The vastness of Mexican cuisine

Chris had a last-minute desire to take a cooking class while in Oaxaca, so we got lucky last night and got confirmed for a cooking class today at Casa Crespo just a couple blocks away from our hotel. Lo and behold, when we arrived, we discovered that it would actually be a private cooking class since no one else had signed up that day. We started the day having a quiet chat over Mexican hot chocolate and fresh breads with the owner and cooking instructor Oscar, who runs the restaurant, which does only private tasting menus and special events, plus cooking classes. We chatted about things we’d like to make, things I had made previously in the cooking class I’d done eight years ago here, and what we’d accomplish today. We made two different moles, a chocolate-based one that is considered a special occasion/wedding mole, a red mole without chocolate, steamed in wrapped parchment paper with rabbit, calabaza (squash blossom) and Oaxacan cheese-stuffed tortillas, yellow tortillas from fresh masa, squash blossom and squash stuffed tamales, salsa verde (Chris’s baby), salsa rojo of three types: worm, cumin, and avocado leaf, guacamole with fresh mango, shrimp and vegetable soup, and avocado ice cream.

It was so fascinating to learn about all the different Mexican herbs that we never bother or even consider using in the U.S., like yerba santa leaves, squash blossoms or calabaza, avocado leaves (which have an incredibly fragrant and very distinct flavor). But at the same time, it made me a little sad that these things aren’t readily available back home. Even in the Mexican markets that I’ve visited on occasion in Spanish Harlem or in Corona, Queens, when you see things like dried ancho or pasilla chilies, while they are still tasty and delicious once fried, heated, or steeped in boiling water, they completely lack the in-your-face bold fragrance that the ones in the markets here do, and the reason for that is obvious: they’re just fresher here and closer to the source. Then, there are all the ways to prepare the endless varieties of dried chilies: fried in oil, dry charred, steeped in hot water (which I’ve done a few times back home to make sauces like harissa). It was also eye-opening to learn about all the different types of tortillas and tamales: the massive, main-meal-sized Oaxacan-style tamales that are filled with mole and chicken or another protein, thick masa, shaped into a large block, then steamed in banana leaves. Then there are the ones we know better back home, which are more appetizer-sized, just a few bites, with some fresh salsa verde, pork, and masa, steamed in corn husks. Then, there are the tortillas for tacos: yellow, red, blue corn; stuffed with minced herbs or vegetables or blossoms, pure with just soft, supple masa. The varieties just keep going on.

“There are many, many types of tortillas,” Oscar said, smiling, when I asked him how many exist. “Too many to count.”

The vastness of Mexican cuisine, or Oaxacan cuisine in this specific class’s case, never seems to end, and to me, it’s like we’ve just touched the surface. I wish we could be more exposed to this back home and see Mexican cuisine for more than just tacos and carnitas.

Sous vide steak

Chris’s brother got us a sous vide precision cooker as a belated wedding gift the summer after our wedding, and because our apartment was small and had no outlet near the stove, Chris forbade me from using the precision cooker until we moved into a new apartment. Well, lo and behold, we did move into a new apartment last summer, but I felt intimidated by the precision cooker even after reading extensively about how to use it, and finally sucked it up and used it today.

I bought Australian grass-fed ribeye steaks on sale at Whole Foods last week in anticipation of this experiment given that most of the people I know who have tried sous vide have said that the first time always has to be steak for the most impressive results. Some people do fish, others do eggs, but a big hunk of steak is always the most dramatic.

After an hour and a half in the sous vide bath at 129 degrees F, I think it is safe to say that these steaks were pretty much perfect. After a quick sear on my cast iron and getting smeared in butter, they were pretty much perfect. The sear isn’t as apparent as it is if you just cooked it on a pan, but the inside was exactly the right texture. And since they were Australian steaks, the meat was a bit more chewy than the American cuts of steak that are grain fed and finished.

I rarely cook steak at home, but now I know that when I do, I’ll always use this sous vide precision cooker. It was much easier than I thought it would be, and the time spent waiting for it was completely worth it. The actual “work” that’s put into it is actually quite minimal since you can pretty much set it and forget it until it’s done. That’s definitely cooking that a lot of people can get behind.

