June 23, 2011

Barbacoa with Bayless

When this past Christmas I was invited by my friend and mentor Kirsten West to travel to Oaxaca City where I would meet Rick Bayless, the answer was: "Si! Que padre!" Oaxaca, at Christmas, with Rick Bayless? How totally cool! Kirsten has tested recipes and styled dishes for a number of his cookbooks including the most recent, Fiesta at Rick's, and they had been friends for several years. Other cookbook authors and chef/restauranteurs would also be in attendance including cookbook author and culinary tour guide, Marilyn Tausend,  so if I was ever going to Oaxaca, this was definitely the time.  Kirsten and I had recently made, over the course of a full day,  the King of all moles, Mole Negro de Oaxaca, and its depth, richness and complexity (in process as well as flavour) had transformed my regard for Mexican food. I'd always loved it, but now I wanted to BATHE in it!

Oaxaca is a feast for the senses. The markets explode with colour and the heady scents of chocolate and chiles permeate the air. Baskets of fried gusanos (maguey worm) and chapulines line the streets near the central market. From steaming tamaleras, women sell tamales wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and filled with rich, dark mole, frijoles, salsa verde. All the while, the pulse of musica from cars and vendors stalls completes the experience of perpetual celebration that is Mexico.

On Christmas morning at La Capilla, in the village of Zaachila  just outside of Oaxaca, our cabrito ( goat, in this case, but borrego, lamb, is also used) is being prepared barbacoa-style. The prepared goat, with branches of aromatic wild avocado leaves tucked alongside for their slightly nutty, anise-like flavor, is swaddled in banana leaves and/or maguey. The bundle is placed into a basket along with the head and the stomach–stuffed with a blood sausage mixture made from the offal. It is all lowered into a grave-like pit, where a fire has burned for several hours, and covered well with more leaves, a woven straw mat, a metal cover and, finally, a mound of dirt to keep the heat at a steady temperature for a long, slow roast. Not a drop of the rich juices is lost; a pot of water, often seasoned with onion, chile and other vegetables is first placed in the pit to provide a moist heat and, as the meat cooks, to catch the juices for  a delicious first course of consome.

Many hours later, the unearthing begins. First the earth, the metal, the  mat, then the layers of leaves. Finally, the basket holding the cooked meat is raised from the pit. The sweet smell of slow-cooked goat, and the warmth of chiles fills our noses. This, along with a couple shots of mezcal and we are entirely buzzed and ready to dig in. The mezcal, by the way, was buried in the dirt, to be slightly warmed by the heat within the pit.

At the table, we're each served a steaming bowl of the consome. Muy rico! And I appreciate so much that every drop of flavour from the barbacoa had been captured in that big soup kettle. We are all ( a group of about 24 of Rick's friends, and like me, friends of friends) seated at two long tables, hand-hewn from local trees. and each table is served a few tlayudas to share. THese large tortilla "pizzas" have been baked in large clay-domed hornos (ovens) and topped with refied black beans, asiento, the lard from the goat, cheese and of course, avocado.

Then, the meal. A plate of the barbacoa, with a portion of the blood sausage, frijoles and salad is delivered to every guest. I should have held back on the Tlayuda... I am filling up.

I was distracted from my plate when the festively-garnished head was brought to Rick on a platter. I went over and sat down next to him. He removed the tongue, and cut it up for me to taste. Next, a taste of the brain, which i found kind of pleasantly mousse-like and delicately goaty. I have to admit I declined when he offered me one of the eyeballs. I noticed he didn't eat one either. We chatted about Puebla, where I was headed next, and aside from a list of restaurants he scrawled on a napkin for me, he told me to make sure I went to the mercado for a cemita.

In Puebla, first stop, the mercado!

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