they’ll cook right in.
Here’s a parting shot of a classic comal made of cold rolled steel. Don’t buy a pretty, light weight, modern, non stick comal–you’ll wreck it the first time you use it because the technique is dry heat. Never a drop of oil hits this Aztec griddle, which is why traditional Mexican cooking is so light, fresh and flavorful. Give it a good scrubbing with wet-n-dry sandpaper from Home Depot, dry it on a burner and you’re ready to toast up another batch of whole, dried chiles, whole spices, nuts, seeds… or whatever is cooking in your Mexican kitchen!
everWhew! We had a heck of a summer, and Cabo really took a hit from Odile… it was a test of everything and everybody here at the cape on a biblical scale. I am still impressed on a daily basis with the resilience and strength of our community, putting our lives and our town back together better than before the storm.
My kitchen has a brand new roof with solid metal structure welded into the framework of the house. I lost my old roof because the antique wooden framing couldn’t take the strain, and I figured it would be junk once the guys got it down–it turned out to be in amazingly good condition, and wound up building a good (and very pretty) stretch of fence!
We did the first week of classes in my downstairs kitchen out of an icebox. It reminded me of the old days in Cabo when I lived off the grid with solar panels and water was delivered by pump truck. I will always have a special place in my heart and kitchen for those first groups of cooks who came back to Cabo regardless of conditions so soon after the storm. I think we were all pleasantly amazed how quickly things came back together. So the roof is on, and we are back to cooking upstairs. The inaugural week was magical. I do not have a schedule. The first cooks to reserve a class choose the subject, and for the first time in six years of classes, every single class that first week turned out to be… making mole! My favorite!
I love my kitchen, and all the cooks who show up to cook, more than ever before. Thanks to all of you for your fine sense of adventure and love of traditional Mexican food and culture that brings you to Cabo and into my home and kitchen! I look forward to cooking with you soon.