Posts Tagged ‘Cooking Schools’

Cooking Class in Beijing,  2008

Cooking Class in Beijing, 2008

I admit, I rarely cook Chinese food at home. Despite having taken several cooking lessons in Beijing, I seldom dust off the wok.   The reasons are not unreasonable:    too many ingredients  that can be too hard to find.    Too much prep which goes along with too much clean up.  There is also a considerable amount of technique involved as well as some specialized equipment.  And when you are finished, there are all those barely used bottles of esoteric condiments mouldering in your fridge  and bags of spices that will gather dust in your cupboard, growing more mysterious with every passing year.

It is simply easier to pick up the phone and order your favourite special combo #4. But you can get tired of the usual Moo Goo Guy Pan,  sticky sweet Lemon Chicken and my particular weakness,  curry laden Singapore Noodle. (Most Chinese meals end with a starch:  Singapore Noodle ends with me asleep in a carb induced coma)

Enjoying Tea & Vegetables at a Yunnan restaurant

A Tea Toast at a Yunnan restaurant 2008

When I was staying  in Beijing for a summer, Emily, Younes and I would come home most nights, open up the TimeOut (a weekly English language entertainment magazine) and decide on which type of regional cuisine we would enjoy that evening, (from Shanghai, Yunnan, Hunan, Mongolian hot-pot)  and then rip out the name and address of a specific restaurant to give to the taxi driver. In eight weeks, we never ate at the same place twice. And we never cooked Chinese cuisine at home.

Anyone who has ever studied the Chinese language knows that Chinese folks talk about food more than any other topic, to the point that in some parts of northern China, people greet one another with “Have you eaten?” (chifanle meiyou) rather than “Are you well?” (ni hao?).  Jonathan Lipman, Department of History, Mount Holyoke College

The Inspiration for the Class

The Inspiration for the Class

But a recent cooking class at Casa de Cocinas has given me motivation to retrieve the wok from the back of the cupboard.  Michael and Valarie Coon run this very special cooking school in San Miguel de Allende that focuses on global cuisine.  In a  fast paced  three-hour session entitled A Taste of China , Michael prepared  recipes from  Fuchsia Dunlop’s  “Every Grain of Rice”.  Fuchsia, who deserves to be more well-known outside of Britain,  is considered to be the best writer in the West on Chinese food. She also crafts recipes for delicious, authentic Chinese meals that the home cook can create in their own kitchen.

‘Fuchsia has a rare ability to convey an encyclopaedic knowledge of Chinese cuisine in a compelling and totally delicious way.’ Heston Blumenthal

And just in,  “Every Grain of Rice”  was selected this past Tuesday as one of the top cookbooks of 2013 by Canada’s “Globe and Mail”:

Fuchsia Dunlop, a Brit who trained as a chef in Chengdu, China, is the go-to Western authority on regional Chinese cooking. Her latest, loaded with easy, extraordinarily tasty recipes (gingery beef brisket soup with goji berries), is also peppered with easy-to-follow instructions on Chinese cooking basics, from using a wok to proper knife cuts. Indispensable.

Some of the ingredients for  Dan Dan Noodles

Some of the ingredients for Dan Dan Noodles

One of the benefits of attending any of these courses is Michael’s encyclopedic knowledge of food and his interesting stories of cooking personalities he has met during his culinary travels around the globe.  He  actually  had spent time in China with Fuchsia during a chef/cooking tour  for the Culinary Institute of America.  He put together a menu from her cookbook which not only fed us in style and in quantity, but allowed him to demonstrate the different techniques for preparing all the courses.  (It is primarily a demonstration class but you are encouraged to take part as much as you would like.)

He also generously  divulges his best culinary sources here in San Miguel, makes suggestions for  substitutions and when necessary, adapts the recipes for our altitude and availability of ingredients.

As always, the  class was entertaining, educational, full of practical advice & tips, and of course,  the meal was superb! Here is what he prepared for us:

 “A Taste of China” @ Casa de Cocinas

Smacked Cucumbers with Garlicky Sauce

Classic Dan Dan Noodles (Plus a variation)

Twice Cooked Pork

Pomegranate Ice Cream (his own creation)

Classic Dan Dan Noodles

Classic Dan Dan Noodles

Stir Frying the Twice Cooked Pork

Stir Frying the Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork being Served

Twice Cooked Pork being Served

Twice Cooked Pork & Jasmine Rice

Twice Cooked Pork & Jasmine Rice

It has been a long time since I have tasted authentic Chinese food from the Sichuan and Hunan regions in the south of the country:  savoury, pungent, spicy and of course it had that unique numbing flavour that you get only from Sichuan peppercorns.  The consensus of the class was that the Classic Dan Dan Noodle was the favourite, but really, for me,  it was hard to pick just one dish.

The food was as wonderful and remarkable as I remember enjoying in  those Sichuan restaurants in Beijing seven years ago,  and I cannot wait to bring my wok (and a supply of those special peppercorns)  to San Miguel and get started!

