On a wonderfully chilly morning, Tracy Ritter, culinary director of the Santa Fe School of Cooking, gazed at about 20 of us gathered in the back-yard kitchen of a multimillion-dollar Santa Fe estate.
"When we think of New Mexico," Ritter said, "we think of the sky and light and the beauty of the landscape. And we think about food."
Exactly. So what better way to compose the quintessential Santa Fe day than to pair art with food, taking an outdoor cooking class featuring artist Georgia O'Keeffe's favorite foods, then tailgating to the open-air opera?
The cooking class featured five O'Keeffe-pleasing recipes (she didn't cook, but she knew what she liked) from "A Painter's Kitchen: Recipes From the Kitchen of Georgia O'Keeffe," and author Margaret Wood was there to talk about what it was like to work as the artist's personal assistant from 1977 to 1981.
"It was kind of nerve-racking at first," Wood recalled. "Miss O'Keeffe was very particular."
Wood recounted one episode when she stepped on a raspberry on O'Keeffe's cork floor. The housekeeper ratted her out to her employer, and "they had me scrubbing on my knees," she said. "I felt like Cinderella."
But Wood said she loved working with the artist in her organic garden amid vegetables, fruit trees and marigolds, which kept the bugs away.
"She taught me how to pick, wash and store the greens," Wood recalled. One of O'Keeffe's favorite foods was garlic. In fact, the artist often made herself garlic sandwiches.
That would explain the many slivers of garlic implanted in one of our class dishes: leg of lamb, topped with a honey-vinegar-mint gastrique. All of the recipes were simple: the lamb, a creamy corn soup, salad with an herb dressing, green beans with cardamom and an apple pie cake with rum sauce. I dare say all of us in the class could have managed the recipes without a class.
What made the class a treat was watching Ritter, who clearly loves her craft, cook as she rained tips down upon us. She told us, for example, that soft herbs (not hard ones like rosemary) work best in salad dressings, and that lemons release more juice in the squeezing gizmo if you cut off the ends first.
And Wood's insights into O'Keeffe's personality were delightful.
"Miss O'Keeffe said soup is such a comfort," Wood said. "She said if the soup didn't come out right, it hadn't been made with enough love."
Clearly, love was abundant in this class. We got to eat all five dishes, and they all sang with flavor.
The Santa Fe School of Cooking, which often collaborates with the O'Keeffe Museum, the Santa Fe Opera and other local institutions in formulating classes, was outdoors on this day because its new building wasn't finished yet. It has since opened at 125 N. Guadalupe St., just a stone's throw from the O'Keeffe Museum.
With huge windows and bright red countertops, it offers large kitchens, as well as an outdoor cooking area, for both demonstrations and hands-on classes. The school also offers walk-and-eat tours of Santa Fe restaurants.
The best follow-up to a cooking class if you're in Santa Fe in the summer? Tailgating at the Santa Fe Opera, an iconic tradition in an open-sided amphitheater. Like football fans, opera aficionados load up food and set up tables in the parking lot before the performance, enjoying dinner at 7,000 feet overlooking the mountains. But these fans are more likely than sports fans to use a tablecloth and to consume their chicken -- roasted in advance, not grilled on site -- with wine rather than beer.
We didn't have a kitchen, so I couldn't whip up a good garlic-infested lamb for our tailgate. So, we stopped by a Whole Foods store and picked up some wine, cheese, bread, fruit, beets and salad. All of this we carefully consumed within the confines of our rented pale blue Crown Victoria, the most ridiculous car in the opera parking lot, with the windows down so we could enjoy the breeze. Dessert was a shared chocolate chip cookie -- and, of course, a cool, beautiful night at the opera.