By Iliana de la Vega and Ernesto Torrealba
Iliana de la Vega and Ernesto Torrealba are the co-owners and chefs at El Naranjo, the popular Rainey Street District eatery specializing in authentic Oaxacan cuisine.
Eight? Just eight? That seems a rather short list of must-have cooking utensils when you’re a cook! To whittle our favorites to eight, Ernesto and I went for the bare essentials, but we had some issues over making separate lists because we both wanted to talk about some of the same tools.
In order to keep peace in the kitchen and our marriage, we decided to make the list together.
Since we specialize in Mexican food, our must-have list is a specific, cuisine-driven one. The most iconic dishes of Mexican cuisine, and ones that we are best known for at El Naranjo, are moles. Indeed, they’re labor-intensive dishes, but they’re made much easier when you’re using the right tools. Let’s look at the steps involved in preparing a mole, and Ernesto and I will describe how having the right utensils will make your life easier. Of course, all of these tools can be used to prepare dishes from other cuisines as well—not just Mexican.
1. COMAL FOR ROASTING
Since pre-Hispanic times in Mexico, comales have been made out of clay—which is great, but breaks easily. The good news is that some of the best comales are now made of thin metal, which transfers the heat perfectly and evenly (over medium heat) for dry roasting chiles (fresh or dried), tomatoes, onions, garlic and other ingredients. This method causes the sugars in the vegetables to caramelize and develops many layers of intense flavor. You can also use the comal to make the perfect quesadilla.
2. PINZAS FOR GRIPPING
To be able to turn vegetables and dry roast ingredients on the comal, yet not burn your hands, a pair of tongs is needed. I prefer the OXO brand tongs with a soft grip and stainless steel tips. Tongs can be used for many other cooking purposes as well.
3. LICUADORA FOR BLENDING
Ernesto and I fought over this one! If you ask me to choose just one must-have tool, this is it. In ancient times, the people of our country used a metate—a rectangular volcanic rock and rolling pin. Honestly, it’s a great tool, but a good blender does the same job in less time and without arm pain. After many trials, our favorite licuadora is a professional Vitamix that features low and high speeds and pulse motion. Seriously, we can’t live without it.
4. CHINO FOR STRAINING
Now that all of the mole ingredients are pureed, we want to make sure to avoid any small pieces of chile skin or seeds. A conical strainer, also known as a “China cap,” with small mesh is the perfect tool. Once you have one, you will never go back to a simple strainer.
5. CAZUELA FOR SIMMERING
A clay pot is traditional for mole, but over the years we have developed a real love for the Le Creuset line of pots. A 7¼-quart pot works perfectly for making a mole, but the uses of this pot, of course, are endless. Though heavy and pricey, Le Creuset pots, pans and Dutch ovens are worth the weight and the expense. We used to have many while we lived in Mexico, but they are so heavy that we left them behind with great sorrow. But we are starting our collection again. We find the 7¼-quart size to be the most versatile. The color is up to you; all are beautiful.
6. PALA DE MADERA FOR STIRRING
It’s basically a wooden spoon, but it needs to be a specific one. The perfect spoon has a rounded handle to make it ergonomic, and the tip has to be flat—not rounded—so you can scratch the bottom of the cazulea and prevent scorching. This shape is also useful for flipping.
7. TORTILLA PRESS
Tortillas are essential when eating mole, as the mole is the sauce, not the meat. There’s not a better vehicle than a freshly made tortilla, hand cut into fourths to scoop. We like the Victoria brand press, as it has a perfect balance and weight.
This is the Mexican mortar and pestle, perfect for making delicious salsas. It gives the perfect homemade texture and shows all of the love and dedication you can put into a simple salsa to make it exceptional. At El Naranjo, we also use it for grinding all of the spices that go into a mole.
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