If you would like to attend one of Michael and Valarie’s special cooking classes, you can email them at insideroute@aol.com and they will put you on the mailing list for their schedule of classes, culinary trips, tastings  and more.  If you would like to try the Dan Dan Noodles, Michael’s adaption of her classic recipe is here.  (more…)

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For me, as for many travellers, food is the fastest way to learn about a new country:   culture, language,  history, geography and even economics are all expressed through the kitchen and then on the plate. So when landing somewhere new, I try to book a cooking class early on, preferably one that includes a market or shopping tour. In my first month in San Miguel as a visitor, I tore through most of the local Mexican cooking schools, and so have a decent mastery of market Spanish and several versions of salsa roja and verde.

But when we moved here for part of the year (that would be the cold part back in Canada) I began to crave a different experience. Mexican cooking is very regional, so once you have been exposed to the local specialities,  you are pretty much done. Most of the Mexican classes are  filled with tourists, so I was unlikely to extend my network of “like minded” residents in my new home.(Definition of “like minded”:  folks who get nervous if their meals are not planned four to six sittings ahead)  For six months of the year, I also craved the flavours of my favourite ethnic foods:   Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Sichuan.  There are not many good ethnic restaurants here, I thought I might put those Far East cooking classes to work.  But where to get the ingredients?

The heart of the kitchen

The heart of the kitchen

So I was delighted to discover  Michael and Valarie Coon’s global cooking school, Insideroute. Set in the fabulously equipped kitchen of their San Antonio home,(I have a serious case of range and fridge envy),  their specialty classes focus on cuisines from all over the world, with the exception of Mexico (The couple do lead very popular culinary tours to other parts of Mexico, and you can email them here to get on the list for classes and for tours:  insideroute@aol.com

I have taken quite a few classes from them, (Thai, Vietnamese,Korean , Low Country and more)  and they are great fun and very social events. With Michael as chef/teacher and Valarie as charming and welcoming hostess,  he manages to impart culinary knowledge while ensuring that we are all engaged and participating at whatever level we feel most comfortable. For some, that’s just sipping an agua fresca but if you want to,  don an apron and grab a ladle.

One of the ancillary benefits of attendance is that Michael (and his assistant, former caterer and long time resident Holly

Holly plating the Polenta

Holly plating the Polenta

Sims) know where to get everything to do with food.  From the best sources for free range chicken to what specific aisle and shelf the kosher salt is on at the local superstore, to what Asian ingredients are available where and which have to be ordered through Amazon, they are an encyclopedic culinary resource. ( Next month, expect my post on local sourcing of ingredients) Michael is also an obsessive collector of cookbooks:  I think that the living room ceiling threatens to collapse under the weight of his collection above. Here is one of my favourite moments:    he was giving us a tour of the rooftop garden, and walking by a container, casually pulled out a stalk for each of us and said “here’s some lemon grass, take it home, put it in a bucket, water well, and it will grow like a weed”. Like all true cooks, he loves to share his passion.

I will definitely be writing  more about Michael and Valarie’s entertaining classes,  but this post is about a very special evening:  a tribute from Michael to the recently deceased and immensely mourned Italian cookbook author and teacher, Marcella Hazan.  When Michael was at the Culinary Institute of America or CIA in California, he arranged a book signing and presentation for her.  She was to take questions, but I guess her reputation for being a culinary curmudgeon silenced the room. Michael decided to break the ice, asking her “Do you always cook  with extra virgin olive oil?”.  In front of several hundred people,  she flatly replied :  “That’s a stupid question.”

I expect some nervous laughter ensued, but perhaps that opening led to their ongoing relationship.  Here is a sample from their FB chats, offering encouraging words to Michael when they moved to Mexico and started a cooking school:

Ciao Michael. Thirty-four years ago I decided to open a cooking school in Bologna. I had no examples to follow, but it all turned out pretty well and if I hadn’t become too old to continue I’d probably still have students there. It takes optimism and a thick head to undertake something like that and I know what you are facing and I admire you for doing it in Mexico. If travel hadn’t become nearly forbidding for me I’d come down to see you. I wish you well. Victor, who is always grateful to you for putting him onto Global (knives), also sends his best. Marcella

And yes, she always cooked with extra virgin olive oil!

Ben’s favourite course of the evening was the “Grilled Portobello Mushrooms & Polenta and Michael kindly supplied his recipe here. (more…)

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Most of my friends know that I take cooking classes in whatever country I travel to:  China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos all have cooking schools of varying levels of sophistication and value for the educational dollar. Here in San Miguel de Allende I chose to immerse myself in the cuisine of Central Mexico by taking four different cooking classes in one week.

Cooking classes in foreign countries do more than simply teach you how to prepare an authentic Pad Thai or Cantonese delicacies like steamed spareribs in black bean sauce. Although while there is nothing wrong with collecting recipes when in the country of origin, you may find that you actually prefer your naturalized version back home. It really is a matter of what you get accustomed to. For example, I was shocked at how much sugar and salt go into genuine Thai and Balinese cooking. Literally fistfuls! My blood pressure went up just watching it!

