Guest Post – Carmen’s Salsa: Food Brings People Together
I am a farmer’s market ‘nerd’ and always navigate my way to one during each of my travel adventures. On one such getaway I met the very gracious Carmen at the Boulder (Colorado) farmer’s market.
She had a very neatly laid out table with an array of Molés (Mexican cooking sauce), salsa and adobo sauce. The recipes for the Molés originate from different regions in Mexico. I still have remnants of the robust flavors of the Oaxacan Molé…rich, with a hint of cacao and a peppery aftertaste. I dunked some tortilla chips in the salsa and adobo, and can’t even begin to describe the confluence of flavors!
Of course with much enthusiasm I struck up an interesting conversation with with her and now here I am interviewing this very inspiring lady for a blog post. Without revealing much, I’ll let Carmen describe her story. I’m all for supporting small business’ and Carmen’s passion and devoutness towards what she does is very uplifting.
From being a Chemical Engineer to measuring ingredients to make the perfect Molé, how did this transition occur?
It did not happen in one day. After having my 3 niño’s, I felt my roots pulling me back over time. In 2002, when I lived in Davis, California, I volunteered at the Davis Community Meals and discovered that I really enjoyed cooking with others and for others. Also, when I visited the weekly Davis Farmers Market, I felt an inner voice whispering to become a salsa farmers market vendor, but I would quickly quiet it down… “no that is crazy!”
Later, in 2007 when my husband was teaching at Columbia University in NYC, we lived in Morningside Heights, and this is where I learned that food really brings people together. I met wonderful people from Italy, China, Venezuela, San Antonio, Russia, Switzerland, Ecuador and so on. Right after my third niño was born, I started hosting dinners to bring families together. My friends really enjoyed my enchiladas and chile rellenos, which we cooked together. I realize now that when I was opening up to them, I was also giving them permission to do the same. From my Italian friend, Michela, I learned about her father’s risotto – the tastiest spinach soup I’ve ever had – and to use authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in my pastas and soups. Observing my Chinese friends making dumplings reminded me of the communal activity of making tamales; both are pockets stuffed with a filling made in big batches to save for later. I also learned about Arepas from my Venezuelan friends. What a rich experience we had in NYC!
In 2010, we moved to the University Family Housing in Boulder, Colorado. We dived into the community of family housing. I quickly began to host parties and make salsa for my friends, which was international: Peru, Chile, Spain, Iran, Japan, South Korea and more. We hosted dinners and we learned recipes and cooking techniques from each other. I learned about Chilean empanadas and aji amarillo, Peruvian ceviche and la causa, Spanish paella, Dutch stuffed pumpkin, Iranian rice, Japanese sushi and Korean kimchi. I also introduced them to my roasted tomato salsa, Sonoran style enchiladas, menudo and tamales. We visited the Boulder County Farmers Market and again that inner voice said: “…sell salsa here at this market!” This time I had to listen.
We all need a reason to wake up in the morning and to know that what we do matters in a deep sense. We have the responsibility to really listen to what our soul wants. Every time I walked by the Boulder Farmers Market, I dreamed of being a vendor and would hear that voice whispering: “sell salsa here!” So one day I reached out to my number #1 salsa fan, Carla, who was a doctoral student in business and encouraged me to take an entrepreneurial course at the university. I learned that I needed to bring something new to the market, so I thought about Mexican moles. This is when I decided to take time off from teaching and embark on a culinary journey to Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn the art of making Molés. When I returned, Carmen’s Salsa LLC was born.
How would you describe the process of making Molé, what does it entail?
Molé (pronounced MO-lay) originates from the Aztec “molli”, which means sauce or mix. Molé is Mexico’s national dish, but it is also the least understood of Mexico’s regional dishes. Mexican Molé was the first fusion cuisine, marrying old world spices with pre-Columbian ingredients, including native dried peppers and chocolate. One myth is that Molé is just a thick, dark sauce. In fact, there are many kinds of Molés; they have a wide variety of consistencies, textures, colors and tastes. Simple Molés, such as the Sonoran red chile Molé, are often thin. More complex Molés, such as Oaxacan Molé, use several types of nuts and seeds to produce an elaborate sauce carrying an array of flavors and aromas. The Oaxacan style Molé is a 30-ingredient sauce that includes tomatillos, tomatoes, onion, garlic, chilhuacles, mulato chiles, pasilla chiles, ancho chiles, chipotle chiles, plantains, almonds, pecans, peanuts, raisins, pumpkin seeds, anise seeds, cumin seeds, sesame seeds, marjoram, thyme, oregano, avocado leaves, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, cacao nibs, sugar, and salt. My Molés are unique because they are hand-crafted from scratch using traditional methods, cooking one ingredient at a time. My Molés are free of gluten, preservatives and flavor enhancers. We believe that people deserve freshly made Molé! Making salsas and Molés for people to enjoy has been my lifelong dream.
