In February I took a fabulous trip to Oaxaca, Mexico with Destination-Arts (a multi-dimensional painting and photography workshop). We had the distinct pleasure of spending an entire day with the noted chef, caterer, and Seasons of my Heart Cooking School founder Susana Trilling. This wonderful day really rounded out our experience to Oaxaca in the most profound way. We had no way of knowing this until later when the dust settled! For me, as a restaurateur and caterer this provided the "flavor" that was the finishing touch on the whole experience.
There were 22 of us in two vans, and as we slowly made our way through the intense traffic, washed out roads, and detours - we began to worry that we were seriously lost! But we finally made it and from the moment we walked through the doors of this enchanting cooking school, we were impressed! The room was large and airy with a high domed ceiling. The kitchen was very large, completely tiled, with a dramatic central stove on the far side and lots of counter space for all of us to work. On the front work areas were five big flat baskets, each containing the ingredients to be used in each recipe.
We each took a seat at one of the three big tables they had set up for us and Susana began to give us the agenda for the afternoon. (I forgot to mention that we had spent the morning with Susana and her wonderful assistant Yolanda being guided through the Abastos Market in Oaxaca - 3 1/2 football fields in length! We had a chance to explore all the various food items we would be utilizing in our cooking that afternoon - it was an amazing adventure!) Susana explained the different courses we would be making for our meal, and how we would divide into groups to prepare the food.
Here's the menu we prepared that day, some of Susana's comments regarding each dish and photos I took along the way:
Tacos de Huitlacoche (Corn Fungus Tacos) - this dish features a local specialty which is foraged during the rainy season in corn patches. This corn fungus has a subtle musty, earthy taste that is quite delicious.
She explained that corn is the most significant food in Mexico and that all legends have corn as the beginnings of mankind. Unlike the States where corn has been highly hybridized, there are 40-50 varieties of corn in Mexico. The salsa we made to accompany these tacos was called "salsa de chile piquin" and she told us that these chiles are so hot, you have to wear gloves when handling them. Yikes!
Sopa de Tortilla (Country style tortilla soup) - this is an example of how they don't waste anything in Mexico - as a soft tortilla ages, it needs to be eaten, so it is fried and used in other dishes such as this soup. She said that every kitchen makes this soup - it is everywhere!
Ensalada de Pina, Jicama, y Agracate (Pineapple, Jicama and Avocado Salad) - this is such a delicious, crisp and refreshing salad! I told our chefs when I got back that we HAVE to make this for our customers this summer - everyone will love it! Susana mentioned that this goes especially well with mole and is perfect in hot weather. All the ingredients should be chopped the same size and the cream cheese (or goat cheese) adds an acid element that provides a good counterpoint to the fruit.
Relleno de Papas del Istmo (Baked Potatoes from the Isthmus) - this recipe comes from Thuantepec and is typical of the potato dishes that are sold in the markets on Sunday mornings and taken home for brunch. It reminded us a little of potato salad from our culture, minus the mayo. This dish is traditionally served with mole.
Mole Coloradito Oaxaqueno (Oaxacan Coloradito Mole) - Susana learned this recipe from her friend and teacher Carlota Santos, who she spent many hours with in her kitchen. I chose to be in the mole-making-group and I have the greatest respect now for anyone who tackles this masterpiece of culinary art! Susana explained that Oaxaca is the "land of seven moles" - (mole means mixture or concoction") - and that the test of a good mole is that all the flavors blend perfectly and not one of them stands out above the others. Mole is present at all important life celebrations. A few quick notes: 1) never use ripe tomatoes, green tomatoes are better; 2) chiles are blended - there are many reasons why certain chiles are used to make certain moles; 3) Mole Negro is the most important mole for the big celebration on November 2nd, Day of the Dead and is generally combined with turkey for special occasions; 4) "Coloraditio" is a little red, everything is toasted, roasted, and fried, then blended; 5)some of the other moles are Mole Rojo (little red), Mole Amarillo (orange and easier to make), Macha Mantelles, Chanchilla, Verde tomatillos (made with green tomatoes).
Budin de Elote (Corn Pudding) - this is also inspired by the Isthmus and is generally made during the rainy season when the fresh corn is harvested.
