Food, Living

Cooking Class in Marrakech

You may think you have never taken a cooking class but I bet you have. Maybe you didn’t learn to make gnocchi while you traveled through Italy or handmade tortillas in Mexico, but I am sure you have shared kitchen secrets. Your first teacher was likely your mother inviting you to mix the batter as she made oatmeal cookies, your father teaching you to flip a pancake on a Sunday morning and later your college roommate showing you how to make the perfect margarita. Food is the common denominator, a meal shared is the ultimate communication.

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A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking a cooking class in Marrakesh at Faim D’Epices. My instructor Ilam, a lovely young woman originally from Meknes (land of olives and wine) led me through the making of a beef, pear and orange tagine (a slow-cooked stew done stovetop in a clay pot), a traditional wheat and semolina bread and msemens (Morocco’s equivalent to flour tortillas).

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The Faim D’Epices Cooking School is located about 30 minutes from the center and after you have traipsed through Marrakesh’s busy Medina (old town) the open landscape is a welcome change with orchards of orange trees and friendly dogs to welcome you.

During the class we were taught how to check the authenticity of saffron- rub a piece on white paper and the color should be yellow, never red. Saffron is the highly prized dried stigma of the crocus flower, it takes over 70000 blossoms to make a pound of saffron, making it the most expensive spice in the world.

We were also taught about argan oil. The argan tree is only found in a small region of southwestern Morocco and has not been successfully transplanted anywhere else. The argan tree has the amazing quality of pulling water from the ground and in the driest areas you will see everything brown except for the green of the argan tree. Because of this, goats have been known to climb the tree and eat the leaves. To check the authenticity of your oil you can put it in the freezer. Different oils freeze at different temperatures so they will separate and you will be able to see if your oil is pure.

18767221_10158757557275243_1599565076_oThe highlight of the class was the opportunity to meet Ilam. When touring Morocco most of the Moroccan people you interact with are men. Most of the waiters, tour guides and even hotel staff tended to be men, so I really appreciated the chance to chat with Ilam over lunch.

Overall a great experience!

 

Cooking classes in Marrakesh: http://www.faimdepices.com/

Cooking Classes with me in Huatulco, Mexico: http://www.huatulcocookingclasses.com/

 

 

Food, Living

It takes a village… the building of our Chiles&Chocolate Cooking School

picmonkey-collageI have been involved in several building projects while living in Mexico but none has been as exciting or as rewarding for me as our Chiles&Chocolate Cooking School. Located in the village of Zimatan, I wanted the building to fit in with the architecture of the buildings in this rural area. Most of the houses in the village are rectangular with small windows and galvanized metal roofing. Since our cooking classes showcase the beauty and dignity of Oaxacan cooking, our building needed to be a testament to that as well. In the same way a mole recipe evolves using the ingredients of a particular area, our building needed to use materials that were found around us; river rock, stone, wood and I felt the same should be applied to labor.

Village life is very gender segregated. Women in my village are not even permitted to attend town meetings unless they are the ‘head of their household’- meaning they have no husband. So I was more than a little nervous as this project was my first time building without a husband to negotiate and deal with decisions such as where to put the septic tank.

Blandino, the mason, and his two sons, who live in the village, collected rock from around the property to build our retaining wall and patio. In other projects I have been involved with we always ordered our cement blocks already made from the hardware store. Blandino mentioned that Andres, a man in our village, made blocks, so we decided to make them on-site. This decision led to us having a higher quality block, it was about the same price as buying the ready-made blocks, but we also created a job.

Seeing Andres make blocks was amazing. All cement was mixed by hand, poured into molds and then set in the sun to dry. When it came time to get a door, the metal smith in the village made one and the electrician who installed the lights lives just a few doors down.

In the cooking classes I talk a lot about the dignity of what we term ‘women’s work’- cooking, housekeeping, child rearing. My experience of being a stay-at-home mother in Mexico during my daughter’s early years was life changing and forced me to reevaluate my own ideas about gender. It was the beauty of this time that led me to want to give cooking classes.

I always have thought of the cooking classes as a way of shedding light on the dignity of ‘women’s work’ but as I look around the cooking school it dawns on me that the building is truly a testament to the beauty of ‘men’s work’.  Much in the same way it takes a village to make a tortilla; men to grow the corn and women to grind, form and cook it on the comal, our cooking school is the product of a long line of tradition.

For more information about our classes: www.HuatulcoCookingClasses.com

Food

Porcini Sea Salt

porcini-saltOur latest salt is made with wild porcinis from San Antonio Cuajimoloyas, a village 56 kilometers away from the Oaxaca city. Located 3200 meters above sea level, the high-altitude is the ideal climate for mushroom foraging in the rainy season.  I had the privilege of attending the annual Mushroom Festival in Cuajimoloyas last July and in addition to porcinis we collected over 200 different types of fungi during our 6-hour hike.

