I spent almost 60 hours of the past two weeks preparing traditional dishes from each of Mexico’s 31 states. It was a wild ride: the kitchen was hot, the pace was frantic, the ingredients were exotic, and the food? The food was extraordinary. I really wanted to give you, my dear readers, an overview of some of the fantastic stuff I got to make in the last week of my Mexican Master Class, which culminated in a banquet and reception at Kendall College for over 100 hungry folks.
We spent a whole day focused on the Yucatan region and southern states of Mexico. These regions produce what you could call “ancient cuisine,” or cuisine rooted in the traditions of the indigenous people. In these areas, achiote paste (made from annato seeds), habenero, and sour orange (often found in Cuban food) are popular flavors. I got the pleasure of working on a Mucbipollo with Pibil Adobo with a new partner, Rick. Mucbipollo is a complicated recipe that takes some time to make—basically it’s a giant steamed chicken tamale.
After you poach and shred the chicken you have to make the Pibil Adobo sauce in a molcajete—basically a mortar and pestle made out of lava rock. Clove, pepper, and cinnamon are ground up first, followed by the achiote paste, garlic, and oregano. Finally sour orange juice (orange juice mixed with vinegar) and toasted onion are added and it’s all ground to a liquidy paste. Holy cow this stuff is good!
The Pibil Adobo is then mixed with the shredded chicken. I think my partner and I ate just as much of the chicken as we put into the tamale. To assemble the tamale, masa is spread over the bottom of a banana leaf and topped with shredded chicken, epazote, fresh tomato, and Mexican oregano, which looks a lot like a substance that’s legal only in California, Michigan, and Colorado. The mixture is sealed with more masa and the top half of the banana leaf and then steamed for one hour. YUM!
On another day we focused on the moles of Oaxaca. Mole simply means “to mix,” but these recipes are anything but simple, and the flavors are out of this world. There are seven classic moles, and many of them are made only for special occasions like weddings, funerals, birthday, etc. For example, Mole Negro is comprised of more than 30 ingredients, and it often takes an entire village to garner the cash to purchase all of the necessary supplies.
Besides the number of ingredients, moles take a lot of effort because each ingredient needs to be toasted individually and then added combined with the rest of the ingredients to get an amazing depth of flavor. They also require a lot of physical labor because everything that’s been cooked together must be pureed afterwards to make a smooth sauce, and when you’re cooking mole on such a large scale as we were, it takes some serious machinery, as you can see below.
On one of our final days we focused on baking Mexican breads, which are generally very sweet. I got to shape and decorate the Pan de Muertos, or Day of the Dead Bread. I have to say, Chef Fernando and his assistant Susanna were really amused by the bony hand I made. Next to it is the traditional version of bones on bread. Mine is very Halloween-y compared to Susanna’s. 🙂
The same day we made breads we also had a tequila and mezcal tasting. Believe me, Mezcal will put some hair on your chest! Mezcal, like tequila, is made from agave, and there are over 127 varieties of it in Mexico. According to Chef Fernando, no one should ever drink white tequila unless it’s a platinum tequila (a Jose Cuervo Platinum tequila is pictured far left), and mezcal should be tasted in three shots: 1 quick shot, 1 more medium-paced shot, and the last one should be sipped to get the full flavor. Right now in Mexico mezcal is experiencing an artisan revival, much like spirits here in the States.
Our last two days of class were devoted to preparing for our banquet. I got assigned to the cold station with a 19-year-old kid named Geraldo, who was really sweet. What we thought was going to be an easy station turned out to be a lot of work, but I got in some practice with seafood, so I really enjoyed that. For instance, I took on the task of making ceviche for the banquet, and I had to filet these beautiful Red Snappers.
Clams, shrimp and octopus were some other things that went into this ceviche. I’d never worked with octopus before and it was crazy! First, you have to cut off the head, cut it in half, and scoop out all the brains and stuff. Then you take the legs and push down on where the head used to be to pop out the ink shooter (yes, that’s the technical name). Cool, right? I probably would have had more fun with it if I hadn’t been under some serious pressure to do a million more things that day, and I would have taken some more pictures if my hands hadn’t been so slimy.
Anyhow, the ceviche turned out awesome, and it was a big hit at the banquet. Once you finish briefly blanching all of the seafood, you mix it with lime juice and then let it sit overnight to “cook” in the lime juice. The next day you add diced tomatoes, serranos, red onion, cilantro, salt, and more lime juice to taste. Delicioso!
At the cold station we also prepared shrimp cocktail, a nopale (aka cactus) salad, and a green salad with quelites (Mexican herb), mint, cilantro, freshly picked lettuce, and a lime vinaigrette. There were also three different kinds of soup: menudo, seafood soup, and pozole mixteco.
One of the craziest things to eat at the banquet was tacos de chapulines, or cricket tacos, a specialty in Mexico. Sadly I forgot to try them, but at least I got a picture! Apparently they’re actually pretty good, and taste like crispy chicken rather than bugs.
Overall, this class was pretty awesome, and part of that was because Chef Fernando, the visiting chef from Mexico, was so fun and absolutely adorable. He even shed a few tears when he said goodbye to us, and I couldn’t help but stifle back a few myself—it was an unbelievable experience. 🙂
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