Los Reyes Tienda Mexicana–for Mexican ingredients, go see Mario!

I’m on a mission to make home-made tamales! And one of my biggest challenges has been finding fresh, traditional ingredients. Problem solved!–I’ve discovered Los Reyes Tienda Mexicana!

If you read my “Mex auténtica” post, you know that I recently took a class in Mexican cooking from chef Suzanne Hunter. Suzanne steered us toward a couple of resources for authentic ingredients, including the Los Reyes store, so I headed off to Bothell to check it out. What a find! Not only did I get the fresh masa, corn husks, and banana leaves I needed for my tamales, I also scored some Mexican brown sugar (called “piloncillo” for its cone shape) and Mexican cinnamon (canela). And (if I’d had sense enough to bring my list of ingredients) I’m betting that, among the store’s extensive collection, I would have found all the chiles and other ingredients called for in our mole negro recipe. Did I mention the wall of Mexican salsas and hot sauces? It was like being back in Oaxaca again!

Owner Mario Reyes helped me pull all this stuff together–banana leaves from the chest freezer, masa from the cold case–all the while chatting with me. He tells me that the shop has been around for twelve years!–I wish I’d found it sooner. He also put up gracefully with my fractured Spanish, and even encouraged me to come out there to practice on him. (He’ll be sorry; I’m going to take him up on it.)

Mario tells me that his daughter is working on the store’s new website. But for now, you can find the store here: http://bothell.komonews.com/business-directory/food-dining/647594/los-reyes-mexican-store. And go see Mario! The city is working on the street right in front of the shop; he has put a sign out there close to the roadway, but it’s kind of over-powered by the road equipment. So keep an eye out for the driveway–you can turn in and park right in front.

Los Reyes Tienda Mexicana (Los Reyes Mexican Store), (425) 415-0922, 17208 Bothell Way NE, Bothell, WA.

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Mex auténtica: it’s all about your larder

A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Oaxaca, the Mexican city famous for its mole sauces. Of course, I ate more than my share of them!–and of the seven different traditional Oaxacan moles, mole negro became my favorite. Since then, I’m occasionally tempted to order chicken mole in restaurants, but I never really believe I’m as well fed as I was there.

Enter chef and cooking instructor Suzanne Hunter! (–that’s her in the white chef’s jacket). Last week I attended her Mexican cooking class (offered through Bon Vivant School of Cooking), and unbelievably, chicken with mole negro was just one of five different traditional Mexican dishes that we made. Why “unbelievably?”–traditional mole negro is very complex, and she doesn’t stray far from that path: her version has 27 different ingredients (five different kinds of dried chile!), and just about as many steps. As if that wasn’t enough!–We also made tamales, shrimp with tomatillo sauce, and two flans. But let’s talk about the showpieces!–the mole and tamales.

Authentic Mexican food wraps you up in its fragrances and flavors like a warm serape. I grew up in South Texas eating standard Tex-Mex fare, and I still love it and cook it all the time. But “cooking Mex” with traditional techniques and ingredients takes you to an entirely different world. I can’t walk you through all the details here (it would be a chapter, not a post, and anyway the recipes are Suzanne’s, not mine!), but let’s take a quick tour just to give you a feel for the (laborious!) process.

To make the mole, first you have some prep to do. To start, make about 10 cups of homemade chicken broth. (If you go with a store-bought product here, why not just buy a mole mix and save yourself the rest of the day?) Next, you are going to split your chiles (that’s about 25 separate pieces to work with), take out the seeds, and toast the pods. Then, after soaking the toasted chiles, puree them and press them through a strainer (then repeat). Now toast the seeds and give them the same treatment. Next, you toast your spices and grind them up fine.

Moving on to your aromatics, sauté your onion and garlic. Do the same to the tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs, and raisins, and puree them too. Toast the nuts (four different kinds). Then puree the nuts with the seeds you toasted earlier, and add enough broth to make a paste. Do the same to a banana and some fried bread.

Next you begin to layer your separate pastes and purees into the pot with broth, cooking each before adding the next, until you have a thick, dark sauce. Finally, you add the chocolate and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Done! We had it over poached chicken–delicious.

I’ve actually left out lots of detail! But I hope you’ve gotten a feel for the meticulous layering of flavors that goes into an authentic mole. If you want to make it, search on “authentic mole“–I found a couple of similar recipes. Or, find the best, most traditional restaurant you can and order it there!

Compared to the mole, the tamales were a slam-dunk! (And there are good recipes out there in blog-ville.) We used fresh masa and freshly rendered lard to make the dough. To assemble, you spread a small amount of the dough on a banana leaf or corn husk, add a bit of shredded pork and a dollop of mole, and fold them up! Then you steam them for say an hour and a half. You can make homemade tamales easily; invite a couple of friends over, maybe whip up a batch of margaritas, and get an assembly line going! Make sure to make enough to eat now, with more to freeze for next time.

So, finally getting back to the title for this post, I’m guessing that by now you have a pretty good idea why I say that cooking authentic Mexican cuisine is all about your larder. Let’s review. For whole chiles, we had Pasilla Negros, Guajillos, Chilhuacles, Mulattos, and Chipotles. We had Mexican cinnamon (true canela, not cassia bark), Mexican oregano, and Mexican unsweetened  chocolate (Ibarra is one brand). The broth recipe called for adding the chicken’s feet. The flan recipe asked for Mexican brown sugar, called “piloncillo” for its cone shape, but also known as panela or panocha. The tamales called for fresh masa (although masa harina works), plus banana leaves or corn husks.

And lard.

Wait!–Don’t click yet! Let’s talk. Lard is rendered pork fat. It has less cholesterol than butter (and a higher ratio of good cholesterol), and it has the same good fatty acid as olive oil. Suzanne completely convinced me that lard is a good ingredient, but don’t believe us!–Google it yourself. The tub of lard (I know, I know) that you buy at the grocery store is hydrogenated, so it is better to home-render some.  (Suzanne home-rendered the lard that we used to make the tamales.) I haven’t tried to do it yet, but I will soon and write it up for you. Unless lard is a dietary taboo for you, I hope you’ll give it a try; it also does magic things for re-fried beans and (my baker friends tell me) for pastries and pie-crusts.

Suzanne gave us some leads on Mexican grocers in this area; it may take some research, but I bet you can find at least one in your area too. If not, a quick search will turn up a range of mail-order suppliers.

And if you are really lucky, you’ll find a great cooking instructor with the same total respect for ethnic culinary traditions that we’ve got in Suzanne!