You can officially call me “tomatillo lady.” At least that’s what my favorite stand at the farmers market has started calling me due to the frequency and quantity of my tomatillo purchases. I was elated to find tomatillos at my farmers market a few months ago during the summer (can you believe it’s technically fall…
A week ago on the eve of my arrival to Oaxaca my mom asked me “Do you like Oaxaca or Puebla better?”
Perhaps I was a little grumpy when I gave my mom my first appraisal of the city. Nicole and I had accidentally taken an extra long bus ride from Puebla (extra stops turned 3 hours into 6) and had wandered the streets of Oaxaca City for an hour looking for something to eat before finally making our way to La Biznaga.
That day, when I answered, I told my mom that Puebla was enchanting and romantic in a way that Oaxaca was not. But, I wisely added that it was hard to make that kind of appraisal after one day in Oaxaca.
If my mom asked me the same question now, it would be much harder to answer. Since that apathetic first appraisal of the city of Oaxaca, I was able to visit dozens of cute restaurants, artisan shops, and clothing boutiques, stroll through a few mercados within a 45 minute radius of Oaxaca, and fell in love with Oaxaca. Oaxacan art and culture seemed inexhaustible.
I feel the same way about Oaxacan food. After eating in Oaxacan restaurants, which offered delicious and inventive meals and taking four different cooking classes over the course of a week, I can confidently say that I now love mole and that Oaxacan cuisine is my favorite Mexican cuisine.
Our trip formally kicked off on Tuesday with a cooking class at Casa Crespo. We arrived to some freshly foamed got chocolate and hibiscus jam and bread. Our fellow guests piled in slowly and we eventually settled on a menu. Then we brought previously nixtamalized corn to the mill to be ground into masa for our tortillas and we went to the local mercado to purchase a few key ingredients. After a quick tour of the mercado, we came back to the cooking school where we made ceviche, a cold avocado soup, black mole, usually eaten only during wedding or funerals or other festive days, salsas and chocolate ice cream for dessert. Getting to make mole from scratch was an amazing experience. As a kid, I hated mole since I didn’t like sweet and savory combinations. Hearing about the ceremonial nature of making such a laborious meal, reminded me that Mexican cooking is best done with people and for people. It also, ironically, convinced me that I can make mole myself as a more common occurrence! More importantly, it started to change my feelings about mole. A crucial change in the land of moles.
On Wednesday we visited Susana Trilling and made one of the best meals I’ve had on this trip. This cooking class also started with a market tour, this time at the Etla market. Our tour guide, Yolanda, was a Mixteca woman married to an American. Yolanda confidently guided us through the mercado explaining to us the importance of Mexican traditions like using cal, limestone, to help break down corn for masa as well as tools, like a comal, used to cook the many ingredients needed for a mexican meal. She also gave us a tasting of SIX delicious tamales at the mercado. A tamal that really blew my mind was the tomato raja tamal. I was amazed that a tamal could be elevated to that level of creamy and silky masa, a far cry from the dry, dense tamales I usually have (sorry mom! Sorry tias!). Then we drove to Susana Trilling’s school and as we approached the cooking school, I was enthralled by the milpa, the ancient and harmonious system of growing corn, squash and beans, leading up to the school.
Once inside the expansive cooking school, we were offered a light lunch and agua fresca and then Susana went over the logistics and history of the recipes we would be preparing that day. Then, we were broken up into teams and sent off to cook our respective portion of the meal. Nicole and I ended up with the tres leches cake and I think we did a pretty good job if I do say so myself. All of that practice making avocado flowers paid off. Also, check out Nicole’s lovely piping! After a few hours of working under the guidance of Susana and her assistants we produced a beautiful meal. After all the meals were done, we sat down and were served our 5 course dinner. We started with a panucho, followed by an amaranth meatball soup, a tart beet salad, an exquisite estofado de pollo paired with chepil arroz, and finished off with two desserts, our tres leches cake and chocolate pudding. A truly outstanding meal and group of people!
Thursday, we took a cooking class with Nora at Alma de Mi Tierra. Nora, a sweet and petite woman greeted us at the entrance of the Mercado with a basket in tow. Nora explained to us the history of the region and outlined key pre-hispanic ingredients in Oaxacan cuisine. Nora then guided us through the market, highlighting other key ingredients and purchasing our supplies for the meal. When we arrived at Nora’s home we got to work right away preparing our dessert- tamales de piña! Then, we moved on to mole verde which Nora also calls Chlorophyll Mole due to the many greens that go into the sauce. The mole was surprisingly light and the bright green color immediately made it one of my favorites. After the mole we made a sesame salsa to go over our requezon stuffed squash blossoms. After all the food was ready, Nicole, Nora and I sat down to enjoy our meal and talk about food. I loved every part of that meal but I am especially looking forward to making the squash blossom appetizer again!