I take cooking class for a variety of reasons. They ease you into the culture, particularly if a market tour is included.  Cooking and culture of course intertwined, and you learn about the history, customs and values of a people by understanding their cuisine. As an example, here in Mexico, olive oil is never used in cooking (and I mean never) because the Spanish overlords forbid access to both olives (and grapes) by non- Spaniards. Hence viniculture in Mexico is still relatively new, and olive oil is rarely used in the comida of the country, even though the climate is perfect for the cultivation of both the olive tree and the grape-vine.

I also take cooking classes to meet like-minded travelers and locals. Cooking classes here in SMA led to an evening with a documentary film maker from California. Later that week, my friend and I attended a showing of two of her wonderful films:  Songs of a Jewish Cowboy, and the Chicken Farmers of Petaluma. Afterwards, we were invited to join her group for dinner at a nearby restaurant whose walls were covered with photos and memorabilia from bullfights, in Spain Mexico and SMA. Ole! Things like this just don’t happen sitting in your hotel room, or confining your experience to a bus tour.

Authentic Mexican food, like traditional cuisine everywhere, is that curious dichotomy of “rules which are never to be broken” and “every family has their own version of everything”.  For example, in the making of salsa’s which are really sauces, mostly meant to be served hot over some kind of protein, you cannot use more than one fresh pepper, or one type of fruit in a salsa, but you can use more than one kind of dried pepper, but never a fresh and dried salsa in the same meal. Yes, it can get that complicated.

The “rules” also dictate that only beer and tequila are to be served with true Mexican food. The food related rationale is that the fruit of the wine might compete with the fruit in some moles or salsas, or conversely, be consumed by the heat and spice. Of course, it is rooted in the historical prohibition on the growing of grapes; hence no tradition of serving wine with food.

I don’t drink beer and I have yet to appreciate the joys of tequila*.   So I prefer to think that wine and Mexican foods are like a lovely couple that just have not been properly introduced yet. A Mexican meal would be well suited to an Ontario Riesling, that versatile food wine, the natural spicy food pairing of Gewürztraminer, and my personal choice, a medium bodied Cava, that inexpensive, all-purpose bubbly from Spain. A crisp fruity Albarino from the North Eastern region of Galicia in Spain would be a contender too.

So I leave you with a recipe for guacamole, upon which there are many variations, but this is the simplest and the most authentic.  You can use a fork to mix the ingredients, but I think that using a mortar and pestle (preferably stone based) to create a paste from the onions and chili first will produce a better result. You will notice that they use fresh Serrano chilies, not Jalapeños, which here are used dried and or pickled, never fresh.

You can tell that a Hass avocado is ripe if it slightly gives to your touch:  if not ripe enough, and the success of such a simple approach will depend upon few ingredients in perfect condition,  ripen in a paper bag on the counter for a few days.  Don’t forget to remove the seeds from the Serrano chili;   much of the technique in authentic Mexican cooking focuses on controlling heat, not accentuating it.

The result should be a bowl of pale green mounds, smooth and voluptuous in texture and unctuous in the mouth. You should want to take a bath in it, or at least slather it all over your body!

Failing that impulse, it can be used as “green butter” in sandwiches, a healthy dip for vegetables, or served Tex Mex style, with good quality, lightly salted corn chips.

A gentleman  from California whom I met one evening on a terrace as the sun was setting beautifully over San Miguel said that problem with Mexican cuisine is the use of  corn tortillas:  the corn flavour overpowers everything and makes it all taste the same. Well, that may be true, and I need to do more research (poor me) but there is something ridiculously appealing in the contrast of crisp salted corn and the velvety, voluptuous texture and taste of guacamole. Enjoy!


4 generous servings/3 cups

3 ripe avocados, preferably Hass

½ medium white onion, minced fine

1 Serrano chili (green, seeded and minced fine)

2 tbsp cilantro, carefully rinsed, dried, and chopped fine just before using

2 ripe red plum tomatoes, seeds and pulp removed, medium dice (about ¼ in squares)

1 tsp lime juice (only needed to prevent darkening if you are not eating the Guacamole right away)

½ tsp coarse sea salt (or kosher salt) to taste.

Pound the minced onion, chili and half the salt in a mortar and pestle until it becomes a fine paste. Put into a mixing bowl.  Cut the avocados in half lengthwise, remove pit, and then remove the avocado flesh from the shells  with a spoon and put into same mixing bowl. Mix the paste and the avocado gently, breaking up the ripe avocado into smaller and smaller chucks until you get a thick rich consistency, not unlike a bowl of your best, richest buttery lump free mashed potatoes.  Mix in the cilantro and tomato with care. Taste and add more salt if necessary. If you are serving with chips, you may not need any additional seasoning.

* Since writing this entry, I spent a cold wet San Miguel evening in the company of a lovely man, conducting a not entirely scientific survey of various grades and brands of tequila. But that is the subject of another post entirely.  🙂

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