A cooking class with Pilar Cabrera begins with the most important step in all varieties of cooking, choosing the right ingredients. Cabrera appears to abide by a similar mantra as my grandfather: “Use great food and just don't mess it up.” Luckily for us, good ingredients are not hard to come by in Oaxaca.
After a stiff cup of coffee on the rooftop of her acclaimed Oaxacan restaurant, La Olla, we are off to Mercado de la Merced. Pilar strides between stalls like a plow through soil, her pace never slowing despite her wide smiles and fervent greetings to the venders that surround us. She points there, pinches here, smells fruit, squeezes produce, all mid-stride. Flowers droop from overhead,
nopales reaching into isles like a threat, heaps of chapulines line the way (grasshoppers, a common snack in Oaxaca) while towers of mole paste lurch toward us, and suddenly our arms are full of pungent herbs, wide-eyed squash blossoms, and thick cords of local cheese. Theoretically there is a menu for our cooking class today, but like all good chefs Pilar doesn’t let an ingredient list cramp her style—we’ll cook what’s good at the market that day.
“This, amazing stuff,” she says on our way out, offering of a pinch of a mysterious deep red paste. I accept and taste and somewhere on my pallet a bonfire of flowers and chiles begins to smolder. “Just roasted chiles and garlic. Fires up anything.”
At her house we get going. Without skipping a beat, we are balling masa, pressing tortillas, roasting tomatoes and chillies and tomatillos, and interestingly, using very little oil. Oaxacan food, we find out, is, for the most part, curiously absent of oil. Even tortilla chips are often toasted. Today, many of our vegetables are not sautéed but rather heated over a dry steel pan, turned and tossed until their skin is cracked and spitting flavor.
Another discovery—the splendor of fresh Hierbasanta. Pressed between folded fresh tortillas with squash blossom and quesillo (the local string cheese), it adds a green, herbal kick to the humble looking quesadillas with a taste strangely reminiscent of Japanese shiso.
Before we know it, and not a few appetizers later, we’ve created something beautiful: Chiles En Nogada. A surprisingly light and fresh rendition of stuffed green poblanos that rise up buoyant from a creamy pool of walnut sauce, and with the pomegranate jewels scattered atop it is no mistake that this dish is brought out for patriotic celebrations—it is precisely the colors of the Mexican flag. We toast with local mezcal and dig in.
Chiles En Nogada
By Pilar Cabrera
8 poblano chiles, choose the flattest ones
1 C. Walnut halves (peeled if available)
1 C. Milk (for soaking walnuts)
.5 C. Milk (for sauce)
1.5 C. Mexican Crema
1 C Queso fresco (or ricotta)
2 T. Sherry
3 T. Sugar (2 T. If using ricotta)
.5 T. Salt
1 cooked chicken breast
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T. salt
1/3 C vegetable oil
.5 C. chopped onion
6 tomatoes, peeled and diced
4 T. minced parsley
1 apple, peeled and cubed
1 pear, peeled and cubed
1 peach, peeled and cubed
1 plantain, peeled and cubbed
.25 C. fine diced sugared dried pineapple
.25 C. raisins
.25 C. toasted and chopped almonds
Seeds of 2 pomegranate
Sprigs of parsley
Roast the chilies over open flame on the stove top, charing all surfaces. Put in a plastic bag to steam a 5 or 10 minutes. Peel the charred skin off under running water or using a paper towel. Set aside.
If you can't find peeled walnuts; Soak the walnuts in boiling water for five minutes. Drain, then peel off the paper skin. Place the peeled walnuts in a bowl and cover with one cup of milk for one hour.
Remove the walnuts from the milk and then mix with the cream, the unused half cup milk, sherry, cheese, sugar, and salt in the blender and purée. Refrigerate.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until transparent. Add tomatoes. Stir occasionally cooking for four minutes. Mix in all the fresh and dried fruits and almonds and cook on medium heat another five minutes.
Fine dice the chicken and add it to the above. Season with the salt and cook, uncovered, on low heat for 10 minutes, or until the fruits are cooked in the sauce has thickened. Set aside and allow it to cool.
Stuff each chili with the filling in a lengthwise slit. Pour the walnut sauce into shallow bowls, top with the chilies and then sprinkle generously with the pomegranate seeds. Garnish with the parsley sprig. Serve at room temperature or cold.
I can't recommend this experience enough, Pilar is a delightful and excellent chef, her class was a wonderfully academic half day in which we created half a dozen delicious items together.
Lynette La Mere, PJC Executive Chef & Culinary Explorationist
Photos by Lucas Oliver Oswald