Friday, our week culminated in a class with Reyna Mendoza, a Zapotec woman who runs a cooking school out of her home called El Sabor Zapoteco. Although I thought that the week could not be improved further, this class was one of my overall favorites. Reyna’s quiet demeanor and gentle instruction made the day an especially memorable one. We began by walking to the local mercado to purchase ingredients, this part of the class felt like Reyna was a nice aunt who was buying treats for us to try, making me feel like a dinner guest and a friend in her home rather than a student. I was also amazed by the zero waste initiative at the mercado, good were wrapped in naturally bio degradable materials like brown paper bags and corn husks, and everyone brought their own bags.
When we arrived back to her outdoor kitchen, Reyna began the day by serving us some of the pan dulce we’d just purchased and making us some water based hot chocolate using a molinillo. We all sat around the table briefly and got to know one another and, then, we got to work. We began by making the paste for the tamal de amarillo by grinding hoja santa, chiles, and chile seeds on the metate. This experience alone made the class more than worth it for me. Kneeling before this ancient stone tool trying to mimic the effortless grace of Reyna was such a special moment for me. However cliche it may sound, I felt like I was joining the ranks of hundreds of Mexican women before me that worked with this precious tool for thousands of years. If you know if any metates in Boston, please let me know!
After grinding the chiles, seeds, and hoja santa down to a smooth consistency we moved on to our masa which Reyna made without fat. Then, we filled these tamales with mushrooms, chicken and amarillo and wrapped and steamed them in corn leaves (not husks!). One those tamales were in the steamer, we moved onto tamales de mole negro, this time cooked in banana leaves. We carefully spread the masa over the supple banana leaf, filled each tamal with chicken and mole negro and then folded and tied each tamale shut. Finally, we turned our attention to one of my favorite mexican tools, the molcajete! We used the molcajete to make two things, a green dressing for our nopal salad, and a red salsa to go with our meal. Once the sauces were made we sat down to enjoy our meal and I had FOUR tamales, a record for me. Both of the tamales were absurdly delicious. The nopal salad was one of the best I’ve had and the mango sorbet finished of the meal perfectly. Cooking with Reyna was one of the highlights of my stay in Oaxaca and I can’t wait to return for another class.
Nicole and I wrapped up the weekend by visiting a local market on Sunday and finishing up all of our shopping for our classrooms. I am, sadly, not bringing back a real metate but I am so very excited to bring back these recipes and tools for my family, friends, and students to experience. There is so much more that I could share about Oaxaca but that’s all for now.
Stay tuned for the final trip update on San Miguel de Allende next week.
Our stay in Puebla last weekend was short but magical. We arrived Friday night and left Monday morning. During that time we stayed in a gorgeous historical inn, “discovered” an outstanding new restaurant and took two cooking classes.
First on the menu were chiles enogada. We took our chiles enogada class with the chef at our hotel, Mesón Sacristía. Chiles enogada, an iconic Mexican dish, are a seasonal but iconic Mexican dish birthed in Puebla. According to tradition, the chiles were created by nuns for the visit of emperor Agustín de Iturbide. The dish reflects the occasion. It is complex, multi layered, laborious and well suited for an emperor. To make the dish, a chile poblano is stuffed with a sweet and savory filling consisting of meat, fruit and spices. The chile is then coated with egg whites, fried and topped with a white walnut sauce. It is then sprinkled with a green herb, usually parsley, and pomegranate seeds, yielding the colors of the Mexican flag. The final result is beautiful.
This is the part where I have to admit that… I’m not a fan. Alright, Alright, they were good and I might make them again but not with the same exact recipe. The stuffing for the chiles, which consisted of pork, chicken, almonds, raisins, cumin, cinnamon and sugar, was sweet. You already know how I feel about sweet and savory. But, even when I got past the sweet-ish filling, the sweet sauce is what made the meal not really edible for me. The sauce that we made contained goat cheese, walnuts, and milk (so far, so yum) but then we also added rum and sugar (yuck). So I hope I am not offending any Poblanos, but I was not a huge fan of the overall effect. Luckily, the next day when visiting a friend in Puebla, his grandma informed that her walnut sauce recipe did not contain sugar and is more savory, so I may give her recipe a try when I get back home.