Sardines and anchovies

Sardines and anchovies are oftentimes considered the lowest on the food chain because they are some of the tiniest fish you could eat. They don’t have the worries of mercury behind them the way swordfish do, nor do they have the massive farming issues that salmon does. I’ve really gotten into sardines in the last couple of years, but anchovies, for whatever reason, have intimidated me because of how naturally salty and fishy they are. I love them in authentic caesar salads, but in my actual cooking, I generally steered clear of them.

But then I found a Sicilian recipe for Sicilian pasta with sardines, anchovies, fennel, and toasted bread crumbs, and it attracted me immediately. I’ve been actively trying to use ingredients recently that I’ve been avoiding or ignoring, everything from dried Mexican chilies, fennel, cabbage, and now anchovies. This would help me expand what I’m comfortable with. It gets boring to always cook the same cuisines or the same dishes, and I get bored extremely easily with almost everything. I’ve made a number of Italian dishes, but have never made anything Sicilian. So I took a chance and actually made the dish today, and it came out incredibly well. The anchovies’ saltiness really spread, but just enough and without being overwhelming. I just used a small tin. I barely added any additional salt to the dish, and it turned out perfectly. Even Chris was skeptical but was convinced after he had a few bites. It’s the little wins that get me excited in the kitchen.

Pistachio and rose water semolina cake

I’ve been eyeing Yotam Ottolenghi’s pistachio and rose water semolina cake recipe for the last couple years. I’ve never seen an unfrosted cake look so regal and special. Its batter is complex, with a base of pistachio, almond, and semolina flour, combined with flavorings of vanilla, rose water, cardamom, and lemon. It is baked, then soaked in a lemon juice/rose water syrup, topped with crushed pistachios and candied rose petals, and then served with a topping of rose water cream. It truly is a labor of love. I shared the recipe with my colleague today, and she was in total shock that I was making this. The only shortcut I made was that I didn’t make candied rose petals and instead am adorning the cake with rose tea petals; sourcing edible rose petals seems nearly impossible, even in a city like New York.

“This seems like too much effort,” she said. “If I were you, I’d just buy a cake and claim I made it!”

Part of the joy though is in the process of making. It’s always rewarding to make something from a bunch of raw ingredients and have it bring joy to others. I don’t make many cakes, but I do think my mother-in-law’s birthday is an occasion worthy of a homemade cake.

Stainless steel skillet

I’ve stopped buying any nonstick pans. The ones I do have are either Scanpans or hard anodized, which supposedly means they are better than traditional teflon pans. With our remaining wedding gift cards, I finally splurged and got my first All-Clad triply stainless steel skillet. And although I’ve had it for weeks now, I’ve been terrified of using it. It was exactly how I felt as when I first used my cast iron pan.

I used the method of heating the pan on medium heat, then waiting until a droplet of water would roll around easily. If the water sits on the pan, then the pan is too cold for food to be placed on top. If the water immediately evaporates and sizzles, then the pan is too hot and needs to have the temperature lowered. If the droplet rolls around, it means that it’s “non-stick” ready and you can add the oil. Then, once the oil is heated, you can add your food. It’s sort of like the Goldilocks approach.

I did this today and browned my Turkish-spiced turkey meatballs, and they came out very well. It’s one of those times when facing your fears is worth it. 🙂

Chicken fat splatter

I have a fear of deep frying. The idea of a large pot or wok filled with burning hot oil in my own kitchen makes me very uncomfortable. Part of it is about how wasteful it seems to use so much oil just for the mere act of deep frying. Then there’s also the idea of the splatter that bothers me when it comes to cleaning up. And we all know that oil stains on clothes are extremely unforgiving. Oil burns can also be unforgiving, as well.

So the idea of “oven-fried” chicken wings sound pretty tempting to me: the idea is to dry out the chicken wings completely in the fridge overnight with baking powder and a little salt, then crank up the heat very high in your oven so that the chicken wings’ own fat crisps them up. Then, you toss them in a homemade toasted spice mixture.

It was a great idea… until our fire detector went off because of the amount of smoke that came out of the oven due to the chicken fat dripping and burning, not to mention the amount of fat splatter that happened inside the oven. The splatter was so bad and literally all over every surface in the inside of the oven that I had to cover the entire inside of the oven in a thick baking soda-water paste overnight, and then remove all the oven racks and soak them in my bath tub. I never thought I’d have to wash dishes in my own bath tub before.

