Our class on contemporary Oaxacan cuisine was with Rodolfo Castellanos at his restaurant, Origen. (An interesting tidbit about Rodolfo – he had worked as a chef in San Francisco for sometime before opening his own restaurants in Oaxaca). Rick Bayless recently did a show on Oaxacan food which is currently airing on PBS, and I’m pretty sure Rodolfo was featured in one of the episodes. He explained that today we’d be making food based on what was fresh and available at the market, and not off of a set recipe. He had some beautiful fresh ahi and some beef tongue that he had purveyed earlier, and we’d have to go shopping for our produce.
First we hopped into taxis from his restaurant to Abastos market. It’s the largest market in Oaxaca, supposedly a whopping 4 acres large, or several city blocks. Earlier in our trip, Lucero from the ICO had commented that whenever she goes to Abastos, she leaves her jewelry, her watch, even at purse at home. All she brings is her wallet which she clasps tightly in her hand. Where there are large jostling crowds, there are pickpockets. Remembering this, I left everything behind at the restaurant except a notebook and a few pesos in case there I came across something I desperately wanted.
From the taxi, it was quite easy to see where the market was located. Even on a random Tuesday afternoon it was quite crowded with shoppers and vendors alike. It’s amazing how we were able to manage to squeeze through uneven dirt pathways that were damp from yesterday’s rain that were less than 3 feet wide. Still we able to get foot traffic in both directions, and make way for vendors carting hand trucks of produce or other goods through the market. We had noticed a common theme among vendors in Oaxaca – there’s rarely ever just one vendor of a certain item around. Vendors selling the same item tend to flock together. This market was no exception. All the piloncillo sellers sat side by side, all the florists were in the same strip, all the spice merchants had stalls next to each other, and all the butchers were off to the same corner. More often than not, the prices (if advertised) are identical for the same items as well.
We made our way through and picked up tomatoes, mushrooms, salad greens, nanches fruit, and various other items. I was quite distracted and was busy looking at all things to see at the market that I quickly became the caboose in our little entourage and didn’t catch what else we picked up. When Rodolfo mentioned that we hadn’t even entered the actual market yet, I was shocked. One didn’t even have to get inside the market to get a week’s worth of groceries! I distinctly remember Rodolfo picking up a large bouquet of fresh lemon verbena branches – it smelled so beautiful and fragrant. With a big smile, he tells me he paid just 5 pesos for it (that’s less than 50 cents)!
After we arrived back at the restaurant, we had some refreshment of a few different aguas that the staff had prepared, washed our hands, put on an apron and got to work. We divided ourselves up into 4 groups. Initially one group was to do the soup and salad, one for the dessert, one for the mole, and one for the entrée. For the dessert, my partner and I made a nanches fruit creme brulee. It was as simple as simmering the fruit until it was soft, pitting the seeds and pureeing the flesh, and adding the cream and eggs, and popping it into the oven in a water bath. It wasn’t long before we were migrating around and helping out here and there since some groups finished sooner than others, including mine.
Rodolfo called everyone over to watch him demonstrate the making of the mole, as well as taking a look at the beef tongue that he had been simmering. I’m not sure exactly how all the other dishes were made, but we had quite a feast prepared. We had the ahi tuna as the appetizer. It was seared on all sides, glazed with a piloncillo syrup with cloves, cinnamon, all spice, then encrusted with a dry chili and spice mixture. It was rolled tightly in plastic wrap and chilled until ready to serve. We had a purslane salad with a sous vide soft boiled egg, sliced radishes, sautéed mushrooms, pea flowers, potatoes, with some crumbled croutons on top and a herb vinaigrette. Our soup was a black bean soup garnished with fried tortilla strips, Mexican cream, queso fresco, pea flowers and avocado. Next up we had the beef tongue in a mole with olives and raisins, served over rice. And dessert was the nanches creme brulee.
I must say that I am quite impressed by the way that soup is served in Oaxaca. They don’t just bring you a hot bowl or a cup of soup full to the brim, so much so that there’s a mess of soup all on the outside. Instead, they garnish it quite nicely in an empty soup bowl. ‘Where’s my soup?’ you think, and just as you’re thinking that the server reveals a hot pitcher of soup and carefully pours it into the bowl without disturbing the garnishes. I love it, it’s a great yet simple tableside presentation. However, my absolute favorite dish of the day was the seared ahi. The chili spice rub made it mildly spicy, smoky, and even a little bitter. The addition of the piloncillo glaze drizzled on the dish as a sauce made it amazing. It’s like dark brown sugar with molasses so it wasn’t overly sweet, but added great depth of flavor. I probably polished off a quarter of a plate myself (only after it fairly clear the rest of the group weren’t interested).