The name porcini means “piglets” in Italian. They’re also known as the king bolete, cèpe (in French), Steinpilz (the “stone mushroom” in German), and a host of other fun names from all over the world. The Latin name is Boletus edulis.

Porcini mushrooms are a famous and delicious addition to any dish. Forage the ultimate umami flavor with our Wild Porcini Sea Salt. Hearty porcini mushrooms are mixed with natural sea salt to produce a mouthwatering, savory blend that shines in any cuisine. Like so many other good edible mushrooms, porcini are mycorrhizal. This means that the underground vegetative growth of the mushroom, called the mycelia, enters into a symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants. Why would you care as a chef? It means that because of this complex relationship that occurs in nature, porcinis aren’t easily cultivated and are seasonal.

Sprinkle Wild Porcini Sea Salt on beef, veal, pork, poultry, fish, rice, potatoes, pasta, polenta, popcorn, soup, cream sauces, tomatoes, dipping oil, rubs.

Other sea salts in our line are Rosemary Sea Salt and Hibiscus Sea Salt. They are available at our restaurant Café Juanita in Marina Chahue, Huatulco and at our cooking school, Chiles&Chocolate. http://www.huatulcocookingclasses.com

 

Food

Mushroom Summer

In the same way the simple pleasure of Proust’s madeleine led him down the road of memory, I can trace my relationship with mushrooms, and my refusal to eat them, as a road map through my childhood.

My father, an animal psychologist and amateur mycologist was my first and best travel companion. He was often described as eccentric with his Albert Einstein hair, clothes that always looked as though he had just rolled out of bed and his plaid shirt pocket always with a Mont Blanc pen sticking out. When I was nine years old we rode the train across Canada to British Columbia where we stayed in a log cabin and he taught me how to fish. Before I went to University we explored the Cabot Trail and Peggy’s Cove and before my move to Mexico we went to Germany where we retraced memories of his childhood, eating in upscale restaurants and fancy hotels. “Always spend your money on good food” he liked to remind me when I was a struggling student.

Augusts were reserved for the cottage, cottage being a too quaint word for the large house that we rented each summer. The furniture was from the 1940s, there was a record player and black and white photos of the original owners decorated the walls. My older brother and sister would come and go, but I would spend the whole month lying on the dock with the friends I met up with each year. My father spent his cottage days foraging for mushrooms. He left early in the morning with his wicker baskets and his walking stick, limping his way through the village and into the forest. He had his spots. My sister and I accompanied him but it was soon clear that my sister’s interest and knowledge about mushrooms far exceeded my own and I soon drifted away from these expeditions. Mushrooming wasn’t as exciting as fishing or swimming across the lake or losing myself in the pages of a book. Opting out, I became the frivolous daughter, the one who preferred hanging out on the dock or going to parties with the summer kids.

My father and my sister would return in the afternoon, their baskets full with chanterelles and boletuses. There were stories of poisonous mushrooms that looked just like edible ones and of course there was Alice from Wonderland who found a mushroom that would make her grow bigger or smaller depending on which side she chose. I decided mushrooms were a very risky business and I refused to eat them. This presented a dilemma for my father who managed to incorporate mushrooms into every dinner. So for the month of August I lived on peanut butter toast, Bull’s Head ginger ale and the occasional all-dressed hot dog from Larry’s Snack Bar. My mushroom boycott was only second to my teenage vegetarianism as food protest, which ended our smoked pork excursions to Chinatown and devouring my father’s veal birds. Food was my teenage rebellion – that, and rolling my eyes at his repertoire of ‘fun guy- funghi’ jokes.

I have become less rigid in my eating habits; being in the food business, I will try just about anything, but mushrooms still have a special place of mystery for me. I am not alluding here to any psychedelic varieties, I mean regular old portobellos, shiitakes and chanterelles – whose earthiness transports me back to those summer days.

A few years ago when I first heard of the Wild Mushroom Festival in Cuajimoloyas, I immediately wanted to go. Each year, however, I found a reason that making the trip to Oaxaca for this two-day event, which includes mycologists, foraging and meals entirely prepared with mushrooms, was not possible.

This year I went. I kept my mushroom reticence a secret, which was fine, as I have always liked a good secret. I would eat everything and smile.

