Got the hots for Mexican food? Of course! What respectable San Diegan wouldn’t? You likely have your favorite taco joints like Las Cuatro Milpas or El Indio. Or you seek out the most sublime version of guacamole — perhaps Galaxy Taco’s or Puesto’s. You may even make traditional Mexican dishes at home — certainly salsa or ceviche; if you’re ambitious, tamales or enchiladas or pozole. But do you have the right tools for the job?
I got to thinking about this during a conversation with San Diego chef Sara Polczynski. She’s been a longtime culinary educator, working as an associate professor for the Baking and Culinary Arts programs at San Diego Community College’s Continuing Education. Her passion for Mexican food started with a culinary tour of Mexico several years ago with Rick Bayless. This trip turned her career around. Notably, she took a position as consultant executive chef with The Blind Burro in East Village. Over the years, Polczynski has continued to travel regularly to Mexico — and a journey last year to Oaxaca again changed her life. There she met chef Susana Trilling of Seasons of My Heart. Trilling, an American who has lived in Oaxaca since 1988 and owns a cooking school of the same name, led a 10-day culinary extravaganza marking Day of the Dead that Polczynski joined. The two chefs stayed in touch, and, after a series of conversations, Polczynski decided to launch her own online culinary import business, Sabor Imports (www.saborimports.com), which sells Trilling’s artisan handcrafted moles, pepper jellies, sea salt and chocolate.
While chatting about the products, it occurred to us that a lot of people on our side of the border don’t have or know how to use some of the kitchen tools that are so commonplace in Mexican kitchens. The ones that immediately stood out to us were the molinillo, the comal and the molcajete. Each is available at local Mexican markets, in Tijuana, or online. And they’re very affordable.
The molinillo is a clever gadget used to create a rich, frothy pot of traditional Mexican hot chocolate. You’ve probably seen these wooden stirrers; about 13 inches long, they have a long, slender handle and a flat tip with holes at the bottom that functions like a pestle to grind and soften the chocolate in the hot water or milk. In between are loose rings that whip air into the hot chocolate to create the froth.
“They’re made on a lathe from one piece of wood,” Polczynski explained. “The black design you see on them is burned on, not painted.”
To make traditional Mexican hot chocolate, you bring milk and chocolate just to the boil and remove from the stove. Then, Polczynski showed me, you place the molinillo in the pot and roll the stem between your palms vigorously to get whisking movement and create foam.
“There’s an old wive’s tale that a good woman is judged by her foam,” Polczynski said. “The more foam you can make, the better woman you are.”
Originally, hot chocolate was made with water, not dairy, she explained. Today in Mexico you can choose between milk and water to mix with the chocolate — itself a unique blend of roasted cocoa beans, coarse sugar and cinnamon. You can also use the molinillo to make other drinks that need frothing.
A comal is really something every household should have. It’s a smooth, flat metal griddle, often cast iron but also a flat metal or even clay, used to heat up tortillas, toast spices or roast peppers and other vegetables. You may also see it identified as a plancha. It’s traditionally cooked on over an open wood fire, but it works perfectly well on a conventional stove. It does heat up quickly, so you need to control it while cooking to prevent your ingredients from burning.
“Treat the comal like cast iron,” Polczynski advised. “If you get something sticky on it, wash it, but then dry it thoroughly to keep it from rusting and then rub some oil on the cooking surface — but try to avoid cooking juicy foods on it.”
I love using mine to make quesadillas. Polczynski used hers on a day I visited to char tomatillos, chilies, zucchini, shrimp, red bell pepper strips and spring onions, to both make a roasted tomatillo salsa and prepare vegetables for a shrimp molcajete dish.
Yes, you read that right — a shrimp molcajete dish. See, a molcajete is both a culinary dish and an object — an ancient Mexican version of a mortar and pestle (actually the pestle is known as a tejolote) commonly carved out of a single block of basalt or lava rock. I first came upon it many years ago when I went with friends down to Puerto Nuevo during lobster season. We ate at a wonderful little place called Puerto Nuevo 2. Yes, they served grilled lobster, but I ordered what they called the Molcajete — a Mexican version of cioppino. The dish came out roaring hot in the molcajete, its dark bowl filled with a bubbling fragrant stew of seafood, including lobster, in a rich tomato broth. In fact, there are many varied dishes called molcajete. What they have in common is the vessel they’re cooked in.
Its primary function, though, is as a cooking tool to grind chilies and spices, really pulverizing the ingredients to blend the flavors in a way an electric blender can’t. Compared with blenders or other smoother mortar/pestle combinations you’ll find, the lava rock molcajete works so well because of its rough surface.
