It’s almost too much

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I had never tried mole coloradito until I got to Oaxaca, but there have been times when I have wondered if it’s possible that I like it even more than mole negro. After my cooking lesson with Sra. Soledad, that question was answered forever: a good mole negro is king. But mole coloradito continues to run a close second in my affections, and I was thrilled when they honored my request for it at my second cooking class at Seasons of My Heart.

I loved the group at my second class: a contingent of students from a culinary school in Nebraska, two Episcopalian priests married to each other from Texas, their son from Brooklyn who has been working his way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” while finishing his dissertation on French literature, two girls from UC Davis who “came to Oaxaca to eat,” and a woman from Cincinnati who didn’t get mad that I got a little bossy about the mole coloradito.

Instead of a market tour in Etla, we started with a cheese-making demonstration by Sylvia in the morning, a woman who grew up in Puebla but met and married a man from Etla and joined the family business of cheese-making. Reyes Etla is famous for its cheese, and even though it is only 30-45 minutes away from Oaxaca, vendors in Oaxacan markets will brag and sometimes even lie that their cheese is from Etla when it’s not. Susana Trilling says you can tell what’s not from Etla because it’s sold in plastic rings, not in the woven straw corsets, nor in the wooden rings that are made from the wood of the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. (It’s amazing, she says things like this in such a matter-of-fact, wry way.)

Even though Sylvia is from Puebla, she prefers Oaxacan cheese. All three Oaxacan cheeses come from different steps in one, long process. You start with a piece of dried cow stomach for the coagulant, treated with lime and salt and dried on the roof to keep it away from the dogs (though that doesn’t quite make sense to me since people here seem to keep their dogs on their roofs). The cow stomach put in the whey and allowed to release its enzymes for 2-3 days. Then the whey is mixed with cow’s milk. When the curds start to separate from the whey, they look at first like silken tofu. Sylvia just stirred the massive bucket with her hand, waiting for it to get crumblier. When it was ready, maybe 15 minutes later, she passed it through a cheesecloth and squeezed out the whey.

Without salt, the curds form the beginning of requeson, the Oaxacan version of ricotta, as rich and as delicious with honey as ricotta can be. With salt, the fermentation stops, and it becomes queso fresco, the crumblable cheese that can be found in so many Oaxacan dishes. When boiling water is poured on fermenting cheese curds, it becomes a smooth, tacky mass, the beginning of quesillo, the string cheese that is found in the remaining dishes of Oaxaca.

We were each given a small ball to pull and stretch. Mine broke almost immediately, so I ate it. The others were able to pull them sufficiently and them wrap them into tidy little turbaned bundles. It’s harder than it looks, to wrap it up just so. And then we rinsed our hands in the warm whey, which instantly made me want to bathe in it. It’s probably better for your skin than your fanciest $100 moisturizer.

While Susana explained what we would be making, we ate our almuerzo, a brunch to fortify us as we cooked, of “salsa de queso” or hunks of queso fresco simmered in a spicy salsa, accompanied by black beans and tortillas. The queso almost took on the texture of cooked tofu, the firm kind this time, with a textured skin and a chewy interior that was cheesy without being gooey.

The menu of our main meal, the whole point of the class, was truly Oaxacan this time, with regional specialties I had never tried before.

The “tetelas de juxtlahuaca” were little turnovers made of masa that looked exactly like hamantaschen, the Jewish cookie made traditionally for Purim, except they were savory rather than sweet and filled with a red bean puree. From the Mixteca Baja region of the mountains near the coast, they were cooked completely on the comal, the circular, slightly concave clay pan that is used to cook tortillas and anything else made of masa, as well as toast chilies and roast tomatoes. They had the wonderful, chewy, toasty exterior of all masa cooked on a comal. Served with a drizzle of Mexican crema, which is like crème fraiche, and then served with a spicy tomato-chile bravo salsa, it was the perfect botana to eat with our beers. Like all good appetizers, it stimulated our appetites for more.

The soup was a pureed soup of garbanzo beans, from mountainous areas like Ixtlan in the Sierra Norte, and simmered with mint, it reminded me so much of Middle Eastern soups, though there wasn’t any cumin. Not so much an exciting soup as a comforting one.

The salad was a happy mélange of green cactus fruit, guavas, red onion, oranges, avocados, pomegranate seeds, and toasted pumpkin seeds, as well as queso fresco, the kind of salad I would throw together without much thought, fruity and tart with lots of crunch. It was fairly complicated, as salads go, if not particularly revelatory, but still a good example of how every good salad should be fruity and tart with lots of crunch.

The accompaniment for the mole coloradito was a rice with “hongos del bosque,” mushrooms with no real English-language equivalent, so the school calls them “little brown mushrooms.” Prosaic, but accurate. The little wrinkly, dried buggers were delicious, and cooked to the point that they were still chewy, a good counterbalance to the tender rice.

And the mole, oh the mole. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to describe what mole tastes like. But that day, I heard a description that made wonderful sense: if you can taste any one ingredient, you haven’t done it right. Like mole negro, the coloradito required substantial toasting of chiles on their comal outside, though this time, just two types, guajillo and ancho, and no full-on burning of chile seeds, which instantly made it more feasible for a Brooklyn dinner. We also toasted the garlic cloves, the whole peppercorns and cloves, a stick of cinnamon, and the white onions.

Everything else got cooked separately on the stove inside: the tomatoes and oregano in one pan, and the fried bread, raisins, sesame seeds, and almonds in another pan. Instead of taking it to the village miller, we used the kitchen’s amazing two-horsepower blender to puree each component separately, and then pushed everything again through a food mill. That blender was both awesome and frightening, like the first time I used a power tool at a Habitat for Humanity construction site.

The pureed chili went in first, a thick, gorgeous mixture that started to get shiny as it started cooking in the cazuela. Susana taught us to look for the “ojo,” the eye that would appear as the sauce bubbled up and then broke on the surface. Then the onion-spice mixture, and when that was ready, the tomato mixture, and when that was ready, the plaintain-bread-raisin mush, and then finally the sesame-almond mixture. Like a good Thai curry, you could taste it grow and evolve with each added ingredient, but the best part was possibly near the end, after almost an hour, when we added a great deal of stock, which not only thinned it to the right consistency, it filled it with even more depth and flavor. Finally, we added the chocolate, and salt and sugar to taste.

In the traditional way, the chicken had been simmered separately to create the stock and was added to the mole when plating. I got a piece of white meat that I just couldn’t understand—it was chewy, but not dry, with real flavor. When I got home, Rick Bayless provided some illumination: Mexican chicken, which is generally free-range without self-consciousness, can handle long-cooking, unlike our “leaner, less-developed American birds.” Ha! I love how he makes it sound like American chickens are just puny, flabby things that haven’t put in sufficient time at the gym. Now I know why I’ve enjoyed the white meat I’ve had here so much.

Dessert in Mexico always feels like an afterthought, and I had actually quite hated the boozy mango dessert we had last time, but for once I loved the dessert, a Mexican chocolate boudin. It probably helped that it was made by the teacher leading the culinary school contingent, and even though she told us it would have been better if the bread had been allowed to soak longer in the crema de café mezcal and get softer, I loved the almost tough, chewy texture of the outer edge, contrasted with the smooth, silky interior and the chunks of strawberries embedded inside. (Koreans just love chewy, jjolgit jjolgit textures.)

It’s almost too much, you know. To make mole negro with Sra. Soledad, to make mole coloradito at Seasons of My Heart. I’ll never be able to complain about my life again.

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