After our market tour, we drove through fields of corn on winding, unpaved roads to end up at Rancho Aurora, immediately visible with its red domed roof on top of a hill. While Susana explained the recipes and their components, we sampled some of the ingredients, like the sea salt from the Tehuantepec that I loved (and I don’t buy into all that fancy salt stuff) and the house-made chocolate. Because our group was so big, we divided into groups of 2 or 3 to work on each part of our five-course meal.
We started with panuchos, which are a Yucatacan antojito or snack of tortillas stuffed with beans, then fried, then topped with spicy chicken and shredded cabbage. It’s quite an operation to prepare all the components, and before tasting it, I had already written it off as something I probably wouldn’t bother to make at home. But after one bite, I knew I would have to try even if I burned all ten fingers trying. The panucho was decadent as it sounds, especially with the drizzle of mayonnaise Susana urged on us. (Mexicans love mayonnaise. Japanese love mayonnaise. Isn’t it funny the countries mayonnaise has conquered?) It’s the kind of thing you can only cook for your best friends, since they have to be willing to eat in rounds as the panuchos come fresh out of the fryer, and you couldn’t really prepare anything else at the same time, but who wouldn’t want to come to a an all-fried dinner?
What really put me over the edge was the salsa de chile verde that was served with them. The recipe calls for 3 chiles bravos, these tiny, very hot little chiles that Susana grows in her garden, which you have to prick with a needle before roasting so they wont’ explode. (You can substitute 20 chiles serranos or 4 chiles jalapenos, that’s how hot the little suckers are.) My lips were tingling with happiness.
But there were four more courses to come. We had a tomato-based tortilla soup, hearty and satisfying. Susana suggested it could be eaten with a poached egg on top for breakfast—I think the words “poached egg” are some of the most beautiful in the English language. Each bowl was served with an entire chipotle chile in adobo; I was the only one who ate the chile itself. (I hope I don’t sound like I have delusions of grandeur; I just have a stomach that tends to say, “Yes!” to everything.)
We then had one of those salads that are really just a vehicle for fatty saltiness, inspired by the botanas or bar snacks popular in Oaxaca. On top of a basic salad of greens, tomatoes, radishes, avocados, and green onions were placed crumbled chicharrones (so much better than American pork rinds), the Oaxacan string cheese quesillo, and a really wonderful dressing made of jalapeno jelly, the aforementioned fruit vinegar that sits in a dark closet for months, and Dijon mustard.
Our entrée was a Veracruzano-style red snapper wrapped in hoja santa, this fragrant leaf bigger than my hand, that has a fennel-like yet unique flavor, and then wrapped again in banana leaves and baked in the oven, served with a sauce of tomatillos. The banana leaves came straight from Susana’s garden, those that hadn’t already been shredded by the wind.
The fish was plated with the arroz ázafran con piña, a saffron rice cooked with roasted red pepper and coconut milk, then tossed with bits of caramelized pineapple and served with fried platanos, which my group had been in charge of. I kept invoking Julia Child and her advice never to denigrate your own food, as I bit my lip to avoid saying we had undersalted the rice, but luckily for my sanity, the fish group had oversalted their sauce. And at least I could feel secure that the pineapples were really, truly caramelized.
By that point, I thought I was going to explode. Perhaps luckily for me, I didn’t really like the dessert, a mango charlotte spiked with a crema de mezcal made of maracuya or passion fruit, probably because the people making it had gotten a little punchy with the booze.
El Rey Zapoteco makes organic mezcal that Susana promotes in her store, and for good reason. Mezcal is the tequila of Oaxaca. Like tequila, it’s made from the maguey plant, which is a big desert plant with spikes radiating out, and again like tequila, there is a huge range of quality and ability to burn in your chest. Your average, run-of-the-mill blanco or young mezcal either makes you gasp in horror or pound your chest and shout, “Yeah, that puts hair on your chest!”, depending on your taste in alcohol. Then there are the aged ones that are more palatable to me, and the cremas, which normally just mask the taste with a sweet, fruity flavor—the girly mezcales. The El Rey Zapoteco passionfruit mezcal that we tasted in class, however, managed to be sweet and still have that kick that declared itself proudly to be mezcal.
I bought a small bottle of the maracuya crema de mezcal to take home, and oh shame, I bought a molcajete with a pig face too! It has beady red eyes and a red smile on a black snout, and I couldn’t resist for 150 pesos. I’m going to have to buy another bottle of mezcal to bribe the Continental Airlines ticket agent when my bags come in seriously overweight. Such a fitting, greedy end to a day overflowing with food and pleasure.