What are the different kind of Mexican peppers used to make Molés (where do they originate from and what do they taste like)?
All peppers originate in Mexico.
- Chipotle – These are dried jalapeños or serranos. Because the chile is small and fleshy, it does not air well by itself so it must be forced dried with warm smoke. Chipotles add an intense deep flavor to salsas, molés and marinating paste. They are also know as moritas.
- Pasilla – a black, long, evenly wide dried chile. Great depth and complexity, mild and sweet perfect chile for blending. Known as chile chilaca when fresh.
- Guajillo – Bright red dried chiles with an uncomplicated earthy flavor. Little tart and medium hot. Skin is tough and requires longer soaking time for a smooth sauce. Perfect for enchilada sauce. Similar to the New Mexico and California dried chiles but are smaller with a pointy end.
- Arbol – a small vibrant red dried chile slightly curved with a pointy end. The skin is smooth and brittle. They are sharp hot and are great for hot street-taco salsa.
- Ancho – The word “ancho” means wide. Meaty, wrinkled textured, mild and sweet. It concentrates flavors like raisins known as poblanos when fresh. When the poblano is dried, ripe red tis called ancho and when the poblano is dried unripe green is called mulato. These are perfect for blending into moles.
- Mulato – when the fresh poblano chile is dried while green is called mulato.
- Chilhuacles – grown in the mountains of Oaxaca. Chilhuacle means “ancient chile” and is shaped like little bell peppers or triangle shape. The fruit is dark green and its ripens to yellow, red, or deep brown depending on type of chilhuacle. Chilhuacles are medium hot, colorful and flavorful. Cooks consider them as the tastier chiles and are indispensable for making Oaxacan style moles. However, due to limited production, they are highly priced, about $60 per pound wholesale price in the United States.
What are the challenges you face in promoting your small business and what keeps you going?
I am a cook and not a “sauce manufacturer”. I do not believe that food should be manufactured in a mechanized assembly line. By cooking, we transform the mundane raw ingredients into something revered and sacred that we can then share with others. However, with this “slow cook” mindset, it is challenging to grow as a business.
The prescribed path to success here in Boulder is to start small, and then get into stores like Whole Foods, and only then have you made it. Grocery stores require large quantities, which a small producer like myself cannot satisfy unless I delegate production (not cooking it myself anymore) to co-packers. Co-packers are food factories that have all the licenses required to produce and package food ready for the grocery store. However, co-packers often treat food as a manufactured product and not as something sacred that a family will enjoy. Food factories and owners often find themselves trying to maximize their profits, and what started as a high-quality food ends up being just like every other product in the grocery stores, with unimpressive flavor and lacking that home-style taste.
In addition, the original food entrepreneur’s goals shifted from producing a great product to getting a big payoff, which means being bought by a bigger, better company. I want to keep cooking, I want to keep growing, to keep learning how to make the Molés and sauces better. I want to keep my business focused on tasty, fresh salsas and Molés. Carmen’s Salsa LLC has brought me so much joy and is my creative expression that I can share with others.
What’s your long term vision for Carmen’s Salsa?
I envision having my own creative commercial kitchen, where I can continue to cook the Molés, marinating pastes, salsas and new creations. In addition, I see myself and my future employees holding community cooking classes, including chemistry and physics of food workshops. We can teach useful skills, such as canning, fermenting and brewing. I dream of having my own commercial kitchen, where I can transmit my passion for science, chemistry and bringing people together in cooking classes, like transforming dried corn to nixtamal, a process that requires soaking/cooking dried corn in an alkaline solution to make it more digestible and nutritional. This nixtamalization process was developed by Mesoamerica around 1500 BC. I would also like to have a front store next to the kitchen, where I can sell my sauces directly to my customers, and invite other small producers to sell their high-quality products there too. I see my commercial kitchen as a place to learn, to cook, and to feel part of the community. Cooking together is a soul-filling experience for me.
This post is so inspiring and I’m extremely thrilled to work with Carmen on an exciting new project that I will post about in the near future! Hope you guys feel as motivated as I do after reading this.