I never really thought of myself as a blender person. I'm not into smoothies, and I don't make nut butter. If my local bar survives the pandemic, I can go there when I want a frozen margarita.
Occasionally, though, I wonder if I'm missing out. I'm a sucker for a well-built machine and still remember encountering a Vitamix blender in the restaurant kitchen I cooked in long ago. Often, on the back of an appliance there's the label where you find certifications, volts, hertz, and amps. But the label on this machine had horsepower. It was a very subtle gauntlet-throwing by this minimalist, tank-like device that plowed through everything you threw at it. I was amazed.
I wanted to become a blender person, I just didn't want it to involve kale and chia seeds.
Luckily, this urge hit me at the end of the era known as The Time We Used to Travel, and I was fresh back from a month in Oaxaca, land of mole. I'd also just received a copy of the cookbook Oaxaca: Home Cooking From The Heart of Mexico, by Bricia Lopez and Javier Cabral. It's a beautiful companion to Lopez' family-run restaurant Guelaguetza in Los Angeles.
Back at home in Seattle, I flipped through the cookbook and stopped on the recipe for mole negro when I saw the words "in a blender." Along with three kinds of fried and soaked chiles, into the blender went sesame seeds, herbs, spices, almonds, avocado leaves, plantain, and apples, many of which had spent time browning in my skillet.
Now this, I thought, is my kind of smoothie.
On a hunch, I requested a PDF version of the book from the publisher, plugged “blender” into the search box, and watched the hits ring up in the thumbnails column like I had just won at slots. At that point, I called in a Vitamix 5200, the $450 model of preference for blender aficionados around the world.
In much of cooking, a blender feels like a specialty player. For the most part, if you already have a food processor and an immersion blender (also called a “stick blender”), you'll be fine without one. In the Oaxaca book though, it's the star of the show.
I went up the street to Abarrotes El Oaxaqueno for supplies, stocked up on chiles and avocado leaves, and got to work, starting with a pasta de frijol negro, a black bean paste with chile, garlic, onion, and avocado leaves. It's a sort of base layer for many of Oaxaca's signature dishes, and while it wasn't much of a challenge for a high-end blender, it was something that would go well with the dishes I'd make in the coming days.
I moved on to Oaxacan adobo paste, which, as they put it in the cookbook, you “just slather all over whatever meat you choose” and then cook it. I also made chileajo—tiny bits of vegetables in a paste made with guajillo chiles that you can use like a spread on bread or a tostada. Both recipes feature that Oaxacan cornerstone technique of (potentially) toasting, then soaking chiles before blending them.
It got me marveling at the straightforward nature of this blender; you tell it what to do and it does it. Bean paste? Of course. Frozen clump of fruit from the bottom of the freezer? Sure! There's no whining of a strained motor, no whiff of overheating parts. In fact, it's surprisingly quiet. You flip a switch and exactly what you want to have happen—as long as that has to do with blending—happens.
Speaking of flipping the switches, god bless the Vitamix’s two-stubby-switches-and-one-dial control panel, which immediately reminded me of the comment a friend made more than 20 years ago when he got into my old Saab 900 and looked at the dashboard.
"Wow. It's everything you need and nothing you don't," he said. "You could work it blindfolded."
On the 5200, there's a chunky on/off switch, another one that allows you to toggle between high and variable speed, and a dial for the latter. There are no lights, no alarms, no apps, no smoothie button, nothing to figure out. Everything you need, nothing you don't.
I charged on, next doing what's become my favorite blender activity: liquefying an onion. This was part of a salsa, and technically the recipe calls for the onion to be chopped, but knowing what was coming I just tossed a quarter onion in there and flipped the switch.
For salsa de carne fria, I also made a simple sauce of tomato, garlic, tomatillos, and chipotle chiles that par-cooked ribs stew their way to a finish in, something I'd been wanting to cook since the first time I opened the book.
On my nephew's birthday, I made Lopez and Cabral’s chocoflan, what's supposed to be a multi-layer treat with a layer of rich chocolate cake under the (blended) flan ingredients and a layer of caramel. For fun, I even used the blender to make whipped cream. The chocolate/flan layers didn't work out at all, but my nephew and I still gave it a thumbs up.
By rights, I shouldn't be judging my success with an appliance on a foray into a new cuisine. Really, I should have focused on tests that made its capabilities and limitations clear. Yet the Vitamix is so good at what it does that I really didn't think about it at all. It did exactly what I wanted it to do. It helped me on my way.
I did make some smoothies, a mango lassi, and Kitty Greenwald’s kooky-excellent recipe my mom sent to me where you turn a can of tuna into a salad dressing, à la the Bass-O-Matic. Eventually, I even cracked and made some frozen margs.
Vitamix’s master blender works with a competence that borders on the unbelievable. It's as if you and a friend looked up a trail going straight up the side of a snowy mountain, and wondered aloud about getting to the top.
Blender-friend: “How quickly would you like to get to the top?”
You: “But there’s snow and we’re wearing flip flops!”
Blender-friend: “Oh! Shall we run?”
The true discovery with the Vitamix 5200, however, is that it's so solid that it may very well outlast me in the kitchen. But now, especially in this weird landlocked time, I've become a blender person. I'll be using it to make moles and more, to both scratch an itch and take me to a place that—at least for now—I can't go.
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