Savoring cooking lessons in Mexico

  • Article by: LYNETTE LAMB , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2012 - 4:01 PM

Lessons at a cooking school spice up a trip to Mexico's colonial interior.

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I know Mexico the way most Minnesotans do: as a treasure trove of beach destinations. Since I first visited the then-sleepy Mexican Riviera 25 years ago, I've always gone to oceanfront spots like Cabo San Lucas, Cozumel and Tulum.

Determined to finally see something of the country's colonial interior, I began researching rentals in San Miguel de Allende. That's when a Groupon touting a Mexican home cooking school near the central Mexican town of Puebla fell into my e-mail.

I'd never purchased a Groupon before, not even for so much as a burrito dinner, so I was a bit skittish. But a few minutes of Internet research showed me that the cooking school in question -- Mexican Home Cooking -- was the real deal, complete with family-trained chef/instructor, respectable website and uniformly rave reviews on TripAdvisor. Plus, at half-price it was a bargain, especially given that I'd be landing not at some shiny, giant resort but at an intimate spot off the beaten track. So in a frenzy of winter solstice-induced sun starvation, I booked a week for mid-February.

Not all my spontaneous travel plans have worked out well (a monsoon-season San Francisco weekend comes to mind), but this one turned out to be among my more inspired moves.

Mexican Home Cooking School is run out of Casa Carmelita, the hacienda-style home of Estela Salas Silva and her American husband, Jon Jarvis. After meeting in the San Francisco area, where Estela was working in a family restaurant, they married and returned to Estela's home turf. They built their home 15 years ago in a volcano-rimmed valley just outside Tlaxcala, two hours southeast of Mexico City.

Estela grew up cooking beside her grandmother in the family home in Puebla. The Puebla/Mexico City area is home to the most delicious and varied Mexican cuisine, combining as it does influences from the native Indians, the Spanish, the French, and Middle Eastern effects from the 500-year Moorish rule of Spain. The resulting mixture of flavors and spices -- including fruits, sesame seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin and other tastes not normally associated with Mexican cooking -- was a revelation.

As was the discovery that with a sharp knife and a sturdy blender, even an out-of-practice cook like me could successfully prepare some pretty impressive dishes, including Mole Poblano, Battered Chiles in Walnut Sauce and Cream of Squash Blossom Soup.

Flavorful dishes, local stories

Estela and Jon tag-team the cooking classes, with Jon walking the students (there were four of us, though some classes may have up to six) through the recipes, describing unfamiliar ingredients such as cactus leaves, squash blossoms and some obscure peppers, and Estela demonstrating techniques at the stove.

The huge, sky-lit kitchen contains a work table, dining table, acres of counter space and an always busy gas stove. Behind the work table, words painted on a wall announce our teacher's culinary philosophy: "Acércate al amor y a la cocina con desenfreno imprudente" ("Approach love and cooking with an imprudent lack of restraint").

Estela takes these words to heart, tossing in unmeasured amounts of black pepper to this dish, onions to that one, holding out spoons to let us taste how the dishes are progressing. Although over the years Jon has managed to wrestle actual recipes out of Estela (presented to graduates at the end of the week, nicely printed and bound), she subscribes to the philosophy that cooking is more art than science.

Classes, which run from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m., pass by quickly between Estela's stories of her Puebla childhood and our chopping, sautéing and whirring together of peppers, onions, tomatoes and stock into delicious soups and sauces.

At the end of each class, all the dishes -- nicely plated and arranged with edible flowers -- are placed onto a bright Mexican tablecloth to allow us to photograph our triumphs. Then comes the biggest bonus of any cooking school vacation: eating the results. Most days we gobble down some of our creations at lunchtime (lentil soup, Pipian Rojo with meat, potato/cheese pancakes) and the rest for dinner (tamales, rice with parsley, cactus salad).

Afternoons were spent exploring the gardens around Casa Carmelita, holed up in our rooms napping, or taking various day trips. Reasonably priced taxis took us into Tlaxcala to navigate the market (and buy cinnamon, mole and peppers), to Santa Ana to visit its textile stores, and to the colonial treasure that is Puebla, to explore its historic cathedral, ceramic-tiled structures and baroque buildings, many from the 16th and 17th centuries. Jon also offers a guided hacienda tour -- including samples of pulque, the fermented maguey cactus juice that was once the area's specialty -- and unguided trips to a nearby archaeological site, national park or hot springs.

After our naps or adventures, we gathered each evening in the cozy living room, candles and fireplace lit, to enjoy beer, wine or salt-encrusted Margaritas. After eating more results from our morning's work (Tamales! Almond chicken! Chipotles in Conserva!), we fell into bed, warmed by our fireplaces, only to rise the next morning, well rested and magically hungry once more.

Lynette Lamb, a Minneapolis writer, got her first culinary experience working in the test kitchen of the now-defunct Cuisine magazine.

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