Our second class was on two Pueblan street foods, pelonas and chalupas. I’d tasted chalupas before and thought of them as small fried sopes with salsa on top. They are actually small tortillas, topped with fresh green or red salsa, raw onion and quickly fried in lard, resulting in delicious, crisp and soft disks of saucy goodness. Pelonas are small sandwiches whose name means “bald.” They have this name because unlike cemitas, another Pueblan bread used in a delicious Pueblan food, they lack sesame seeds. The pelonas we made were lightly fried, filled with meat, queso oaxaca, beans and lettuce and were delicious. This class took place in the home of Ale and Tere with whom we connected through Traveling Spoon. I loved that for this class, Nicole and I cooked in the backyard of a Pueblan family we would have otherwise not had access too. After the lesson, we sat together and conversed over our meal.
Apart from the classes, I also learned a lot about Mexican cuisine through the meals we had in Puebla. Our first day in Puebla we stumbled upon the beautiful open courtyard of a restaurant called Casa Barroca. Since Nicole and I are both foodies, we did what we normally do, we asked for a menu to scope out the place before sitting down. After a shorter look through the menu than usual, we looked at each other in perfect agreement, we wanted to eat there! I had read phrases like “black bean risotto,” and “chicharron crusted” on the menu and I was sold.
After deliberating over such an amazing menu, I finally settled on a green pipián, a thick sauce made with pumpkin seeds, served with a oaxaca cheese stuffed chicken breast over a bed of black bean risotto. This dish was delicious! Nicole, ordered a fideo soup with king crab, aged cheese and chorizo cream which was also tasty. For dessert we shared a Dulces Besos and a Vervena. The Dulces Besos was a pink pine nut mousse filled with chocolate cream, paired with fruit and horchata ice cream. The Vervena was a deconstructed lemon meringue pie paired with lemongrass ice cream, maracuya custard, and fresh citrus slices. The vervena was amazing.
Our love affair with Casa Barroca continued when we returned for breakfast Sunday morning. This time I had green eggs and ham (not actually called this) and Nicole had molletes with tasajo. Both were also outstanding! We did some research and found out that Casa Barroca is a historic building that dates back to 1541 which was recently renovated to house a beautiful new restaurant, hotel, and art gallery in Puebla. We haven’t heard much about it on the internet or yelp since it’s very new but you should definitely plan to go there if you’re in Puebla.
Finally, also of note, was the molten cake we had at el Mural de los Poblanos. The gooey oaxacan chocolate molten cake which smelled of cinnamon and citrus, paired beautifully with vanilla from papantla ice cream. The dessert was aptly named El Regalo de Quetzalcoatl. Do you know that both vanilla and chocolate originate from Mexico? (I know! More on this later)
It’s hard to synthesize what I’ve been thinking about these past two weeks but I am amazed by Mexican cuisine. I was telling my husband yesterday that throughout the 8 classes that we’ve taken so far, no dish has overlapped without us telling any of our instructors what we’ve already cooked. Mexican cuisine is so rich!
I loved a moment during a market tour when our tour guide went over 10 different salsa combinations using a handful of dried chiles, stressing how different each of the salsas would be using those same chiles and a few ingredients. Later that week we got to see this in action by making three different salsas using the same tomato base. By adding gusanos de maguey, cumin, and avocado leaves, we got three completely different salsas.
Chiles have always been a staple in my cooking but I’d never understood that dry chiles like pasilla, guajillo, ancho, and chipotle are simply poblanos or jalapeños before they are transformed into their new state by smoking or drying during different levels of ripeness. After trying dozens of delicious salsas and moles during this trip, I am determined to grow my own chiles next summer and start experimenting with new salsas and moles.
Overall, I am incredibly grateful for this experience and feel that I have already learned so much about Mexican cuisine in the past two weeks. The list of foods I want to cook as soon as I get home grows by the day. Excited to share about our week in Oaxaca soon!
Hello! I am sitting in the beautiful pink courtyard of 200 year old hotel in Puebla, Mexico listening to a trio sing live Mexican ballads and sipping on coffee as I type this. The first leg of our Mexico Trip has been dreamy. I have been continually astounded by the richness of Mexican food and culture.
It is such a shame that America’s proximity to Mexico sometimes blinds us to the diversity and beauty of the culture and cuisine of our southern neighbor. I hope that by sharing some of the foods that I’ve been cooking this week you will be inspired to try a new recipe or to travel to Mexico for yourself and experience some of this magic.
