Perhaps no other food item is as important to Mexico as corn. Think about it… tortillas, tamales, memelas, atole and more. Since the days of the Aztecs, corn has occupied almost a spiritual place in the hearts and souls of the people of Mexico.
Recently I had a chance to join a cooking class with one of the premier chefs of Oaxaca, Pilar Cabrera of La Olla Restaurant, located in the historic city center. Responding to the growing interest in Oaxacan cuisine, Pilar hosts twice weekly cooking classes though her cooking school, Casa de los Sabores.
Joining a diverse group that included people from San Diego, San Francisco and even London, England, I helped cook up a delicious menu of corn appetizers that included memelas, quesadillas, molotes, salsas and of course dessert.
The day starts promptly at 9:30 at La Olla Restaurant where Chef Pilar, meets the group and shares what we will be doing throughout the day. This was my first hint that the day would be special to those involved. One of the families taking part had two children under 10 years old. Even before we left the restaurant, she took care to make sure the young ones were involved, engaged and knew what to expect. This was a very welcome site for the parents who I am sure were wondering how they would do.
After our short introduction, we walked over to a local corn grinder to buy our masa [corn meal] for the days recipes and then on to the Sanchez Pascuas market. Small and intimate, this relatively uncrowded market was a joy to experience. Loaded with fresh fruits and flowers, we followed Chef Pilar as she seemed to stop at every vendor, picking out at least something to buy.
What really struck me was how connected she was with the people. Stopping to talk with many, she didn’t just ask about the food. She asked about their lives, their families and much more. People mattered and the market was just our first step in seeing this.
As we wound our way through the market, we picked up everything we needed for our cooking session. Leaving the market with bags full of fresh food, we headed over to Chef Pilar’s house to get busy.
First up, everyone had to choose a nice little apron for the days adventures, yours truly as well. I must admit, as a guy, I’d have preferred a more manly look, but after a while you get used to the nice frilly purple number.
Moving from aprons to food, our first order of business was to remove corn kernels from the cob. Done with a large knife, this was tough sledding for the kids until Chef Pilar brought out the knives her kids use and spent some special time with them.
Once this was done, part of our group made up a cornbread mixture to accompany the tuna sorbet others were making. For those of you new to Mexican cuisine, please understand that I’m talking about cactus fruit and not some nouveau fish flavored ice cream. While the majority of the group worked on this, I was tasked with roasting chiles and tomatoes for the fresh salsa we’d make later.
Next we moved to making our own tortillas for the quesadillas, memelas and the molotes. While everyone got into the act of trying to get the correct amount of corn masa on the press, and then getting the newly minted tortillas and memelas to the comal, or grill, for cooking, this was a place where the kids shined.
My job was to mind the comal, set right on top of the hot coals, cook the quesadillas, which were stuffed with flor de calabaza [squash flowers] and flor de frijolon [bean flowers]. Somewhat sadly, a few of those tortillas broke as people set them on the hot comal, but that did not matter as I was able to get an advance taste of our groups work.
As we neared the completion of this step, part of the group headed back inside to the kitchen to begin frying the molotes, rolls of masa stuffed with mashed potatoes and chorizo, and plating our upcoming lunch. But before we could eat, there was one last step. A taste of mezcal. And not the cheap roadside stuff most people take home, but the good stuff from Chef Pilar’s private stock.
I watched as people unaccustomed to the nuances of mezcal got their first experience of the complexities of this magical spirit. Starting with a tobala, known by many as the King of Mezcals, we finished with a wonderful mezcal de pechuga y mole from Mezcaloteca.
Finally it was time to come to the table and enjoy the fruits of our labor. What was cool was how there was even a table set up for the kids. It was like those gigantic family meals in the states where the kids get their own table.
As we ate, drank and continued to get to know our fellow chefs, Chef Pilar worked hard to make sure everyone felt welcome and appreciated. Finishing up our meal, the feel of being in a cooking class was gone. For me at least, it was replaced with the feeling of being amongst friends at a very special place.
Thinking about some final thoughts, here are my takeaways…
1. I was impressed with how real and at ease Chef Pilar was with a variety of people. From the vendors in the market to the kids in her class, her efforts to connect were obvious and a joy for me to watch.
2. Opening her home for our class was wonderful. You hear “Mi casa es su casa” frequently here in Mexico, and on this day, it was true.
3. Chef Pilar was very gracious. From spending time with the kids to not busting my chops when I failed to separate an egg white properly, our host made every effort to make us successful, comfortable, and at ease.
4. The class is well worth your time and money. If you are coming to Oaxaca, you are already a different breed. Take a day [we finished at 2:30] and learn a little about some of that marvelous food you are eating in this great city.
Chef Pilar Cabrera, Casa de los Sabores, Oaxaca, Mexico
Cost About $75.00 per person… includes all transportation, food, wine with lunch, mezcal tasting and recipes for everything you are making.
A special thank you to Chef Pilar Cabrera, her staff Maria y Lidia and Casa de los Sabores for a great day!