That $13 I spent on the 4.5 pounds of chicken wings seemed like a good deal. And then it wasn’t when I had to deal with this multi-day mess and cleaning.

Dumpling filling

Last night, I spent a good amount of time working on my dumpling filling, and I was so exacerbated by the frozen “shepherd’s purse” (qi cai) Chinese vegetable that I’d purchased from a Chinese market. The whole idea of buying them was to 1) try a vegetable I wasn’t familiar with, and 2) include it in a cooked and prepared form in the dumplings I was making. What I wasn’t anticipating after defrosting them was that these vegetables were not prepared at all; they were literally ripped out of the ground, roots and all, rinsed, and then frozen. I had to dig through every single strand of leaf to rip off the bottom roots. I couldn’t believe how poorly prepared these were.

It just goes to show how Chinese packaging from China works. They really don’t want to make your life easier the way you thought they would.

Chili oil

Tonight, I finally accomplished a kitchen feat I’d been wanting to try for a long time, but had just never dedicated the energy to do: make my own chili oil.

I always admired the dumpling shops I’d go to and how their chili oil always tasted infinitely better than the store-bought ones I’d been buying all these years. The ones in the dumpling shops always seemed multi-dimensional, tasting of more than just chili oil. It was as though they had a hint of salt, ginger, and some other spices and nuttiness that I couldn’t quite pin down.

So I started researching chili oil recipes and came to one that seemed like it had the right combination: ground chilies, ginger, sesame seeds, star anise, cardamom pods, salt, oil. The oil is cooked on a medium flame with the ginger and spices, and then once it reaches a certain temperature,  you pour it over the chilies and sesame seeds, “toasting” them and infusing them with their spiced flavors.

The result ended up being a lot more fiery than I was anticipating, so I had to temper it down with some extra plain oil. Even Chris found it a bit too hot, which is saying something. I’m never buying store-bought chili oil ever again.. especially now that I have so much Costco oil. 🙂

Thanksgiving cooking frenzy

Around this time of year, people around the U.S. are often spending time writing out their grocery lists, planning what they are going to make for Thanksgiving, which is oftentimes one of the only times of the year they actually cook. It’s actually a bit comical that some people choose this to be the one time of year when they not only cook, but for whatever reason feel compelled to showcase their culinary abilities that are otherwise not used the rest of the year. And thus, they feel like they need to impress their house guests.

The funniest thing about major eating/family gathering events like Thanksgiving and Christmas is that oftentimes, people will still go for the usual favorites that are not particularly impressive presentation-wise, but simply are reliable, comfortable, and rib-stickingly delicious. While we hosted our friends for our early Thanksgiving meal tonight, we noticed that what seemed to go the fastest of all the dishes was the roasted garlic mashed potatoes. You’d hardly consider mashed potatoes an impressive dish, nor is it particularly time consuming to make, but in general, people just love it.

The dark meat on the tandoori turkey also went much faster than the white meat. Even as we encouraged our friends to take leftover food home since we’ll be leaving for Europe tomorrow, the white meat was what we mostly had left over for ourselves to freezer for food when we come back the week after Thanksgiving. It’s further proof that dark meat is the best, and people know it whether they are willing to admit it out loud or not.

Tandoori turkey

This always seems to happen whenever I’m preparing food for a big event; something tends to go wrong, and I need to salvage what I have to make something edible. I was prepared to make this tandoori turkey recipe with this spiced yogurt marinade for the 12.66-pound organic turkey I got. The recipe calls for a roasting bag, which I’d never used before, so I ordered a pack and opened it up tonight, Well, just as I imagined, the oven-safe plastic seemed a bit flimsy, and I was worried about the weight of the turkey, in addition to the yogurt marinade, which is over four cups of liquid. Lo and behold, just as I am coating the turkey with the tandoori marinade, the bag breaks, and about a half cup of the marinade spills out onto my kitchen counter. What a mess.

Unless this turkey is the best turkey of my life, I’m never using this recipe again. Either that, or I need to get much sturdier roasting bags.