Our seventh and lengthiest stay in Oaxaca, Mexico, took place this past winter. Smack in the middle of the pandemic. My sister Janet and I struggled over our decision; everyone we knew, with the …
Our seventh and lengthiest stay in Oaxaca, Mexico, took place this past winter. Smack in the middle of the pandemic. My sister Janet and I struggled over our decision; everyone we knew, with the exception of three brave souls, had canceled their reservations. We reasoned that all of the restaurants in Oaxaca are open to the sky, so basically outdoors, and we’d take the same precautions in Mexico as we did at home.
With hotel regulars remaining at home in the States or Canada, we snagged a studio, an unprecedented treat with more space than the small room in which we usually begin our stay. A kitchenette with a full-sized fridge was at my disposal.
In the first few weeks in Oaxaca, I prepared some omelets, quesadillas and a few simple entrees, but eventually, I found myself wanting to dabble a bit more extensively. My interest wasn’t about saving money. Eating out in Oaxaca, which we did for breakfast and lunch daily, is mind-bogglingly inexpensive and the array of delicious food staggering. I didn’t tire of dining out every day. It was more that my interest in the alluring local products, from meat and poultry to exotic, ultra-fresh produce, began to beckon and stir up my love of cooking. Janet was happy to indulge my wish to prepare food for us.
Las Mariposas (The Butterflies), where we were staying, is a unique hotel. The mother and daughter owners kept the entire staff employed during the pandemic, even when the hotel was closed to the public. While the staff worked on upkeep and improvements, the owners provided ingredients for a daily staff meal so their employees wouldn’t have to spend money or have to leave the premises to get food. Two staff members took turns preparing comida—the large mid-day meal that sustains Oaxacans for hours.
Though my Spanish is minimal, it was evident to the chefs that I was a food snoop who wanted to know what was simmering on the stove-top in the hotel’s small open kitchen. I noticed that the fare was hearty and filling, but nothing more than pedestrian. A lot of tortillas spread with a thick layer of black bean puree topped with shredded lettuce, grated carrots, and pickled jalapenos; fat slices of hot dogs in a spicy sauce; pasta; and, once in a while, a pork dish.
For days the idea of offering to cook for the staff was percolating in my mind. I wanted to prepare something familiar, but more upscale than their usual fare. But I didn’t want to step on toes or offend the usual cooks. I just felt a need to thank them all for taking such good care of us, especially during the pandemic. I approached the office manager with my idea. She said it would be a welcome relief to the cooks and gave me a green light. She even suggested I cook for Saturday’s comida, when the largest number of staff people—eight—would be present. Cooking for that number was a daunting challenge for me, especially with only a two-burner stove-top. We agreed I would make the main course and the kitchen staff would provide the rice or pasta and a side salad.
I decided to prepare a pork and beef version of picadillo—a sweet and spicy mélange of meat seasoned aggressively with fresh herbs, dried spices, piquant capers, and plump raisins. The ingredients are sauteed, then scraped into a pot of simmering tomato sauce. Janet and I went to a local market to purchase freshly ground meat. I made the mistake of thinking a kilo was a little more than a pound. When I brought it back to the hotel and opened the wrapped packages, I was shocked to find it was twice that and then some. Mucho carne! When I did a test run on a much smaller scale, I was thrilled with the complexity of the finished product.
I had brought a varied cadre of dried herbs and spices with me to Mexico in small, sturdy zip-lock bags along with capers preserved in salt, which I prefer to those in brine. Raisins were easy to procure, as were pickled jalapeno peppers and canned, good quality diced plum tomatoes purchased at an enormous Mexican supermarket carrying hard-to-find gourmet items.
Early on the planned Saturday morning, I donned an intricately embroidered Mexican apron and began prepping my entrée. I set the ingredients before me, the spices front and center. I kept in mind that the Mexican palate differs from ours in the States. Fresh salsa is put on every table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When dining out I would ask, “Muy picante?” I don’t mind a little heat, but Janet isn’t keen on spicy foods. Often the response was, “No, no, un poco.” Well, mildly spicy to some is numbingly hot to others. When you break into a sweat, your eyes tear up and your face tingles and turns bright red, you need to immediately shove a large forkful of rice or tortilla into your mouth, pronto.
My nerves faded away as the familiarity of cooking food for people I care about took hold. When I had two large pots of aromatic picadillo finished, I spooned out a small bowl-full and brought it down to the office manager, who was busy at her desk. I put the dish in front of her and offered a fork. “What do you think?” I asked, hopefully. She tasted it and declared it delicious. “Is it picante enough?” I inquired. “It’s not piquant at all,” was her response. I was puzzled. It’s true that the ground dried chili pepper I’d brought was more fruity than blisteringly hot, but I’d used a good deal of it, plus what I thought was a hefty amount of chopped pickled jalapenos. “But it’s delicious. Perfecto!” she said. Back in my little kitchenette I threw in more chili powder and another pile of chopped jalapenos.
Comida for the hotel staff is usually around 3 p.m. I brought down my contribution beforehand so it could be heated while the other components of the meal were prepared. Janet and I left the hotel a little before 2 p.m. to have comida on our own. As I ate I couldn’t help wondering how my picadillo went over.
When we returned, nearing 5 p.m., the kitchen was bare of any remnants of lunch. I went in to see the office manager, smiling shyly, and asked what the staff had thought of my picadillo. She could not have been more enthusiastic. “They loved it. We all loved it. It was perfect, and you made so much that we gave a portion to the owners.” “Was it spicy enough?” I asked. Now it was the office manager’s turn to smile shyly. “No, Juju, it was not picante.” I hung my head. “But everyone loved it!” she said again. That was enough for me. But I knew, then and there, that upon my return this winter, I would be bringing more potent chili powder and buying some fiery fresh peppers at the local produce market.
Picadillo (sweet and sour ground meat)
1–1 ¼ pound ground beef or pork (or a mixture of the two)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 bottled, pickled jalapeno chilies (about 1 1/2 tablespoons), drained and finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼–½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ cups chunky tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup raisins
1 tablespoon drained tiny capers
¼ cup chopped pitted green olives (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium-sized skillet over moderately low heat. Add onion, garlic, jalapenos, cumin, chili powder, oregano and cinnamon to pan. Sauté, stirring, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Set aside. In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over moderately high heat. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking up any lumps, until meat is no longer pink. Add tomato sauce or tomatoes, tomato paste, raisins, capers, red pepper flakes, and olives (if using). Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add onion and garlic mixture to skillet, stir to combine, and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes, until it is thickened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Serve immediately over rice.