Let’s take a trip to another part of the globe and talk about Mexican food.
I know we have been doing a lot of Korean BBQ projects lately, but B and I just got back from vacation in Cancun, Mexico (fantastic, thanks for asking!).
While there, I took a full day cooking class learning about authentic Mexican cuisine at a place called “The Little Mexican Cooking School” in Puerto Morelos, which is an incredibly small fishing town about 45 minutes from our hotel and about 20 minutes south of downtown Cancun.
The Litttle Mexican Cooking School (TLMCS for brevity’s sake) declares on its hot pink website that it is “cooking classes for curious travelers”. A huge fan of what I now know to be mainly Tex-Mex, I decided this was the one thing I really wanted to do while we were visiting the Yucatan Peninsula.
La Escuela de Cocina Mexicana Poco was a cute little townhouse (actually, the owner’s home) about 3 blocks from the beach. TripAdvisor rates it as the #1 attraction in Puerto Morelos, but it’s not much of a tourist town. I actually really liked the town and there are some small hotels there. It would definitely be a nice quiet place to stay.
So I had a car take me to the school, which started around 10am. Their website explains that they do two classes a week on Tuesday and Thursdays, and I found out they will sometimes add an additional class when demand is high.
I read this on their website, and while I was a little nervous, I was not scared away:
“Q: What if I’m a vegetarian or have other food restrictions?
A: By design, we can’t possibly cater to a variety of food restrictions. We also believe that “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”"
I did not see until just now that it is possible to book a private class, and this would have been much better for me, although I can’t imagine the price for such a thing. Plus, you lose out on valuable group interactions, and some of the comments from people were amusing.
The Chef, Claudia Garcia Ramos de Celis, was a knowledgeable and experienced woman with a great sense of humor. Her abilities were evident based on the food she prepared, and her kindness extended well beyond the class.
(photo is not mine – linked from their website)
Despite the heat in the kitchen (I’m just not built for the Mexican summer), this was such a fantastic experience.
We got to do all kinds of tasting. Her two kitchen helpers scurried about, prepping bowls of ingredients, heating foods, and making sure everything ran smoothly in the background. Claudia would explain the ingredients and traditional ways while a lot of the food was being made behind her. I wish she had talked more about the methods being employed, but it was possible to see what was going on and I had the recipes in front of me. I would say it was 50% lecture, 30% demo, 17% eating, and 3% hands on activities.
The setting is intimate and somewhat small, but large enough to hold 10=12 students. It feels a bit like you’re in the kitchen with a friend, a family member, and they make you feel like you’re part of that family.
They had several different beverages (refrescos – did i use that properly?), both alcoholic and nonalcoholic. There were aguas (waters) flavored with flowers, tequila, sangria (the best darn sangria I have ever tasted), and Xtabentun, a Mexican honey liqueur with a bit of anisette flavor. The hibiscus water and sangria were awesome. I am not a big fan of anise, but Xtabentun was not bad at all. It was fun to try all of these different things with the group.
I was certainly never bored! I left wanting more, wanting to know more, and wanting to try the recipes myself and adapt them to be more vegetarian friendly.
We talked for a while about peppers, about culture, about ingredients, about the difference between ingredientes del turista versus ingredientes de los locales. Apparently, the locals get all the good stuff.
She used commonly available products like Maseca corn flour (readily available in the States) to make the tortillas, and her recipes substituted ingredients we can actually find back home instead of some of the hard or impossible to find local equivalents.
Her English was impeccable, having gone to culinary school in the US at the Culinary Institute of America, and there was no language barrier. Most of Cancun is this way, which is great. It is nice to visit a place where they appreciate you trying to learn their language but they speak yours fluently! (Take that, France!)
After I told them about being vegetariano, they were fairly accommodating in terms of directing me to what did and did not contain meat, but most of it did have meat. I tasted a lot of things, and they were all *very* good. I consider myself a strict vegetarian, avoiding meat at all cost, but… When in Rome, it is extremely difficult to be rude to the Romans.
Claudia explained to me that there are many vegetarian dishes in Mexican cuisine, and that meat is more of a feature than a necessity. I think a lot of things like beans use meat as an addition to sparingly stretch the more expensive meat (corn and beans are cheap), and also to add flavor.
When the cooking portion of the class was complete, we sat down to eat the food that had been made in the background. Everything was so good, but two things stood out.
The queso fonduta flambe was, well, awesome. I wish this had been one of the things I would have seen more of the technique for. When i put a spoon into it and pulled cheese, glorious cheese, in all of its heavenly stringiness out towards my plate like a slice of stuffed Chicago pizza, I knew it was going to be good.
But my absolute favorite thing was the chipotle brownie with goat cheese cream. Mainly because those are most of my favorite things rolled into one fantastic dessert. I literally thought about whether or not to lick the plate. I wonder if that would have been considered rude?
The salsas were so amazing, and she made them with this beautiful mortar and pestle that had been in her family for 50 years. I learned what to do (I won’t give away all of her secrets) to give fresh salsas extra flavor, which was tremendous knowledge to take back with me.
My one and only criticism is that I had wished/imagined that it would have been more hands on. The only thing we got to actually *do* was form tortillas with a press and place them on the special cooking surface. Given the venue, there was not really enough room for everyone to have a little hot plate in front of them. I would have liked to have prepared my own meal and then eaten it together, but I understand why it was not possible given the space and time restrictions.
I bought her cookbook to bring home, along with the printed recipes. I have not been successful in attempting to make tortillas yet, but I also lack a tortilla press. New kitchen toy incoming? Perhaps, perhaps.
The spiral bound recipe book will be treasured as a hard-to-find item that will remind me of our fabulous Mexican vacation, of the fun I had taking the class, of the things I learned, and of the time I spent at The Little Mexican Cooking School.