It was foggy and cold when we arrived in the town square of Cuajimoloyas that first day. I had travelled overnight and had been looking forward to ‘checking in’ to my cabin, but after a watery coffee we were asked to choose between the 3-hour or 5-hour walk and we were led into the woods. My inner voice was thirteen again but on the outside I smiled and walked along. The woods were like a movie set for a Grimms’ fairy tale, blanketed with pine needles, moss, lichens, succulents…. everything so moist and alive you could practically hear the mushrooms growing. Everyone in my group was collecting mushrooms with great enthusiasm. Within an hour our baskets were brimming. After five hours we gathered with the rest of the teams in a field for a picnic lunch. Each team’s mushrooms were laid out, examined and counted by the festival organizers and mycologists. My team collected over 223 different mushrooms – I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. Lunch was mushrooms in a red adobo sauce, which I ate with a smile, but was not enough to convince me that I could be a mushroom lover.

After a good night’s sleep in a cocoon of blankets, I awoke refreshed and ready for day two, which was a series of workshops, discussions with mycologists and cooking. Vendors had set up stalls in the town square and the products ranged from woolen hats (I bought one the first day and even slept in it) to organic chocolate, mushroom teas that held the promise of healing … well,  just about anything.

The cooking demonstration was given by Martha Contreras, a local from Cuajimoloyas. We prepared Amanita caesarea, commonly known in English as Caesar’s mushroom, a la Mexicana, by sautéing the mushrooms with tomato, onion and jalapenos in a large clay pot on an anafre (small tin charcoal brazier). A handful of epazote added a lovely top note and the mixture was rolled up in a potato tortilla. It was my ‘aha’ mushrooms moment. The flavors were so delicate and the mushroom still raw and fresh enough to not be chewy.

I came away from the festival with a healthy supply of dried mushrooms, ideas and an excitement for learning more. I met so many interesting people, as the festival attracts biologists, naturalist, birders and mycologists.

My father passed away just as I was making Mexico my permanent home, and while he was supportive, he was paternal in his concern. At his funeral, the rich chanterelle stews he was known for were served. A good measure for me is to wonder what he would think if he could see me now. As I trudged through the woods at the Cuajimoloyas festival, suppressing a craving for peanut butter and ginger ale, I think he would have loved it.

For information about next year’s festival or events in the area of Cuajimoloyas contact Expediciones Sierra Norte Oaxaca at www.sierranorte.org.mx

 

Food

Jack and the Dogwood

I never really understood the story of Jack in the Beanstalk… who would trade a cow, even a sickly one for beans? There was nothing magical about the beans I grew up with; black or brown types were from cans and green beans were often frozen.

At the organic market last Saturday I came across an old woman selling large green pods, luckily she didn’t want to trade them for a sickly cow… 10 pesos would do.
I asked her what they were called and she said ‘Cuil.’ She explained that if I opened them up there were two delicacies inside. One was the cotton like pith that surrounded the individual seeds. It was juicy and sweet and I am sure would make a great agua fresca or sorbet. The second delicacy were the seeds themselves. I took the pods back to Cafe Juanita to ask the women I work with if they knew about them. They had eaten the pith but not the seeds. We opened the pods, removed and cleaned the seeds and then boiled them for a few minutes until they began to soften. I drained them and then fried them in garlic oil until they started to brown. I served them with crumbled queso fresco and a drizzle of our house-made sesame chili oil. The texture was a cross between butter and a chick pea and very flavorful. A true delicacy and worthy of a cow trade!

I looked online to see if I could find some more information about these pods but when I googled ‘cuil’ nothing came up. I finally found a reference in Elsevier’s Dictionary of Trees relating the ‘cuil’ to the dogwood. Here is a photo of the dogwood pods and while there is a similarity I am not entirely convinced. I may need to go visit San Pedro Cafetitlan to see the tree for myself. Looking forward to serving this up at our ‘Village to Table’ dinners that we will be starting in October at our Chiles&Chocolate Cooking School.

For information about our cooking classes: http://www.huatulco-catering.com or chiles.chocolate@yahoo.com

Food

Fried Zucchini Blossoms

I always find lots of inspiration at our local organic market that is held the first and third Saturdays of the month in Santa Cruz. This morning I got some beautiful and fresh zucchini blossoms with the stems intact. I have done several recipes before for stuffed blossoms but have found stuffing them to overshadow their delicate flavor. I decided to batter and fry the blossoms while serving the stuffing on the side. Wow! Not only were the blossoms much lighter but they kept their natural shape. I used a simple flour batter with a teaspoon of yeast, salt, Italian seasoning, a splash of olive oil and enough water to make a paste-like consistency. I served them with some fresh ricotta and spicy salsa and a glass of Pinot Grigio for a perfect summer evening meal. Enjoy!

Food

Fiesta Cooking Class Fun

Loved spending the morning with these two couples from Arkansas. So inspiring to meet people who seek out cultural experiences when they travel. Teaching cooking classes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job- I always meet the most interesting people! Thanks for a great day Arkansas Four!!  For more information about our classes visit http://www.huatulcocookingclasses.com