They came to learn how to cook with mezcal. They came from England, Poland, Australia, United States, and even Oaxaca’s Mixteca Alta. This was a mezcal cooking class as internationally attended as one could imagine. But of course; over the past few years Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo has garnered a global reputation as one of Mexico’s top cooks, specializing in preparing Oaxacan regional cuisine for both her Restaurante La Olla and her Casa de los Sabores Cooking School.
I attended the class in May, 2015, yet another mezcal event in my adopted hometown, the city of Oaxaca, located in south central Mexico. Others have included cocktail and mixology sessions; evenings of combining the iconic Mexican agave based spirit with chocolate and with craft beer; mezcal tastings of umpteen brands of both the intoxicant as certified for export, and produced for local consumption (often referred to on drink menus as “agave distillate”); federal government sponsored education programs; formal lectures and informational meetings regarding the status of the industry; and of course cooking classes. In my line of work I have to keep abreast. But more importantly I enjoy learning, despite having been around mezcal for a quarter century. The industry is changing rapidly these days.
One of the more recent phenomena, at least in Oaxaca, has been teaching to cook with mezcal. And so it was natural for Chef Pilar to put cooking with mezcal in her six week class rotation. She’d been using the spirit in recipes for years; in her classes, at her restaurant, and when demonstrating and promoting Oaxacan cookery outside of Mexico at American and Canadian cooking schools and restaurants.
But ask Chef Pilar if traditional Oaxacan cooks use mezcal as an ingredient in their dishes, and the answer is a resounding NO. But she’s not a traditional cook by any means, notwithstanding that she learned her trade from her maternal grandmother. Chef Pilar comes to the industry through her university degree program in food sciences and nutrition. Since she keeps up with modern trends in gastronomy, for her mezcal is an ingredient just as other spirits are for the great chefs of the western world.
This particular class began as Chef Pilar’s invariably do, with a brief summary of what will be prepared in class and the ingredients to be purchased at a local marketplace. Where perhaps others are not prepared to adlib, Chef Pilar notes that there could be an extra recipe and dish thrown into the mix, depending on availability of seasonal produce. “Rainy season is just beginning, so we might find some fresh wild mushrooms brought down from the sierra early this morning, and I can then decide what to do with them,” she advises. She then asks if there are any vegetarians in the group, and if anyone has a food allergy.
The market visit also proceeded as predicted, with Chef Pilar buying ingredients while pointing out and explaining about particular chiles, some tropical fruits, gusanos and chapulines, tejate, masa, and more. On this day we also attended a fresh fish market for shrimp and red snapper, the latter being a key ingredient for ceviche al mezcal, a last minute addition to the class menu.
Good chefs are always ready to adapt, and to learn. Pilar is no exception, and where she stands out from some others who instruct, is to not hide from her students the fact that she’s always anxious to learn and doesn’t know it all. Case in point, our special guest attendee was a traditional cook from the Mixteca Alta district of Oaxaca. She had brought down from her region some unique ingredients for teaching how to make a particular salsa, a second supplement to the fixed five course menu. Chef Pilar asked questions with a view to learning about the chiles and nuts being used and how to incorporate them into the salsa recipe – just as the rest of us did.
Not all recipes are suitable for mezcal as an inclusion, especially some moles; and so neither our chicken amarillo nor the memelitas were made with the spirit. Some dishes you just don’t toy with. And each dish calls for a different mezcal. It’s the same as with mixing cocktails, though some barmen would disagree and state that a cocktail should be made with any old inexpensive mezcal. I suggest they have not taken Mixology 101.
Four of our seven dishes were made with mezcal: ceviche, pay (pie) de requesón (similar to ricotta) with chocolate sauce, shrimp brochetas with mango sauce, and chile pasilla Oaxaqueña salsa with gusanitos (not surprisingly made with mezcal de gusano). Although most dishes incorporated espadín, each particular bottle must be carefully selected since the agave varietal is capable of producing so many different nuances. I was asked to choose the appropriate ones based on what Chef Pilar indicated she needed to impart through the mezcal.
It was a hands on class, with each student entrusted with the preparation of each dish. And when all was said and done, before sitting down to our exquisitely prepared comida, naturally there was a mezcal tasting session.
I encourage readers to plan dates for their visit to Oaxaca based on Chef Pilar’s mezcal cooking class schedule, although private individual and group classes centering upon the spirit can be arranged for other dates by contacting her with sufficient advance notice.
If the foregoing hasn’t been convincing enough to illustrate the value in a mezcal cooking class, then perhaps this recipe will, reproduced with permission from the class I attended:
4 ounces Oaxacan chocolate
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided (see preparation below)
1 piece Mexican cinnamon
1 tablespoon (or perhaps a little more) mezcal espadín
1 package (about 42) María cookies
1 ½ cups fresh requesón (sub ricotta) cheese
¾ cup evaporated milk
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
Zest of 1 lime
1. For the chocolate sauce, in a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the chocolate, 4 tablespoons butter, cinnamon and ½ cup water, stirring constantly until the chocolate melts. Cook, stirring occasionally until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the mezcal. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
2. Put rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 375 degrees.
3. Melt the remaining butter. Put the cookies in a blender. Pulse until crumbs form. Add the melted butter. Pulse until the crumbs begin to clump together. Transfer to a 12 X 8 inch baking pan. With your fingers, evenly press the crumbs to form a crust. Set aside.
4. In a blender, blend the requesón, eggs, evaporated milk, condensed milk and lime zest, until smooth. Pour into the prepared crust.
5. Bake until the cheese filling is just set, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
6. To serve, cut the pie into 6 pieces. Place each piece on a dessert plate. Drizzle chocolate sauce over each serving.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He has been attending cooking classes of Oaxacan chefs and traditional cooks for the past two decades.