Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cooking with Chef Paco Cardenas

Taking a cooking class in San Miguel is a gamble, especially when you don't know anything about the cooking schools. There are so many places to take lessons and some of them maintain you will learn “real” Mexican cooking in one easy lesson. That’s an astonishing claim since Mexican cooking is one of the most complex cuisines on the planet.

                                                                             Photo from Petit 4 Website

I lucked out. I happen to be in Petit 4 Bakery when I noticed a sign for a market and cooking class the following Monday. What followed was perhaps one of the best kitchen experiences I’ve had…and I’ve had many.

As chance would have it, I also met up with three of the most inspiring classmates who taught me things I never knew about cooking. Isn’t it amazing how quickly foodies bond? Minutes into the conversation we were already exchanging recipes. Kathy had a prickly pear martini that I just had to try.

Chef Cardenas met us at 11:00 AM and we headed to the market for a lesson in local shopping. To me, this was the most important part of the class. After two hours in the market, I knew exactly who to buy meat, carnitas, chickens, vegetables, spices, cazuela’s and even fabrics from for the next 6 months. Money well spent I thought, even at that point.

Chef also showed us where to eat in the market and introduced us to an old friend who made the exceptional mole. She insisted that I taste it and I could not believe just how good it was.

Kathy and I both mentioned that we really wanted to learn how to make carnitas. While we were sampling them at the little shop across the street from the market, Paco was buying a slab of ribs to take home. Much to our delight, he added them to the cooking menu for the day.

So what was on the menu at this class? Chayotes Salteados en Mantequilla (did someone just mention butter?), Guacamole, Nopales a la Cazuela, Rajas Con Crema, Salsa De Xoconostle, Salsa Verde con Aguacate, Salsa Ranchera en Molcajete, Sopa de Flor de Calabaza, Puerco en Achiote Y Naranja Adria, Tortillas de Maiz, Carnitas and Postre de Chocolate Y Tequila. In all 12 recipes which I thought was a lot.

Chef Cardenas is a friend of Diana Kennedy and uses some of her recipes in his mix. Others are traditional coming from both his aunts – one of them is in Chicago - and his grandmothers.

The surprise of the day? I was finally converted from flour to corn tortillas. About time don’t you think? The taste of corn tortillas when you grind the corn and then make the dough from scratch is truly remarkable. I was also astonished at how fast the process went.

I’ve had Noplaes before – made on the grill – but I also liked the Nopales we cooked in a Cazuela with a little onion, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro and Mexican oregano.

Of course the guacamole and the salsa verde were delicious and I got a few tips on how to improve my own recipes. It helped to have all the fresh produce that we just picked up from the market. Much of it comes in fresh daily.

How beautiful and creamy the Squash Blossom Soup was after throwing all of those rough cut ingredients into the cazuela. Kathy mentioned how expensive Squash Blossoms are up in the mountains of Arizona ($1 each) so this was a treat for them as well.

What better way to close out a dinner than a chocolate and tequila dessert served with a beautiful Valle de Guadalupe red. I am a white wine drinker but you could certainly change my drinking habits with the quality of this 2007 Syrah. It was one of the best I’ve had.

I intend to take all of the cooking classes offered while I’m in San Miguel but Chef Cardenas set the bar so high the first time around we’ll see if any of the others can measure up.
They have a tough act to follow.

Buen Apetito!