Tag Archives: cooking

Gastronomy + Gastroenterology: Oaxaca Digest

Those of us who live here are witness to the growing worldwide interest in Oaxaca food. Food festivals are everywhere any time of year. Take your pick from mole to salsa to tacos and tamales, and of course chocolate. We have fusion, small plates, tapas and schnitzel. We even have food trucks — something I was used to seeing more of in Durham, North Carolina, than Oaxaca, Mexico.

Chileajo from Oaxaca’s Mixteca prepared by Mario Ramirez

Innovation is everywhere and we want to try everything. Well, maybe just a taste of salsa de chicatana (or not) and a sprinkle of chapulines on top of a hot, Oaxaca cheesy molote.

The All-Chocolate Pop-Up Dinner inspired a Pop-Up of the Pop-Up immediately following, which inspired this post.

Meal prep with Rosario and Medellin, Columbia cook Mariano Capdevila

If you come to Oaxaca for the annual July Guelaguetza you can go off to explore the Sierra Norte and the Feria del Hongos to be held July 19-20 in Cuajimoloyas. Its an easy day trip from the city if you start early enough. Here you can sample all the wild mushrooms that the rainy season gives forth. They are stuffed into empanadas. Sautéd for enchiladas. Steamed for soup. Ready to take home in their natural state to prepare any way you like them, perhaps tossed into a delicious pasta prepared with butter and garlic. Recently on an upscale restaurant menu, I saw carpaccio de hongos — a deviation from thinly sliced beef or prosciutto, served with squash and a blossom.

Let’s get to the guts of it: Gastronomy and gastroenterology.

There is an underbelly to all this. Delicious food that doesn’t quite settle in the digestive system. This is not isolated to visitors. It happens to long-time residents, too. It happens to locals — people born and raised here! But no one talks about it. We suffer. We run to the bathroom. Our gut gurgles. We emit noxious odors or sounds we try to hide with a cough timed just right. We endure.

Mariano’s couscous with wild mushrooms (hongos), almonds, prunes

We keep eating because being here is all about the food. It’s a subject for discourse, comparison, and enjoyment. Yet, the symptoms of digestive malfunction persist. We may resist taking azythromyacin and opt for acupuncture or aguamiel or a tincture. Anyone have an antacid?

The table is set and Rosario is ready!

Maybe after a while, in between the pollo con mole negro and the sopa de garbanzo and spicy chileajo con puerco, we can endure no more and seek the advice of a gastroenterologist who sends us to a lab with container in hand. You might not like the results. You may be asked to eliminate all dairy, all beans (gad, how can you live in Oaxaca and not eat beans, for god sake?), all mole, and anything fried. You need to rebalance your microbiota aka your gut bacteria, you are told.

Tortilla española with potatoes, onions, Moroccan spices
Ingredients for the tortilla before adding the scrambled eggs

Then, after months of this regimen, life doesn’t change.

Norma’s mixed grill: costilla, chile poblano, tomatoes, onions

Meanwhile, back in the USA, the infectious disease clinic needs a three- to six-month lead time to schedule an appointment. They have little or no interest in responding to the urgency of a Mexican-inspired intestine.

Maude’s cucumber and parsley salad
Still Cleaning Up from the Pop-Up of the Pop-Up prep.

So, you go to another Oaxaca gastroenterologist who says take this pill for two weeks, eat whatever you want and read The Schopenhauer Cure. Your sister, who has experience with digestion, says Drink aguamiel morning and night for two weeks. You do both. There is major improvement. To what do you attribute this? Modern medicine or pre-Hispanic Zapotec folk cure?

Mariano’s tagine of mixed veggies and chicken with Moroccan spices

What’s to do but eat?

Kalisa’s extraordinary cheesecake made with Mama Pacha chocolate

Tasteful Oaxaca Chocolate 4-Course Pop-Up Dinner

Everyone knows Oaxaca chocolate is sublime. The chocolate at Mama Pacha Chocolate Shop is sublimest. I must use the superlative here for many reasons: Unparalleled quality cacao beans to start with, the chocolate is small batch roasted, tempered for hours, resulting in a smooth as silk finish. Different from the sugary, grainy chocolate we use in the villages for mole and hot chocolate. This is EATING chocolate.

