Road trip to Etla: Cheese, chocolate, tamales
February 11, 2009 | Comments Off
We ventured outside the city today, northwest to Etla, to learn how to make some Mexican culinary staples: chocolate atole (hot chocolate), queso castillo (Mexican string cheese), zucchini flower tamales, and more. We were welcomed into the home of Dominica and Mercedes and their gaggle of sisters, sister-in-laws, and friends. It was clearly a matriarchy village with nary a man in sight.
It was morning and we were all ready for a hot beverage, so it was perfect that they started with a demonstration of the preparation of Chocolate Atole, a hot chocolate-like beverage made with corn (but of course), wheat and rice. Its a Mexican breakfast-on-the-run type drink. Served first thing in the morning, this is a very satisfying and hearty drink with a farina-like smell and a texture thicker than hot chocolate, but thin enough to sip. The best part is the chocolate foam, created by using a wooden molino rubbed vigorously between the palms to create a frothy topping for the drink.
Masa, a freshly-made corn paste made with corn meal and water, figures prominently into the cuisine in Oaxaca. They use different grinds of the meal for different things: more coarse for tamales and Chocolate Atole and less coarse for things like tortillas. We used it for two different dishes today. The first was to make a Mexican mini-pizza of sorts, called a mamelita, on the stone comal which sits on an open wood fire box. We slapped a masa ball back and forth in our hands until it was flat and round, just thicker than a tortilla, and we set them on the comal to toast lightly on both sides. When they were toasted, we pinched around the very, very hot edges, and a few times in the center so the flavors seep into the dough. Then, we painted it lightly with pork lard, (the Mexican nectar of the gods), and added a black bean puree (seasoned with herba santa) added both the green and red chile salsa and the queso fresco, and put it back on the comal to heat. If I could eat a mamelita like that each morning for breakfast forever, I would be one happy girl.
We moved onto the tamales next, where masa plays a starring role. The first part of the process is to mix bag of lard into the dough (yes, a bag…like 2 cups) and kneed vigorously to aerate the dough. This adds moisture and tenderness to the dough. After about 5 minutes of kneeding, add a puree of jalepenos, onions, garlic, herba santa, and epazote, and then diced zucchini and zucchini flowers. It all gets mixed and mixed, adding water along the way, until its much thinner than I would have expected (like a pancake batter), and then gets scooped into the soaked corn husks and chicken is added to the center. The husk gets folded over and then placed in another husk to keep the mixture in tact during steaming. They are then steamed for an hour, standing vertically on their end. Opening up the corn husks after that hour, the aroma that wafted from them was herbal and deliciously savory. It was such a revelation to know that you could mix so many herbs and vegetables into the dough itself and still put a complimentary protein in the center. It got us brainstorming about the billions of possibilities….chipotle masa, with pecans and chicken; and maybe even something out of the Mexican relm like mushrooms, sage and gorgonza. I would think you could do a mixture of anything that works with polenta….My mind is aflutter with possibilities.