“The molcajete’s coarse texture helps to grab and shred ingredients,” Polczynski explained.
And you can use it to crush and blend ingredients to make salsa or guacamole. You can also use it as a serving or cooking dish that is fine going into the oven and keeps food hot for a long time.
But, a word of caution.
You need to prep that surface, because little grains of the basalt or lava rock can loosen and get into your food. There are all sorts of tips for doing it, but the most common seems to be the one I used. Grind a handful of hard rice into the molcajete bowl until you turn it into flour. Remove and repeat with fresh rice until there are no visible signs of black basalt grains. Then you’re ready to use it. Over time, like cast iron, it’ll season and take on the flavors of what you’ve prepared in it.
While the molinillo is pretty much a single-task tool, I find I use my comal and molcajete to make all sorts of dishes, some Mexican, others not. They’re the essence of functional and make the Mexican food we love that much tastier.
Golden is a San Diego freelance food writer and blogger.
Mexican Hot Chocolate
Drinking Mexican Hot Chocolate is not just an indulgent custom in Mexico but a way of life. Many natives drink it with water, but the creaminess created by adding milk makes it a favorite for all, young and old alike. The health benefits of cacao are numerous, and the flavors of the pure ground and roasted cocoa beans are enhanced by fresh cinnamon and coarse sugar.
4 cups milk
3 bars (approximately 9 ounces) Seasons of My Heart Oaxacan Chocolate or other Mexican chocolate
In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the milk just until it begins to boil. Remove from heat.
Chop the chocolate into small pieces while the milk is heating. Add the chocolate into the hot milk and stir with a molinillo (chocolate frothing tool) or a wire whisk.
Whisk the mixture vigorously to melt the chocolate and create a layer of froth on top. When the chocolate is fully dissolved, pour into 4 mugs and enjoy.
Makes 1 serving
1 package banana leaves (available in Mexican markets)
6 ounces poblano sauce (see recipe below)
3 ounces cubed panela (½-inch cubes)
2 ounces red bell pepper, sliced in strips
4 ounces summer squash (like zucchini), sliced in strips
2 spring onions
5 U12 Shrimp, peeled, deveined, tail on
Sprig of fresh cilantro
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the molcajete on a sheet pan to make it easier to handle coming in and out of the oven. Then put both in the oven for at least 20 minutes to get hot. When the molcajete is hot, remove it from the oven and line it with banana leaves. Keep the oven on.
While the molcajete is heating up, grill the spring onions and jalapeños and shrimp until just cooked through and heat the poblano sauce. Pour 3 ounces of the sauce in the bottom of the hot molcajete. Add the cheese, red pepper and squash in the sauce and top with remaining sauce. Place back in oven to cook vegetables, approximately 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender.
Remove the molcajete from the oven and arrange the grilled shrimp, onions and and jalapeños over the vegetables. Garnish with cilantro sprig and serve with tortillas.
Makes 4 cups
1½ ounces butter
5 ounces white onion, diced
½ ounce garlic, minced
1 pound poblano peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
2 cups chicken stock
¾ bunch cilantro, stem ends removed
1½ teaspoons salt
In a large saucepan, sauté the onion in butter about 5 minutes to soften (do not brown). Add garlic and cook for 1 minute.
Add the poblanos and sauté for 3 minutes.
Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer to soften the peppers, about 5 to 8 minutes.
Let cool slightly and blend with the cilantro in a blender until completely smooth. (For best results use a Vitamix blender.)
Season with salt.
Smoked Tomatillo Salsa
Smokey, spicy, sophisticated and simple. … Serve as the quintessential Oaxacan table sauce with just about anything! Substitute all or a portion of the roasted tomatillos with roasted tomatoes for a slightly different take on this delicious salsa.
Makes approximately 1 cup
8 ounces tomatillos, husks removed
¼ medium white onion, cut into 1-inch wedges
1 to 2 garlic cloves, with skin on
1 to 2 teaspoons Seasons of My Heart Chintestle Paste (smoked mole paste; see note)
1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt
On a hot comal or cast-iron griddle, dry-roast the tomatillos, onion and garlic until they are slightly charred and are soft. Do not use oil in this process. Peel the garlic.
In a blender, place 1 to 2 teaspoons (to taste) of Seasons Of My Heart Chintestle Paste. Add the roasted tomatillos, onion and garlic and blend well.
Add water as needed to make it fluid. Season to taste with salt.
Note: Seasons of My Heart ingredients are available online at saborimports.com.
Recipes from Sara Polczynski.