This February my sister Janet and I hightailed it, as many of our friends do, to a warmer climate. We chose Oaxaca, Mexico, a favorite vacation destination for years.
Oaxaca is known for its indigenous cultures; pre-Columbian archaeological sites; textiles; weavings; pottery; and hand-carved, painted fantastical creatures. Most important, Oaxaca is celebrated for its food and is referred to as “The Land of Seven Moles” (classic sauces based on chili peppers, but often incorporating 20 or more ingredients, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, chocolate and spices). They are just the beginning of the devotion and love for food demonstrated by Oaxacan chefs.
Comida Corrida. It sounds like the title of a snappy song or the name of a beautiful, dark-haired beauty, but it refers to the special menus offered by many restaurants in Oaxaca that feature a midday, economical meal with a few options, and usually encompasses an appetizer, entrée and a dessert along with a tall glass of agua fresca, a fruit-flavored water made of fresh produce like melon, lemons, pineapples, or oranges. The restaurant’s options and prices where comida corrida is offered vary wildly. We soon realized we were returning again and again (for a grand total of nine times) to chef/owner Pilar Cabrera’s Restaurant La Olla.
The walls were painted either a striking red or yellow, while the wooden high-backed, slated chairs were a contrasting blue. On the walls hung watercolors by a local artist depicting assorted chili peppers, prickly pear (nopales) cactus paddles and other fruits and vegetables local to the area. On each table was a small glass vase brimming with fresh flowers.
One of the things that stood out about La Olla’s comida corrida was that there were four courses instead of the usual three, and there was a choice of entrée. Janet and I always ordered one of each, allowing us to share more than one taste experience. We also started our meals with a perfectly made margarita. This indulgence ran us an additional $3 each.
At La Olla, we were struck by the artistry with which each course was plated and the quality and originality of the ingredients. Our first comida corrida started with a salad of dressed greens, silky strips of cooked cactus paddle, baby beets, halved cherry tomatoes, purslane, parsley, thin curls of raw zucchini and cucumber, and dabs of guacamole. Next came a pureed red-pepper soup garnished with small dots of sour cream. We split chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce and lasagna with tender homemade noodles layered with cheese and squash, and finished with slices of ripe mango with small pools of sauce, crunchy ground cocoa nibs and a scoop of cardamom-flavored ice cream. Without alcohol, the meal cost $8 per person.
I bought the owner’s cookbook, illustrated by her sister and dedicated to her family members for their influence on her passion for cooking and support in her opening a restaurant. Besides having a hand in every aspect of running her restaurant, Pilar gives cooking classes twice weekly. I managed to secure a meeting with her on the breezy rooftop dining area of La Olla one morning and learned of her deep respect for women in the kitchen and of her introduction, at age 12, to cooking with her grandmother’s guidance in order to help feed six kids in a family with working parents.
I asked Pilar for one of my favorite dishes: chicken topped with a brightly colored salsa of mango, tomatoes and red onion. When you try the recipe, picture yourself eating in a bright sunny room with crisp, crunchy tortillas and a salt-rimmed margarita.
Chicken Breasts with mango salsa
(Recipe adapted from Chef Pilar Cabrera of La Olla Restaurant)
Ingredients for chicken:
6 chicken breasts, flattened with a mallet or back of a heavy cast iron skillet*
1 ½ white or yellow onions, chopped
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Butter and olive oil for cooking chicken
Ingredients for mango salsa:
I cup peeled mango, cut into small cubes
½ cup seeded plum tomatoes, cut into cubes a little smaller than mango (or use cherry tomatoes and cut into quarters)
¼ cup red onion, minced
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Blend onion, garlic, salt and pepper in a mortar and pestle or blender until smooth. Pour into a shallow bowl, add chicken and let it marinate in the sauce for 2 hours.
Combine all the salsa ingredients in a bowl, taste for seasoning, and set aside.
Shake off the marinade from the chicken and cook the breasts, three at a time, in a hot skillet in a mixture of butter and olive oil, flipping midway to cook the breasts through. Alternately, you can use a stove-top grill or broil the chicken, watching closely that it doesn’t overcook.
On a serving platter, lay the check breasts in a row and top with the mango salsa.
A simple lightly dressed salad of mixed greens would be a good accompaniment to this dish.
* Boneless chicken thighs may be used, if you prefer. Just trim well and cook them a little longer than breasts.