Our trip to the Seasons of My Heart cooking school began early in the day with a van pick up from our hotel. From there, it was a 30-45 minute drive out into rural parts of Oaxaca. The cooking school is a beautiful building with an open interior and high ceilings. The kitchen was quite spacious and there was plenty of room for our group to work without bumping into each other. It looked like Susanna Trilling had designed the building and built it from the ground up.
The first order of business was our cheese making demonstration. One of the local cheesemakers stopped by with raw milk (unpasteurized) straight from the cow, and cheeses in various stages in the process so she could demonstrate quickly. She started off by adding a liquid rennet extract to the milk and stirring it in thoroughly. She then passed around some real rennet – or bits of salted cow stomach that some of the local cheesemakers used for their cheeses. After waiting maybe 5-10 minutes, the milk had coagulated. She stirred this mixture gently with her hands to break it up into smaller curds, then poured the whey and curds into a very fine cloth. She gently alternated lifting the corners up and down, so that the whey would be gently drained away from the curds.
If she chose to salt the curds right away and pack it into molds, this would be queso fresco or queso canasta, canasta meaning ‘basket’ because of the impression that the mold leaves on the cheese. If the queso fresco was squeezed and pressed into a more compact mass, this would then be queso panela. If she chose not to salt them, but instead just let them sit out in a bag to ferment for a day and salted it the next day, she’d be on her way to making quesillo. At this point, very hot water gets poured over the fermented curds and worked in with a wooden spoon as the mixture is very hot. The curds melt and form a large, shiny, elastic mass which can then kneaded be stretched into ropes, salted, and rolled up like a ball of yarn.
I had never tasted quesillo before going to Oaxaca. I got some shrink wrapped cheese labeled ‘Oaxaca Cheese’ at the local market after I got home from Mexico, but it didn’t have the same flavor or texture as the fresh quesillo. Perhaps it’s the pasteurization that changes the flavor, but the shrink wrapped variety lacked the faint tanginess, the same toothsome chewy texture, and extreme saltiness that I associate with this cheese. The shrink wrapped variety tasted almost just like shrink wrapped mozzarella or string cheese sticks.
Next order of business was to feed us breakfast. Now this got me super excited – this was the first class where we got fed more than coffee and pan dulce before making any food! This was probably the tastiest tomato soup I’ve ever had in my entire life. I’m still not sure what it is that makes it so good – the list of ingredients doesn’t have any super secret ingredients or super secret techniques. Fresh tomatoes, a few chiles, garlic, onion, salt, epazote, and a wedge of queso fresco or fresh mozzarella, and that’s it. Maybe roasting the chiles and tomatoes and peeling off their blackened skins makes the difference. I could see that perhaps roasting would take out some moisture and intensify the flavors. Or maybe it’s the fragrance the epazote adds?
Once we were well fed, since Susanna Trilling herself was away on a business trip in the US, her assistant Yolanda gave us a brief lecture on pre-hispanic ingredients and cuisine. Then we got to work. Today’s menu included baked wild mushroom turnovers (empanadas de nanacates), garlic soup with squash blossoms (sopa de ajo con flor de calabaza), beet salad with goat cheese (ensalada de betabel bendito con queso de cabra), some chicken (pollo) in Oaxacan coloradito mole (mole coloradito oaxaqueno) served with rice with wild mushrooms from the woods (arroz con hongos chicos del bosque), and finally for dessert a Oaxacan chocolate bread pudding (budin de chocolate oaxaqueno). My most favorite dishes out of this menu were the garlic soup and the Oaxacan chocolate bread pudding.
A brief word about empanadas in this region. Typically when I think of empanadas, something like a hand pie in a flaky rich crust comes to mind – this is actually an empanada from further south in South America like in Brazil or Peru. In Oaxaca, it’s a folded-over tortilla with filling inside; the most common filling is mole amarillo con pollo, or yellow mole with chicken. So what’s the difference between an empanada and a quesadilla here? Good question – maybe somebody has the answer. It’s not me.