After we had each picked our groups, she put on some great music and we all got to work! Thank goodness my group was headed up by our fabulous photography coach Dan Lipow, who also is a very talented cook. He took charge and we each began working on different aspects of creating this magical dish. Here is the recipe with accompanying photos:
Ingredients (makes about 8 servings)
Seasoning ingredients for chicken stock (double the recipe)
1 1/2 chickens (about 4 1/2 pounds), cut into 8 servings, reserving the back and neck for stock
9 chiles anchos (about 4 1/2 oz), stemmed and seeded
11 chiles guajillos (about 2 1/4 oz), stemmed and seeded
2 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1 whole allspice
1 piece Mexican cinnamon stick, about 1inch long
1 small head garlic, cloves separated
1 small white onion, quartered
1 lb ripe tomatoes (2 med to large round or 8-10 plum), quartered
1 sprig fresh marjoram or Oaxacan oregano or 1/2 tsp dried
2 tblsp plus 1 tsp lard, sunflower or vegetable oil
1/2 large ripe plantain, in peel
1/2 bolillo or French roll, sliced
1 tblsp raisins
5 whole, unpeeled almonds
3 tblsp lard, sunflower or vegetable oil
1/2 cup sesame seeds
2 bars Mexican chocolate (3 oz each) or to taste
1 1/2-2 tblsp sea salt, or to taste
1 tblsp sugar
In a heavy 7 qt stockpot, heat 6 qts water and the seasoning ingredients to a boil. Add the chicken pieces and lower heat to simmer. Cover and cook the chicken for about 35 to 45 minutes or until the meat is tender and the juices run clear when the dark meat is pierced with a fork. Remove the chicken, strain, and reserve the stock.
Wrap the plantain in tin foil to cover completely and place in a 350 degree oven and allow to roast for 35 minutes. The skin will burst open and the flesh will look transparent. If you are working with a comal and wood fire, place the plaintain directly on the coals to roast.
Bring 2 qts of water to boil. On a 10" dry comal, griddle or in a cast iron frying pan over low heat toast the chiles on both sides, toasting the chiles anchos a bit slower and longer than the chiles guajillos, because of their thicker skins.Toast them on both sides until their skins start to blister and they give off their aroma. Remove the chiles from the comal or pan, place them in a medium bowl, and cover with the hot water. soak the chiles for 20 minutes, tuning to soften them. Puree in the blender, using as little of the chile water as possible, about 1 cup. Pass the per through a strainer to remove the skins.
On the comal, griddle or cast iron frying pan, toast the peppercorns, cloves, allspice and cinnamon stick, and remove from the heat. Grill the garlic and onions, turning them often until they become translucent. Let cool. Puree the spices, onion and garlic in a blender with 1/2 cup of the reserved stock. Set aside.
In a medium frying pan, over medium heat, cook tomato pieces and marjoram or oregano with no oil and cook until condensed, 10-15 minutes. first they will give off their juices, then they will dry out. Puree the tomato mixture in a blender, then pass the mixture through a sieve.
In a medium frying pan, heat 2 tblsp of lard or oil over medium heat and fry the bread slices until brown. Remove them from the pan. In the same oil fry the raisins until they are plump, about 1-2 minutes. Remove them from the pan. Fry the almonds until light brown, about 2-3 minutes. Remove them from the pan.
Peel the plantain and place it with the bolillo, raisins and almonds in a blender with 1 1/2 cups of reserved broth and blend until smooth. Wipe out the frying pan and put over low heat. Add 1 tsp of oil and the sesame seeds and fry until brown, about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. If they bounce around a lot in the pan add a good pinch of sea salt and the seeds will calm down. Cool the seeds and grind in a molcajete or spice grinder, or in a blender with a little bit of broth, blending very well. You can also grind the seeds in a Cuisinart with 1/2 tsp of vegetable oil to make a smooth paste.
In a heavy stockpot, heat 2 tblsp of lard or oil over high heat until smoking. Add the chile puree a little at a time stirring constantly. It will splatter about a bit, but keep stirring. Lower heat to medium and after about 20 minutes, or when chile puree is thick, add the tomato mixture and continue to cook, about 15 minutes, stirring to keep the mole from sticking or burning. Add the onion and ground spices mixture and stir well. Add the pureed plantain mixture and ground sesame seeds, stirring constantly about 10 minutes. Add 4 1/2-5 cups of the reserved broth to thin out the sauce, and let it heat completely through, about 20 minutes more. Add the chocolate, stirring constantly. When the chocolate dissolves, add the salt and sugar, if needed. Let it cool down for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The more time it has to cook the better.
Return the chicken pieces to the broth and heat through. Add more broth the the mole if needed. The mole should be thick enough to just coat a spoon, no more. Place a piece of chicken on a serving plate and ladle enough mole on top to completely cover the meat. Serve with hot corn tortillas.
Hint: you can use turkey, pork or rabbit instead of chicken. You can use the rest for Tamales Oaxaquenos made with banana leaves or Enchiladas Oaxaquenas. You should make this mole at least one day ahead, as the flavors will blend together better. The sauce freezes well too.
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