My husband is from the "feel the burn" school of eating. Bring on the chiles, the wasabi, and the cayenne pepper. If it makes his eyes water, so much the better. Personally, I dont think food should hurt, so when we stumbled upon the Santa Fe School of Cooking while exploring a mall full of art galleries, I was reluctant to jump in and sign up for the following days class. Somehow, "Southwestern Barbeque" seemed like tempting fate. But the menu included blue corn muffinsa new favoriteand my husband was so excited that I gave in. This is how I found myself sitting at one of five café tables in their classroom on a Saturday morning, bathed in the sweet and spicy smells of Rum Raisin Cake and fresh coffee.
Our instructor was Kathi Long, former executive chef in restaurants in New York, Connecticut and London, food stylist for Bon Appetit magazine, author of five cookbooks and now personal chef to a lucky Santa Fe family. Her close cropped hair and casual clothes conveyed a no-fuss approach to every day cooking. She discussed her background as the other twelve students and I sipped the Schools signature coffeesmooth, fresh-brewed, and ground with local pinon nuts to erase any bitterness. The coffee went down easy, without being harsh or acrid. Then my fellow students introduced themselves. We had first-timers from Canada and Wisconsin taking time off from a conference, a home chef for whom the School was the ultimate destination, and a frequent student up from Albuquerque with mother and sister in tow.
Kathi began the class by taking the Rum Raisin Pecan Cake out of the oven to cool. She skimmed through the recipe as she showed us hoe to spike the cake with rum sugar glaze. My mouth was already watering and lunch was still three hours away!
Next came the Chile Glazed Baby Back Ribs. As she roasted ancho and guajillo chiles on a stovetop grill, Kathi explained that the chiles native to the area were used as a meat preservative before refrigeration arrived in New Mexico. Once the peeled chiles were blackened and soft with a smoky, mild garlic aroma, she opened them with a sharp knife and proceeded to toast them by pressing the insides flat against the bottom of a heavy skillet. The chiles gave off a strong dried fruit odor, like apricots, due to their high vitamin C content.
She introduced us to fluffy Mexican cinnamon, called canela, and to Mexican oregano which, to my surprise, didnt smell like pizza. Ground cloves and cumin provided a sweet back note to the spicy flavor in a taste I found classically Mexican. Cider vinegar tempered the chile flavor, a combination Kathi called "typical" of authentic Mexican cuisine. As the blender gargled, she first warned us about the dangers of putting hot liquids in a blender, then adjusted the seasoning mixture and passed some around for us to taste, saying, "Its fairly well-balancedBe careful!" I didnt take her warning lightly, subjecting my neophyte tongue to the tiniest bite I could squeeze off the spoon. The sauce had a sweet, complex flavorthen the smoke began to curl from my ears. Luckily, the heat was mostly temporary.
To accompany the ribs, Kathi made Spicy Pinto Beans, laced with tequila and morita chiles. The peppers, a type of chipotle, smelled like a hearth. The odor alone made my eyes water. After one taste, I could feel the burnt skin peeling off my tongue and had to get up for a glass of ice water. Strangely, I enjoyed their smoky taste, if not the burn or the laughter of my classmates as I was the first one to break down and grab for water.
I was singled out again when Kathi asked if anyone would prefer no cilantro in their beans. I will go on record here and announce that I have not yet acquired a taste for cilantro. I assume I will eventually come around, as I did with mushrooms, tomatoes and mayonnaise, but for now Im still a New Mexican food noviceno cilantro, please. Kathi was kind enough to prepare the beans and the two side dishesguacamole and Orange-Cilantro Salsain Cilantro and no-cilantro versions. Sure, I was embarrassed, but it was better than having that soapy taste ruin everything. I felt a bit vindicated when one of the other students asked for cilantro-free guacamole, too.
Speaking of guacamole, I am not a big avocado fan, but I was not about to announce that to the class after the water and cilantro incidents. Im glad, too, because Kathis authentic (read, no tomato) Guacamole was delicious, the slightly chunky consistency of egg salad and just as spicy. In Mexico, guacamole is considered a cooling condiment, not a spicy dip. Count me one convert to the love of authentic (cilantro-free) guacamole.
As she passed out plates of the citrus salad, dressed with olive oil and raspberry vinegar (no chiles"At least one dish should be chile-free," she insisted), we finally dug into our barbeque feast, accompanied by some great New Mexican wines. The flavors were balanced, certainly on the spicy side, but not hot enough to make me sweat. Soon all of us students were stained chile red on lips and fingertips and grinning from ear to ear. We left full to bursting: heads full of menu ideas, hearts full of enthusiasm and shopping bags full of dried chiles and Mexican herbs from the School store.