During my last cooking class, Yuri announced that we were taking a break from the metate. Instead, we’d cook up a few antojitos — corn-based snacks — which we’d then get to eat. This was cause for rejoicing, because we hadn’t eaten anything in the past two classes, despite marathon-amounts of grinding.
On the menu was homemade refried black beans, various types of salsa made in our molcajetes, and tortillas, tlacoyos and sopes from ready-made masa.
First, he instructed us how to cook the beans. We should pick over them carefully to remove any small stones, and then soak them overnight until the water turned an inky black color. We could use the same soaking water to cook the beans, ideally in a clay bean pot. Yuri warned us not to salt the beans or add anything to them while they’re cooking, save for a wee bit of epazote at the end.
He rhapsodized a bit more about black beans and how delicious they are, and then sent us off to our molcajetes to make salsas. As folks began pulling their molcajetes off the shelves, he called out a question:
“Everyone has seasoned their molcajetes, right?”
I’d been dreading this moment.
For a reason that seems silly now, I have two molcajetes: one unseasoned which I bought specifically for class, and one that’s seasoned and came from Williams-Sonoma. The latter version works fine, but Yuri had given us specific instructions about the type of molcajete we needed for class, and I decided that my WS molcajete was too porous. So I went to Mercado La Merced and bought a new one.
I’m not going to lie: part of me also wanted to season the molcajete myself, like a real Mexican cook. Lugging the fancy kitchen-store molcajete to my órale-inducing Mexican cooking class seemed like a bit of a cop out.
I realize now that those are the thoughts of a naive, unrealistic girl who’s never seasoned a piece of lava rock before. Grinding on the metate had made me never wanted to season anything again… or at least, not for a month or so.
I hadn’t had time to season my molcajete because I missed that class. So, wincing at what lay ahead, I raised my hand and told Yuri that I still needed to season mine.
I thought he’d sigh heavily and roll his eyes at my ineptitude, but instead he just nodded and told me the instructions: four turns of dried corn, four of dried beans, four of dried rice and three soaked rice. These were the same instructions as seasoning the metate.
Part of me thought perhaps seasoning the molcajete would be easier. I would get to grind standing up. And there was less surface area, which means less grains to grind.
Actually, curing the molcajete was more difficult, specifically for those two reasons — the smaller apparatus, and the fact that I couldn’t use my body weight to exert pressure.
The proper way to grind is with one’s shoulders squared in front of the molcajete, rotating the pestle (the tejolete) with hand and wrist. I didn’t have enough upper arm strength, so I found myself hunching my shoulders and keeling slightly to the side, trying to make my arm stronger by throwing my weight onto one side of my body.
Yuri walked by and told me I was doing it wrong. He took my tejolete and demonstrated the proper technique, moving his hand and wrist in a relaxed, loose circle. The corn seemed to dissolve under his control.
I tried to mimic him but it didn’t work. Or rather, it did, but not on my desired timetable.
I did two turns of corn and decided that was enough. Then I moved on to beans, which I’d forgotten were more difficult than corn. Alfredo, my classmate who was also seasoning his molcajete, noticed my troubles and began hitting my beans with the bottom of his tejolete like a hammer. That cracked ‘em good — but even so, after just one turn of beans, I was ready to finish. So I moved on to rice and finished one turn within five minutes.
At this point, the lure of my Rapid-Fire Version of Molcajete Seasoning had convinced me that all I needed to do was grind one turn of soaked rice and I was done. Then I could start making tortillas and sopes like everyone else. Who cared if little bits of rock remained in my molcajete? That was extra protein, right?
I was grinding my first-and-only planned turn of soaked rice when Yuri walked by again.
He eyed my molcajete.
“It’s very gray,” he said, referring to the wet rice in my bowl. I hadn’t noticed, probably because I was thinking about how making salsas was so much better than this, but the molcajete was full of dusty bits of lava rock that should’ve been swept away. Would’ve been swept away, if I hadn’t skipped like seven rounds of grinding.
“Oh, um… yeah…” I stammered.
“What turn are you on?”
“Um, the first one of wet rice,” I said.
He frowned a bit.
“Well, make sure you do all three turns,” he said.
I hated lying to Yuri — “The rice is gray because I cheated!” — but I was so tired. This is where I could’ve tried to convinced myself to start over, that seasoning the molcajete in the proper way will pay dividends in the end, because no one would get bits of rock stuck in their teeth. But I didn’t wanna. I just wanted to put my pestle down and do something else.
I finished one more turn of wet rice before I abandoned my molcajete on the table, in favor of the gas stove and tortillas. I grabbed a few balls of masa and pressed them flat in a tortilla press, and delicately laid them on the comal. They puffed up in the middle, just like they’re supposed to.
A classmate taught me how to make a sope by forming a thick, gordita-style tortilla with the press. We cooked the tortilla until it was finished, and then I pinched the edges with my thumb and forefinger, digging into the soft masa to create a raised, circular border. Even though my fingers felt like they were on fire, I shaped my sope like an expert. Yuri walked by and smiled at my miniature creation. “Chulo!” he praised.
I’d like to say that I felt bad about cheating on my molcajete seasoning, but I didn’t. I was not the expert Mexican cook who couldn’t wait to get out there and grind again. I was the girl who ate a salad and then didn’t eat for four hours, and then went to a hardcore cooking class. My brain felt like mush. I couldn’t grind anymore that day.
I realized at the end of class that I should’ve just used my Williams Sonoma molcajete after all. I’m sure it would’ve worked fine.
How to Season a Molcajete
Note: This is going to take a few hours, so make sure you’re well-nourished and rested when you start.
Gather about 1 cup each of dried, split corn and dried beans, and 1 1/2 cups of dried white rice. In Mexico, you can find these things at almost any mercado.
Toss a scant 1/4 cup of ground corn into your molcajete. Grind until it turns into coarse flour. You don’t want it too coarse — I’ve found that just when you think you might be done, you should grind for another 20 minutes or so, just to get a better texture. When the corn is done, scoop it into the trash. Repeat with the next round. Do this four times.
Repeat with the dried beans, which will also be ground four separate times, until they’re completely dissolved and flour-like. On the third turn of beans, start soaking about 1/2 cup of of your white rice in water.
When you’re done with the beans, move on to the dried rice and grind it four separate times. Then grind the soaked rice three times. When you’re done, rinse your molcajete under water and use a little brush or small hand-broom to clean it. Turn it upside-down to air dry.