Last night, Chef Mario Ruben Ramirez Lopez treated twelve of us to an over-the-top four-course chocolate dinner hosted by Antonio Michelena, founder of Mama Pacha. This was a Pop-Up. A one-night stand. Over in three hours. From appetizer to dessert, the tastes were sensational. Toño provided the chocolate. Mario provided the culinary adventure.

Mario, me and Toño at Mama Pacha Chocolate Shop

Mario is from Santiago Juxtlahuaca in Oaxaca’s Mixteca region. Cooking is in his blood and honed in Oaxaca city. He is building a name for himself and all accolades are deserved. Keep your eyes open for the next pop-up opportunity to eat what he creates.

This night, our first course was a chocolate tetela. This is a pancake made with masa (corn meal). In our case, the masa was infused with chocolate and the pancake filled with minced beef. The topping was startling: a blood-red beet and white chocolate molé, the beets and chocolate puréed into a flavorful paste that could stand on its own. The dish was adorned with arugula and broccoli flowers.

Mario told us he named this dish Yalitza after the Mixtec actress who starred in the film Roma. The color of the molé is like Hollywood, but it tastes like the Mixtec people, he said.

Okay. What’s next? A soup course poured from a jicara bowl — Chile Atolé Con Chocolate. Traditional atolé is a pre-Hispanic beverage of toasted corn meal and cacao, and sweetened. Mario adapted this to become a savory broth, adding chile pasilla and pouring it steaming hot over a nest of pickled red cabbage and organic corn kernels. Yummy. It had started to rain by then, that early evening Oaxaca summer downpour that turns humidity to fresh air. A chill entered the small workshop space given over to dining room. At that moment, the soup was perfect.

Bellies filling. Pour another glass of red wine. Pass the basket of fresh made sourdough bread from Pan Con Madre. Take a breather. Connect with our table-mates: a U.S. caterer/cook, a Columbian chef, a linguist, a jewelry maker, a food culture guide, a James Beard finalist cookbook writer, visitors from Australia and Ecuador.

From an infinitesimal corner of the space emerges plates of Molé Coloradito with chile pasilla from San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales (central valleys) are the source material for our food. Corn, for example, was first hybridized here over 8,000 years ago. The molé puddled on the plate, an underskirt for Oaxaca polenta made with cacao butter and mezcal, topped with whole shrimp and verdolagas –aka purslane.

Those are chocolate bits on top — 90% cacao!

The ultimate dessert was, of course, a molten Mama Pacha chocolate brownie, topped with quesillo cheese ice cream with fresh mango sauce. The chocolate bits on top were crunchy, sending me to the moon.

Need I say more?

Oh, other than this extraordinary meal was priced at 550 pesos per person, including wine. It’s no wonder why so many visitors are flocking to Oaxaca.

The cuisine here has always been exceptional, delicious, noteworthy and a full-mouth sensation — course after course, from humble street food, to worthy comedors, to elegant dining rooms. Traditional food is evolving into experimentation — taking the basic ingredients we know and love here and giving us one more surprise.

Tempering the chocolate to make it creamy smooth

Leftover Rosca de Reyes Bread Pudding Recipe

After about a day, Rosca de Reyes becomes more like dry cake, good for dunking into coffee or hot chocolate, but not so tasty for eating plain. What to do? Make bread pudding, of course.

I got a little carried away in the Teotitlan del Valle market and bought three Roscas. They are so pretty. After giving one away, there were still two. Friends came over for dinner last night, so I decided to use up what I had and make bread pudding.

Rosca de Reyes bread pudding, leftover deliciousness

Using a New York Times basic bread pudding recipe, I adapted it for Oaxaca flavors.

