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Oct 4, 2010 11:15 PM

Cooking from Oaxaca al Gusto by Diana Kennedy

I will confess right up front I have been a huge fan of Diana Kennedy since I purhcased "The Cuisines of Mexico" some 25+ years ago. I've read her books like novels and they've inhabited my nightstand off and on for years. I've heard many comments over the years that her recipes are intimidating and not approachable. Funny, for me it was just the opposite, she made the food and Mexico come alive for me. If her cookbooks hooked me, my first class with her back in 1993 set the hook.

So even thought I own the Spanish version of Oaxaca al Gusto, and knew it was classic Diana, I was looking forward to the English version as I knew it would be easier for me to manage. I also knew it would be possible to cook from the book in spite of the specialty ingredients. So I decided to find out just how accessible - or not - it really was. I chose to make 2 easy recipes over the weekend just to get a feel for the book and recipes and how they work in practice, not theory.

I started with ...

Arroz con Pollo
Pag. 11

I had 2 concerns with this recipe, one that it would be bland and two, with 5 cups of liquid to 8 oz of rice, that the rice would be mushy. Turns out neither were a problem.

Diana recommends leaving the skin on the chicken when poaching, which I did and just defatted the broth. There aren't a huge amount of seasonings in this dish, just some tomatoes (not even charred), garlic and salt, along with some onion, 2 tomates verde (tomatillos de milpa, i.e. wild tomatillos) 1 allspice berry, 1 clove and a sprig of parsley. This is not an assertive, in-your-face kind of dish, but the flavor profile was surprisingly potent.

I cook for my 91 year old mother who constantly surprises me with the subtleties of her palate. She can tell almost instantly when a dish is off (out of balance). Not a big rice lover, she actually loved this dish, and I have instructions to make it again. The flavors all play well together with no one single flavor dominating another. Diana says the rice should be "moist"; I think it walks the fine line between being soft and mushy. My rice turned out pretty well. Each grain was separate and did not clump together. The recipe called for using a whole chicken, which I did. I think when I make this again, I will probably start with 2 whole skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts, each whole breast cut into 4 pieces. And because the white meat dries out so much, I'll probably poach them less than called for in the recipe and make up some of the liquid with chicken stock. This won't change the integrity of the dish for me, just the ease of preparation.

I am lucky enough to be able to source tomates verdes at the Mexican markets here in San Diego. These are tiny tomatillos about the size of a marble. They are quite tart and have lots of seeds. I couldn't see how just two of them were going to impart any flavor. But the beauty of Mexican sauces is that when made correctly they are perfectly balanced and the flavors in this dish were.
The little tomatillos contributed just enough tart to counteract the sweetness of the tomatoes in the sauce. If regular tomatillos are all that are available, chose one that is on the small side.

This was a lovely dish, not earth shattering, nor particularly challenging, but it was easy to make and tasty to eat. As usually, recipe was well written and easy to follow. I have always found Diana's recipes to be structurally sound, and this one was no exception.

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  1. Salsa de Chile Pasilla de Oaxaca
    (Oaxacan Pasilla Chile Sauce)
    pg. 56

    Chile pasilla de Oaxaca is a dried, smoked chile. It's fairly rare and probably one of the most expensive chiles. Last December 2 kilos of them cost $460 pesos (about $35 USD, or about $17/lb). The flavor is unique and exotic; the smoked flavor is prounounced but not over powering. This chile is not often found outside of Oaxaca, not even in other parts of Mexico. I've never seen it available for purchase in the U.S. If you are ever in Oaxaca it is worth seeking them at in the Abastos and buys some to bring back.

    This salsa is addictive and wonderful. It's made with 5 ingredients, 10 oz of tomate verde, 4 chile pasilla de Oaxaca, 4 cloves of garlic, a little water and some salt. The tomates verdes are diced and cooked until soft with a bit of water. The recommended way of toasting the chiles and garlic is to bury them in hot (but not red) ashes until they have softened. Since I didn't have any hot ashes handy, I just toasted them on a comal. The chiles are not seeded or soaked.

