Casa de Colores School of Traditional Mexican Cooking

A Unique Culinary Adventure in Cabo

Archive for June, 2012

AZTEC COOKWARE

¡Muchos saludos!

Every day people are taken by surprise in my kitchen when we toss the ingredients for a red or green salsa straight onto a hot, dry comal.  Zero fat.

What the heck is a comal, anyway?Well… it’s Aztec cookware.

The name comes from the Nahuatl word comalli–the ancient Aztec language still spoken as a first language by many Mexicans, including a number of our Cabo beach vendors.  Anytime you see all those x’s and tl’s in our Mexican Spanish (as in nixtamal and Tlaxcala) you are looking into Mexico’s past which, like so much of our traditional foods, merges with the present. 

A comal is a griddle, traditionally made of thin, unglazed pottery.  Modern cooks tend to use a more resilient heavy tin or rustic metal disc that can be scraped down with a metal spatula, and even scrubbed with a pumice stone since dry cooking thrashes a pan’s surface.  Nowadays we’re seeing fancy comales in fancy supermarkets that are lightweight and have Teflon surfaces.  Don’t buy them.  You really want something you can abuse, and you really cannot scrub your Teflon with a pumice stone.

Why go to all this trouble?  Because, to quote the immortal Homer Simpson, Fire makes it good!  It’s like when you do a roast, and the best of it is stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Dry grilling or toasting ingredients on a hot comal builds layers of flavor like no other process can.  And nothing gets peeled but the garlic because the best of the flavor is in the charred skins of those chiles and tomatoes.

Dried chiles must be toasted before they are used in a dish.  They are stemmed, seeded and flattened and pressed onto the hot surface of the comal until their heavenly toasted chile flavor is released.  And they taste like they smell–you’ll never get that kind of flavor from chile powder!  Other whole spices, seeds and nuts are similarly treated before they are ground and incorporated into traditional dishes including moles.  The kitchen smells like heaven!  Someone really should come up with a line of comal air fresheners!

The comal is not the only Aztec cookware still in use today.  We use a variety of ollas and cazuelas, glazed and unglazed earthenware pots that country cooks swear improves the flavor of a dish.  They must be seasoned before use by simmering a chopped white onion and a head of garlic until almost dry.  The practical piece in the picture goes, with its cargo of pollo pibil marinated and wrapped in fresh banana leaves, straight into the oven until the meat is falling apart in the sauce.  Then, banana leaves removed and meat shredded into the sauce, it goes right onto a gas burner to simmer until the sauce has thickened for tasty pulled chicken pibil sandwiches… and the pot cleans up like nonstick!

We still use the molcajete, that beautiful three legged volcanic stone bowl with its ergonomic handpiece, the tejolote, to grind salsas like the one grilling on the comal above.  You have to be careful when you buy one these days since they’re now making chintzy bowls out of aggregate as garden ornaments.  Scrape it with a key or coin, and if a lot of dust results, pass it by.  Look for a real stone bowl that is not too porous.  When you get it home it must be prepared by repeatedly grinding dry rice until the rice remains white with no gray grit to ruin your guests’ dental work…  Don’t use soap on your molcajete, or your salsa will taste like soap forever after.  Use hot water and lime juice, scrub well with a stiff brush, rinse with hot water, air dry and you’re good to go.

As with earthenware comales and ollas, the stone bowl of your molcajete imparts an earth flavor to salsas that are considered to be an ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking.  If you’re in a hurry or in a lazy mood, do what modern Mexican cooks do–pulse your comal roasted salsa in the blender leaving plenty of texture, and serve it in the molcajete to take advantage of its unique flavor.

Don’t miss out on the flavors of traditional Mexican cooking.  For a small investment you can have a collection of Aztec cookware that will look beautiful and keep on cooking for many years, imparting your dishes with the true flavor of ancient Mexico.

¡Buen provecho!

Donna

WEIRD FOOD, GOOD FOOD

Greetings from sunny Cabo!  It never ceases to amaze me how we’ve come into the civilized world.  Every day I attempt to explain to those who have only recently arrived how for years we drove two grueling hours to La Paz to buy the most basic items, such as  toilet paper!  More outlandish items like round toothpicks and frozen turkeys were hiked down Baja by sympathetic friends living in more civilized areas. 

These days things are very different.  Having a full-on Plaza Sendero mall five minutes from my house is still a source of wonder to me, and I walk through with my mouth hanging open even now, two years after its near magical appearance.  Our new reality is that we have access to virtually everything, including all the ingredients to make beautiful traditional Mexican dishes which were only a dream as little as five years ago.

My small local market carried fresh huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche) all summer last year, and it looks like it’s going to happen again.  The picture above pretty much says it all–a normal ear of corn is infected with a fungus that blows each kernel into a huge, strange and wonderful mushroom!  The outside is a gray blue, the inside black.

If you’ve never seen huitlacoche, its Japanese sci-fi movie appearance can make you want to run in the other direction, but if you love mushrooms… and if you just happen to love corn too… maybe you should stick around.

The ancient Aztecs were addicted to this earthy gourmet treat, so much so that they intentionally infected corn plants by cutting into them near the soil level to allow water borne spores to enter.  Mexico is still crazy for cuitlacoche, and like any good mushroom the canned variety are a disappointing substitute for the real deal.  If you are lucky enough to find it fresh, treat it like any other fresh mushroom.  Gently tease the kernels from the cob and sautee them in sweet butter with finely chopped onion and garlic, and use them anywhere you would any other fine fungus.  They will turn soft, sweet and black, and may be folded into a crepe bathed in a roasted poblano cream sauce for a traditional Mexican classic dish that is truly alta cocina.  It may be cooked up with chorizo, potato, onion, garlic and serrano chile and used to stuff hot tortillas, roasted poblano chiles etc., or simply folded into an omelette.

I plan to frequent my local market this summer on the hunt for cuitlacoche.  Hard core foodies who join me in my kitchen are in for a real treat!

¡Provecho!

Donna

A couple of Mexican classics