Truly, God should strike me down for ever doubting my cooking class at ICO. I love the teacher, Soledad Ramirez. I wish she were my grandmother. She’s one of those tiny, older women who are obviously forces of nature. I asked her the other day if the majority of Mexican families make their own salsa. The way she replied, “Claro!" “Of course!” She pointed out how easy it is these days, now that people have blenders, but that for her, she believes salsa is mas sabrosa, or tastier, when made with a mortar and pestle, a molcajete. No shortcuts for her. Claro!
At the same time, the food Soledad is teaching us is simple food, food made at home for your family, though beloved enough to be served at restaurants. They involve techniques that have always intimidated me, because who was I to know what consistency tamale filling should be, but now I can see, they’re techniques that anyone can learn, if she has the desire. Of course, the subtleties, nuances, and perfect seasoning I’ve found in Soledad’s beans, salsa, and other elements can only come with practice, but now I have hope. The only peril I face is the heavy weight of my backpack if I try to return to NY with my own molcajete, comal (griddle), and jarra (hot chocolate jug).
The simple, heartwarming deliciousness of the food we’ve made has been apparent in the tamales de frijol that we made last Thursday and the entomatadas we made on Monday. For the tamales, Soledad began by mixing masa de maiz (ground corn) with a little lard, salt, and baking powder. She poured in some liquid that she had quickly boiled up, just water with the tomatillo husks she had saved from the day before. She then asked us to knead it by hand for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Soledad showed us step by step how to take a clean corn husk and fill it the masa mixture, then a layer of black beans that I could eat by the potful, and finally a few hierba santa leaves. She made it look so easy, wrapping it up and tying a neat bow on it.
Not surprisingly, the rest of our tamales were not quite so beautiful. They take a long time to cook, about an hour in a steamer, and when we uncovered our pot, masa was oozing out of the ones that had been wrapped not-so-tightly. But no matter, the seasoning had been done by Soledad and even the ugly ones, especially with a little chipotle salsa from the day before, were muy muy ricos.
Perhaps even more amazing to me were the entomatadas we made on Monday. Entomatadas are a Oaxacan specialty, and so easy, it’s almost embarrassing that I haven’t been eating them my entire life. We lined up one by one to try to follow her neat example.
You begin by frying large tortillas in oil, folding them first in half, and then again, to create a neat wedge. You need to be careful to drain them as much as possible of oil, and place them on paper towels to continue draining.
In the meantime, you make a mindblowingly delicious sauce: a kilogram (or about 2 lbs.) of tomatoes, 6 cloves of garlic, and 4 serrano chiles (or 2 jalapenos) simmered in a small cup of water for about 15 minutes. When cool, you put the tomatoes in the blender with a piece, maybe half an onion. You then fry this sauce in a pan with two spoonfuls of oil for about 15 minutes on low heat. You can then add two spoonfuls of bouillon or two small cups of chicken stock.
Finally, it is ready to put together. One at a time, you place a fried wedge of tortilla in the mindblowingly delicious sauce, and make sure it’s thoroughly coated. When you retrieve it, you ladle more sauce onto it. You only need a garnish of cilantro, white onion slices, and crumbled queso to make it better than you ever imagined it could be.
Seriously, entomatadas are just fried tortillas in tomato sauce, but the one I ate in class, made with Soledad’s help, was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten since I got here. Oh Dios mio.