Friday, July 20, 2007

Seasons of My Heart, Part I

{So much to catch up on! I was in Mexico City and then hiking in the Sierra Norte with my friend Erin for a week, and i've gotten behind.]

“The vanilla extract we use is made in Veracruz, from a flower that blooms every four years for only two hours. Because there usually aren’t enough bees, it needs to be pollinated by hand. It takes 9 months to grow the vanilla beans, then 5 months to cure them in the sun. They can tell whether the beans are ready or not by the heat of the beans, when they hold them in their hands.”

“This is the only salt we use here, hand-harvested from the sea by women in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”

“You can make fruit vinegar by putting rinds of fresh pineapple on a plate outside to catch the first morning dew, but before the sun’s rays hit them. Then you add piloncillo, unrefined sugar, in a clay pot, stick it in a closet, and let it ferment. It’ll become tepate, or pineapple beer, first, but if you let it keep fermenting, it’ll become vinegar. You’ll see a thick sludge on top, which they call “madre,” and you can cut it up to start the fermenting process all over again.”

“If you don’t eat pork, try grasshoppers.”

Susana Trilling is serious about food. I tend to be skeptical of cooking schools for amateurs—I never feel like I learn any real skills, and they feel suspiciously like corporate team-building exercises. But as I sat in the big, bright Mexican-tiled kitchen, festooned with the Mexican paper cut-outs I love so much, and graced with enormous and obviously well-loved Le Creuset pots in a riot of colors, I scribbled so fast and yet could barely keep up with the wealth of information falling from Susana’s lips. I felt so lucky to be there, and especially to have friends like Angela and Lina, who gifted me with the class at Seasons of My Heart as my 30th birthday gift.

Susana also had that hard-ass voice of authority I respect, like when she emphasized the great importance of adding enough salt to the arroz azafran con pina, or saffron rice with caramelized pineapple. I could tell, that like most chefs, she was a serious control-freak, and yet she managed to run her school and teach novices with grace and patience. Given that I won’t let certain friends chop vegetables for me, I felt I could learn a lot from her.

We had started the day at the Wednesday market in Etla, tasting and smelling everywhere we went. The tour was designed for people new to Oaxaca, but even though I had already been poking around markets for a month, it was a relief to have a guide who patiently answered my questions in English. One thing I’ve noticed about Mexico is that people here are generally so nice, but they can’t conceive of what outsiders don’t know. When I ask for directions, they often just say, “Oh, it’s over there!” And I’m left to say, “To the left? To the right?” So when I ask in a market, “What is this?”, I usually get an answer like, “equilemefo-mush-mush.”

Our guide pointed out herbs for eating like chepil, hierba de conejo; herbs for cleansing like rosemary, which isn’t really used in cooking in Oaxaca; and different kinds of cheese including requeson, a soft and rich cheese remniscent of the best ricotta.

She also explained, to my great enlightenment, that that cheesy looking white stuff was actually a sweet dessert made of corn and milk called nicuatole. It really tasted like a sweet cheese, which I liked but probably wouldn’t eat in great quantities.

I saw jicama popsicles, ready to be dipped in the flavors of your choice! We ate so much. We tried different flavors of nieve, every type of tamal the woman had, and something that looked like spinach when it’s cooked. I bought some spicy pickled vegetables to assuage my kimchi cravings.

Most interesting to me, we had chocolate atole. There was a mini-debate on Chowhound recently about whether chocolate atole is the same thing is champurrado. I can now add my two cents and say definitively that they are not the same. Champurrado is atole of corn mixed with hot chocolate, for a thick, nutty, almost sludgy (though I don’t meant that pejoratively) flavor. Chocolate atole involves an atole that’s made of rice and white chocolate, which isn’t our non-cacao bean white chocolate, but something that’s made by fermenting chocolate underground. It’s then poured into a bowl with chocolate spuma that’s made by whipping hot chocolate into a frothy frenzy.

We were then supposed to eat enfrijoladas or entomatadas at one of the fondas, since we wouldn’t be eating our comida until much later, but we had already eaten so much, I was the only person to eat a full plate of food. If I believed in God, I would thank Him for the metabolism that keeps me from blowing up like a balloon.

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