Ingredients:

  • 1 small Rosca de Reyes sweet egg bread loaf, cut into 3″ cubes (be sure to remove all the plastic Baby Jesus dolls)
  • 1/2 c. chopped pecans
  • 1/2 c. raisins
  • 4 cups milk
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 t. pure vanilla extract
  • 4 T. butter + 1 T. for greasing baking dish
  • 1/2 t. cinnamon
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/4 c. Reposado mezcal
  1. Put the cut up bread, including candied fruit, nuts and raisins into large mixing bowl.
  2. Heat milk, butter, vanilla, and sugar in saucepan until butter is melted.
  3. Cool liquid mixture to room temp. (Put in fridge or freezer for speedy chilling.)
  4. Beat eggs in another mixing bowl. Add  liquid and beat again until combined.
  5. Add mezcal to liquid. Stir. (Note: Some recipes call for whiskey or bourbon. We’re in Oaxaca. Why not use mezcal?)
  6. Pour over cake bread. Let stand 30-40 minutes or until bread is soft.
  7. Pour into a buttered baking dish (preferably deep dish).
  8. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 45 minutes or until top is crusty and custard is completely cooked.
  9. Serve warm. Serves 6-8.

Rosca in it’s original form before it becomes pudding

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I owned a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school. Another part of my creative past life still emerges from time-to-time.

Roasting a Thanksgiving Turkey in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

I bet you thought I disappeared! This is my first post since returning to Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca, a week ago.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

I came back to my casita filled with aromas created by professional cook Kalisa Wells, who has been house sitting my two adopted street dogs. All kitchen surfaces were covered with culinary ingredients. It was a sight to behold.

A cook’s kitchen, filled with every imaginable local chile variety, herbs, spices

And, then, Thanksgiving was a mere four days later.

Cuni Cuni Guajalote. Yummy Yummy.

From Durham, North Carolina and via Facebook, I ordered organic turkey raised in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca from Cuni Cuni Guajalote before I left. This took some sleuthing, hunting down their whereabouts via the Facebook group Clandestine Oaxaca Appreciation Society — the source for everything Oaxaca.

La dueña de Cuni Cuni — Araceli Jimenez

As it turns out, we decided on two smaller birds instead of a 9 kilo (20 pounder) when we did the pick up at La Cosecha organic market at Macedonio Alcala #806 — enough to feed a crowd that kept expanding beyond local family and intimate friends as I settled back in to village life. We were worried about one big turkey fitting into a basic gas oven.

Merry, Kalisa and Rosario with preparations underway

It was the roasting pan and rack that had us stymied. Neither of us brought a sturdy vessel or rack from the USA and the only thing we could find were flimsy aluminum, so we bought three and stacked them. There were no racks to be found as I cruised the aisles of the super mercado.

Kalisa’s Camote (Oaxaca sweet potato) Pie with the flakiest pastry crust

My eyes lit on a stainless steel dish drainer. Sure, it had those upright racks to hold the dishes vertical and immovable tall sides. I bet my friend Arnulfo and I could figure out a way to modify this, I said to myself. Into the cart it went.

And, here’s how it turned out.

Flattened, cut dish drainer. Be sure to remove plastic feet!

One of the great pleasures of being in Mexico is that we learn to innovate, modify, imagine and manifest. Things we need don’t always come easily, but there seems to be a way to improvise and make it work. I have learned this from my Mexican friends who are masters at adaptation.

Friends and family enjoying Thanksgiving dinner on the patio

And, if you live in Oaxaca, I encourage you to think about ordering your Christmas turkey from Cuni Cuni Guajalote. You will love it. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Yes. This is NOT your Sam’s Club or Walmart frozen commercial turkey.

Organic beet hummus appetizer — veggies from Tlacolula market

How we roasted the turkey!

Kalisa loves butter. I found the local dairy-cheese man from the Teotitlan del Valle market and bought up all the butter he had. Probably five pounds. Kali coated the turkeys in butter, stuffed them with oranges, rosemary, apple peels (no pits), celery and carrot ends, covered the turkey with foil and put it into a hot 450F degree oven for about 20 minutes. Then she lowered the heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and continued to roast covered at 18 minutes per pound until the drumsticks wiggled easily and the juices ran clear. We didn’t have a meat thermometer. We were also cooking at 6,000 feet altitude using an oven with Centigrade settings, so we converted everything.