    The recipe says to make this salsa in a molcajete, mine isn't big enough so I made it in the small bowl of my food processor. That worked just fine. Mince the garlic and salt in the food processor, add the chiles 1 or 2 at a time along with some water. Gradually add the tomates verdes along with a little of their water. Process to blend, sauce should retain some of it's texutre. The salsa has a wonderfully deep smokey flavor and packs a reasonable punch. It did mellow some sitting over night. It goes well with eggs, chicken, pork, starches like rice or potatoes and vegetables such as corn or chayote. I also tried it with some requeson (lightly salted, cheese that is slightly wetter than ricotta) this afternoon and it paired well with that. Would probably go well with cream cheese too.

    10 oz. of tomatillos could be easily be substituted for the tomates verdes. Unforutnately a regular pasilla can not be substituted for the chile pasilla de Oaxaca. The whole point of this salsa is the piquant smokey bite.

    4 Replies
    1. re: DiningDiva

      More on that Oaxaca salsa, including photos of the ash roasting, in this blog:

      Since the chile pasilla de Oaxaca is described as smoky and hot, I suspect that ordinary dried chipotles could be used to get a general sense of this salsa, even if it isn't quite the same.

      1. re: paulj

        Actually, a chipotle is not a good substitute for the smoked chile pasilla de Oaxaca. The flavor profiles aren't really very close. Using a regular pasilla or a combination of pasilla and guajillo is probably a better bet. The smokiness of the Oaxaca pasilla is different and not as pronounced as the chipotle. You need that raising-like sweetness from the pasilla and I think the chipotle lacks that.

        I always bring back a good supply of smoked chile pasilla de Oaxaca when I go, so I usually have a supply on hand. I realize everyone is not so luck. I'd be more inclined to sub with regular pasillas and guajillos, or anchos and guajillos.

      2. re: DiningDiva

        Last year I managed to source some chile pasilla de Oaxaca. I found that for my own taste, the fernsmoke was overpowering. That may just have been the particular batch. The aroma was so strong it filled the room even when the chiles were sealed in a ziploc bag. I will give another batch a try.

        1. re: hari mirch

          Yes, they are fragrant :-).

          The first time I brought a batch of the smoke chile pasilla de Oaxaca home, I had them in ziplock bags too. I was walking down the hall and smell smoke, I was worried something was burning. It took me a long time to figure out it was the chiles :-)

      3. Thank you, DiningDiva! The arroz con pollo sounds like a lovely place to start. Maybe I'll even start there! Also, for posterity, I'm linking to DningDiva's other thread, wherein she provides a link to Ms. Kennedy speaking about this book on youtube, as well as to an NPR interview with her. (The latter includes a couple of recipes from the book).

        Also, here are two links to additional discussions on this book from the "3 most recent cookbook purchases" thread:

        DiningDiva's Mexican cookbook recommendations+another interview with Kennedy:

        Regional Mexican cookbook recs:


        1 Reply
        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          Oh my god, TDQ, that was really so nice of you to link those threads to this one. Thank you very much.

        2. Hello, I have a friend from Mexico (Chihuahua) who loves to cook and I'd like to get her this book (Oaxaca al Gusto) but I can't find it in Spanish. Amazon can't help, I've even contacted the University of Texas - the publisher of the English version and they can't help either: where did you get your Spanish edition?

          Steve Wolpert

          1 Reply
          1. re: Swolpert

            I got my book in Mexico directly from Diana. It was published in Mexico a few years ago where, typically, books are published in small runs. That was the case with this book. I have heard that several people were able to locate the book in the last year or so through the Ghandi Bookstores in Mexico City. To the best of my knowledge, Amazon has never had the Spanish edition of the book in stock. Libros Latinos has it as a special order for $100 - . For my Spanish edition I paid the equivalent of about $50 USD in 2007. Good luck it is an equisite book


            Now I really want this book. What a delightfully-written review.

            1 Reply
            1. re: buttertart

              Wow, fantastic review. Thanks for posting it

            2. Oaxaca al Gusto was named "Cookbook of the Year" during the James Beard awards this evening