This week started with an enchilada class in Mexico City at Esgamex. We made six different enchiladas from different regions of Mexico and I was hard pressed to pick a favorite after we got to taste them all. The chef there deeply impressed upon me a respect for traditional Mexican cooking techniques. One of the things he said that stuck with me most was when we worry too much about appearance we actually end up altering the recipe or the food that we are cooking. As a food blogger, I often find myself cutting things a certain way or serving meals differently than how I would if I were just eating it myself, so this definitely struck home. I do think that food can be art, and that it is ok to spend time styling food and cooking with esthetics in mind BUT his comment, and the humble but delicious presentation of the enchiladas in the course, certainly made me question my motives and practices. (More pictures here)
Tuesday we headed to Casa Jacaranda and learned to cook Cochinita Pibil, Sopes, Salsas, and a sweet corn tamal from Guerrero. This class started at el Mercado Medillin where we learned that goods were brought to the mercado by boat as recently as the mid 1900s. I loved hearing about the waves of immigrants that have come to Mexico City and the impact they have left on Mexican cuisine through foods like tacos arabes and flour tortillas. I was also astounded by the beauty and abundance of Mexican produce in the market- I’m pretty sure the mango I ate there was the best mango I’ve ever had. I was shocked to touch some chiles secos in the mercado and to feel their pliable and soft skin. By the time I get chiles in Boston, they tend to be brittle and even dusty! After the market tour we headed to Beto’s home to prepare the meal. His gorgeous home and cooking school is located atop a gorgeous boutique hotel. Beyond the market tour, the cooking techniques and the food and drinks we prepared, Beto impressed upon me a deep desire to host people, to make my guests feel like family, and to share Mexican cuisine with others.
Wednesday we started off our morning at El Cardenal in the center of Mexico City and after devouring some delicious pan dulce, enchiladas, and eggs we headed to la Biblioteca Herdez to dive into their diverse Mexican cookbook collection with over 4,900 volumes. Here I engrossed myself in books about tamales, salsas, and Mexican history. I found a recipe from an hacienda dating back to the 1700’s! After our restful morning we headed to an airbnb experience on Pan Dulce. This was my first airbnb experience and though I was not quite sure what to expect, I loved getting to take a small class and learn the basics of how to make a classic Mexican bread, pan dulce. The resulting conchas were perfectly moist and flaky on the inside while the concha topping was perfectly crunchy. I foresee lots of conchas in the near future. (More pictures here)
Thursday we partook in EatMexico’s Journey through la Merced. La Merced is not the safest neighborhood in Mexico City so I appreciated having a tour guide to lead me through the market, sharing the stories of the store owners, while sprinkling in a bit of Mexican history and culture. I honestly cannot even recall everything that we ate and my phone died halfway through the tour so you only get a short glimpse of the tour, but I was especially impressed by the tacos de lengua. The cow tongue was hacked off, peeled, diced and placed on warm corn tortilla for me on the spot. Topped with cilantro and salsa this taco was a work of art. After a dozen or so stalls, when I thought I could not possibly eat more food, we ended the tour at a small restaurant where a requezon, guacamole “cake” topped with chapulines was presented to us. Our tour guide was delightful and I loved getting to know Lola from Lola’s Cocina better. (More pictures coming soon!)
Today, Friday, we arrived in Puebla where we will be for the weekend before we head off to Oaxaca. I’m so excited to keep sharing everything that I am learning with you in the next two weeks. Make sure to follow along on instagram for daily updates.
Finally, I can’t leave you without a recipe. So bringing together my love for something totally Mexican, agua fresca, and something from Boston, my new home, I have some Rhubarb Agua fresca for you.
I made this rhubarb agua fresca right before coming to Mexico for my friends birthday party. The Rhubarb agua fresca tasted like a mild, tart pink lemonade. It was delicious and refreshing. Although, I didn’t add anything else to the agua because I wanted it to be purely agua fresca, I bet it would be great with lemon, hibiscus or with strawberries!
Notes: You can strain this to different degrees. I only strained mine with a normal mesh strainer the first time and it was kind of pulpy which I was OK with. However, if you want a clearer and brighter pink drink, then you should strain through a strainer and cheese cloth but know that this will yield much less liquid. The Rhubarb Agua Fresca is best within a day or two.
Rhubarb Agua Fresca
Yields: 5 cups
Rhubarb Agua Fresca
- 1 lb of Rhubarb, washed and cut into small pieces
- 1 cup of sugar
- 4 cups of water, or enough water to cover rhubarb completely
- Place rhubarb, sugar and water in pot and boil for 10 minutes or until rhubarb starts to come apart.
- Place the entire contents of the pot in blender and puree completely.
- Strain the puree through a thin mesh or sieve into a pitcher.
- Then add water until rhubarb reaches your desired level of tartness. For me this was about 2 more cups of water.