Jacki’s family sweet potato recipe

  • 300F = 149C
  • 350F = 176C
  • 400F = 204C
  • 425F = 218C
  • 450F = 232C

We needed this conversion for the camote and apple pies, too. But had to jack up the heat because we are running off a propane tank at a higher altitude. So, it was check, check again, triple check.

Thanksgiving buffet feast.

NOTE: We did not stuff the turkey because this is the most common culprit for botulism.  The turkey must be completely thawed and at room temperature to be stuffed and cooked successfully without risk of infection. Many people stuff a partially thawed turkey (oh, it’s just a little cold in there, it’s okay) and the inside becomes an incubator for the bacteria.

An array of artisanal mezcal

Everyone who came brought something to contribute: mashed potatoes, cranberries, Boulanc rolls, salad, organic black beans, tortillas made with local field corn, chocolate, wine, beer, mezcal. Yes, I smuggled fresh cranberries from Whole Foods but Jacki found them locally.

Setting the table, Teotitlan del Valle.

Earlier in the week, Kali and I made a visit to Macrina Mateo Martinez in San Marcos Tlapazola to get large platters that would serve as pie pans and some extra dinner plates.  They are my go-to family women’s cooperative for fine barro rojo that those of us who live here love to use.

Mama Dorothy’s Apple Pie baked in a barro rojo plate

I’m very happy to be back in the village, surrounded by mountains, warmed by the sun, a hammock on my rooftop handwoven by the daughter-in-law of Mitla’s Arturo Hernandez. Despite the barking dogs and crawling critters, I am now embracing a slower pace of life — for the moment.  Tours and workshops start up in mid-December!

Feliz Fiestas, amigos.

Oaxaca Comal Cooking in Durham, North Carolina: Eggplant and Okra

Okra is one of my favorite southern foods, right along with shrimp and grits. I like it because it reminds me of nopal cactus paddles, the kind you eat. I’m always trying to figure out how to prepare so it’s not slimy! Grilling, not boiling, is a secret.

On this return from Oaxaca to North Carolina, I packed two cast iron comals in my luggage —  griddles, 8-inches and 11-inches in diameter. The bigger one does the heavy lifting for surface grilling all sorts of vegetables on my electric induction heat cooktop. (Okay, it’s not gas, but it works pretty well.)

Cooked and ready to eat, grilled eggplant and okra

Of course, you have to season the comal just like you would a cast iron fry pan: over a low heat with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil for a couple of hours until the pan surface is well-coated and the oil is baked on.

Healthy, Low-Fat, Nutritious!

Yesterday, on my regular 6,000 step walk around downtown Durham, I returned via Foster Street to find the Wednesday Farmer’s Market in full swing. Green tomatoes. Red onions. Cherry tomatoes. Green and purple okra. Tiny Japanese eggplant. I could not resist that okra and the eggplant.

The Farmer’s Market is only two blocks from my apartment-condo. Walkable, and I always have to think about how much weight I’m carrying (of the vegetable variety).

How to Prepare Stove-Top Grilled Eggplant and Okra on the Comal

  1. Wash veggies in a water bath with 1 Tb. vinegar
  2. Heat the comal on low temperature until surface is hot.
  3. Dry veggies and add to comal.
  4. Drizzle veggies with 1-2 Tb. olive oil.
  5. Grind pink Himalayan sea salt to taste.
  6. With tongs, turn and move veggies periodically until all sides are evenly browned. Watch to prevent burning.
  7. Eggplant should turn from purple to brown all over and be soft to the touch. Okra should be crunchy, not overcooked.
  8. Eat now, hot off the comal, or store and serve later with rice or couscous, tossed with chopped red onion and fresh diced tomatoes.

I use the comal for any grilled and mixed grill veggie preparation: asparagus, onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms, for example.

Eggplant cooks first. Then add the okra.

Where to Buy a Cast Iron Comal?