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Blog

8 Lessons Learned in a Oaxacan Cooking Class

A. K. Lister

1. Shop Local (and don't forget to haggle.)

A vendor and her homegrown produce for sale at Mercado de la Merced (including dried crickets in the bottom of frame.)

A vendor and her homegrown produce for sale at Mercado de la Merced (including dried crickets in the bottom of frame.)

Another vendor explains huitlacoche -- a fermented corn kernel that is akin to a mushroom or truffle, usually sauteed.

Another vendor explains huitlacoche -- a fermented corn kernel that is akin to a mushroom or truffle, usually sauteed.

On a recent post-holiday Mexican getaway, my partner and I took a class at the La Cocina Oaxaqueña Cooking School with Chef Gerardo Aldeco. Before the lesson, located in the open-air kitchens in his family's sprawling Oaxaca City home, Chef took us to the one of the best of many overflowing, street block-sized markets to show us how to source the ingredients for one of the traditional cuisine's seven molé sauces. Each is made from a different chili grown in- state (Mexico's most biodiverse), and the two darkest of all molés include incredibly tasty local chocolate. His tips for sourcing good dried chiles: not too dry, slightly pliable, so they don't crack when you squeeze them. Wipe clean; remove stem, slit one side top to bottom, remove the veins and seeds. Don't touch your face.

An assortment of dried chiles for molé, on display at La Merced in central Oaxaca City.

An assortment of dried chiles for molé, on display at La Merced in central Oaxaca City.

Also, when ponying up your pesos at the market, don't be shy! Counter-bid. Bartering is customary: a blessing on the transaction, and sign of mutual (and self-)respect.

2. Tamales take time.

Visiting Professor/Chef Jason Stanhope tries his hand at toasting banana leaves for wrapping tamales.

Visiting Professor/Chef Jason Stanhope tries his hand at toasting banana leaves for wrapping tamales.

PRO. TIPS:

  • Finely ground the masa made from boiled corn, at least 3x. Then, use chicken stock to really thin it out.
  • Cut seam from banana leaves and save to use as tamale ties. Fill and wrap just like a present, according to the natural direction of the banana leave (horizontal "hot dog" style.)
  • Layer the pot: chicken on the bottom, vegetables and cheese on the top. Steam for an hour or more.

3. Eat the dark meat.

The mother of our instructor, a master sous chef, busied herself in the background as our cooking class carried on under Aldeco's instructions. Tasked with shredding an entire boiled chicken, I set the gizzards aside, assuming they would have some other purpose than the filling of tamales. When the señora came over to inspect our work, she asked, in slightly horrified Spanish, if I really wasn't going to use the most flavorful part? Then she sliced them herself into perfect and utterly delicious slivers to cook along with huitlacoche (a delicacy) and squash blossoms in a steamed fresh corn tamale.


4. Always tackle prep. work with a friend!

Jeannie and Barbara from Santa Fe, NM, pick herbs while they catch up on all the hot gossip.

Jeannie and Barbara from Santa Fe, NM, pick herbs while they catch up on all the hot gossip.

Mole Verde fixin's

Mole Verde fixin's

5. Molé is like gravy. Keep stirring...

Whenever you add a hot liquid to a starchy mixture, masa de maiz in this case -- do it very gradually and stir, stir, stir like the wind! A golden rule for every roux under the sun.

6. Try adding a cactus worm to your salsa?

Oaxacans use freshly ground worms and salt for everything from cocktails to salsa.

Oaxacans use freshly ground worms and salt for everything from cocktails to salsa.


7. Make fresh tortillas.

A traditional tortilla press and colorful woven basket for keeping them warm.

A traditional tortilla press and colorful woven basket for keeping them warm.

Chef Gerardo shows a fellow student from NYC how to gently slide the tortilla onto the tamal.

Chef Gerardo shows a fellow student from NYC how to gently slide the tortilla onto the tamal.

PRO. TIPS:

  • Lightly mold a lemon-sized ball of dough into a thick disk, then press (in tortilla press) between two sheets of plastic wrap.
  • Peel one side of plastic and flip; peel the other side; remove from press and gently slide onto a tamal. Practice using one hand to push and the other to pull so it lies flat.
  • The tortillas will pillow up with steam and fall again (pure magic!) just before they are ready to serve.

8. Have a little mezcal, even at lunchtime.

To be fair, seems that Oaxacans start the day with a huge breakfast of memelas, empanadas, or chilaquiles, and enjoy their second meal more like a middle-of-the-afternoon feast. Chef G. told us that most of the time they skip dinner because lunch is such a grand affair. The traditional high-gravity accompaniment is a true art form at it’s best — i.e. made according to (arguably) prehispanic tradition from 100% agave, which grows wild and often takes a quarter-century to fruit (meaning that it might be harvested and cooked by a farmer younger than the plant itself!) Good mezcal is quite low in sugar; so while surely still possible to overindulge, a couple of small glasses won't leave you with a hangover.

Finally, because the production process is so labor-intensive, and the drink itself a requisite at celebrations, many distillers will hoard their lot in anticipation of a wedding in the family, leaving little left for the rest of the market. In short: if you're lucky enough to get the good stuff, enjoy it, with new friends and a fantastic meal, regardless of the hour.