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How Martha Got Down at Guelaguetza

The queen of style shoots a segment at a Westside Oaxacan restaurant.

January 30, 2002|AMELIA SALTSMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Flaming tortillas and 3-foot-tall immersion blenders are nothing new to Soledad Lopez. At Guelaguetza, her Westside Oaxacan restaurant, she deals with those every day. But a visit from Martha Stewart and her film crew--that was something else.

Saturday the empress of entertaining and her minions sailed into the unassuming Palms eatery to master tamal Oaxaqueno con mole negro and other specialties for her television show.

Who knew Guelaguetza, located in a strip mall next to a laundromat, would be Martha Stewart's kind of place?

It turns out she loves "to discover a cook committed to her cuisine, who makes everything from scratch," she said, especially one "who has a love of her own pottery." Lopez may not have heard of Stewart until 10 days ago, but with her collection of green-glazed Oaxacan ware and satiny black San Bartolo Coyotepec pottery, she definitely speaks Stewart's language.

Working together, the women prepared Zapotec-style mole negro with three kinds of dried chiles: small, maroon cascabels; long, red-brown guajillos; and wrinkled, blackish, heart-shaped anchos. The restaurant was perfumed with the scent of toasting chiles as Stewart and Lopez browned and toasted ingredients one by one to add to the cazuela: plantains, raw peanuts, almonds, pecans, onions, garlic, sesame seeds, whole cloves, cumin seeds, canela (cinnamon), thyme, Mexican oregano, raisins and French bread, and stirred in tomatoes, tomatillos and chicken stock.

Then there was the blackened Oaxacan tortilla--clayuda--to add depth and color. Trying this at home? Place a thin, leathery clayuda over a burner turned on high. Soon, the whole thing will be aflame and break into pieces that you'll need to pick up with tongs and remove to a counter, being careful not to set afire any dish towels, as Stewart did. When the inferno subsided, Stewart gamely stepped forward and announced to the camera, "It's important not to char anything but the tortilla."

Lopez pulverized the mole mixture with her Brobdignagian blender, splattering sauce around, which Stewart neatly wiped up between takes. After the grainy, sugared Oaxacan chocolate was melted in, the sauce was left to cook for another couple of hours. Then, a TV news crew arrived to film the filming.

To make the tamal, Lopez spread a thin layer of soft masa on a large banana leaf, mounded shredded chicken breast drizzled with mole in the center and neatly folded it all together.

After steaming the tamal, Lopez cut into it, exposing the fragrant chicken, then poured more mole over it and sprinkled the dish with sesame seeds. Stewart swooned, on-camera and off, admiring "the careful addition of many ingredients to make what seems a simple sauce."

It took three hours to get this on tape, but there wasn't a dull moment. In their spare time, Lopez and Stewart ran through several other Guelaguetza favorites, keeping the crew on its toes: chips with red mole and fresh cheese; memelas--thick, fresh Oaxacan tortillas (Martha loved the mesquite wood press, "the right tool for the right job") topped with epazote-seasoned black beans, cheese and tomatillo salsa; lime-and-garlic-marinated fried tilapia; and Oaxacan pizza--a clayuda topped with beans, cheese, tasajo (aged salted beef); and Lopez's "adorable" golf-ball-size chorizos.

As she departed for her next shoot (at Ginza Sushiko in Beverly Hills), a charming basket packed with several moles-to-go over her arm, Stewart said she might incorporate tamales Oaxaquenos into her own entertaining. "I can see making this for guests for a summer lunch," she said. No doubt using turn-of-the-20th-century Oaxacan pottery found at a Connecticut tag sale.

"I can see making the tamales smaller," she added. "That would be beautiful."

The Guelaguetza segment is scheduled to air on "Martha Stewart Living" during the week of Feb. 18. Weekdays 9 a.m., KCBS.

Guelaguetza, 11127 Palms Blvd., Palms. (310) 837-1153.

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