Cocina Confidential

I wanted to learn the secrets of Mexican cooking, from

I have to apologize for not having a naughtier addiction. It would be much more fun for you to find a story with a spicy headline like “I Was the Drug-Crazed Love Slave of My Teenage Yardman.” But, alas, my obsession is much more prosaic: I have an irrepressible urge to take cooking classes. It hardly matters what’s being taught (pasta, pastries, seafood, cake decorating, eye of newt, toe of frog); I’ll sign up. Which is how my equally food-obsessed friend Ginny Garcia talked me into taking a fifteen-hour bus trip to visit the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende this summer. “Fifteen hours!” I moaned. “We could practically fly to Hawaii and back in fifteen hours.” Besides, I hadn’t set foot on a bus since I saw Dustin Hoffman go to that big Greyhound station in the sky in Midnight Cowboy . Ginny, a seasoned Mexico traveler, was unfazed by my whining. “It’s an adventure,” she said. “You take food, a sleeping mask, and earplugs.” Then she said the magic words: “I’ll bet we can find somebody in San Miguel who gives cooking lessons.”

Was she psychic or what? As it turns out, teaching Americans how to cook Mexican food is a veritable cottage industry in San Miguel. In a few minutes on the Internet we turned up half a dozen teachers, and I heard myself agreeing to take the night bus from Nuevo Laredo to San Miguel. On our visit to this beautiful, colonial-era city of 90,000 in central Mexico, we could learn to cook with indigenous ingredients like chiles, jícama, and plantains; study salsas, tacos, enchiladas, and tamales; and learn regional specialties such as mole negro , a delicious and complex sauce made of fragrant roasted chiles, nuts, sesame seeds, and chocolate.

The classes were geared for amateurs like us, but had we yearned for something more challenging or exotic—the iguana cookery of the Yucatán, for instance—special curricula could be devised. Most of the teachers were caterers, chefs, or restaurant owners. Typically, the classes were held in their homes but sometimes in the kitchens of classy bed-and-breakfasts; one series even used a little neighborhood factory that makes tamales. All of the classes were small, accommodating some four to ten students. Most of them lasted three or four hours and cost $40 to $50 per person, including food (you get to eat your lesson). As the bus hurtled toward San Miguel, I slipped on my sleeping mask and popped a Xanax. (Don’t worry; if you’re adventure-averse, you can fly to León and either rent a car or take a local bus into San Miguel, an hour and a half away.)

At Lisa Gahafer’s small and wonderfully serene house, a group of five sat around the dining table sipping tall chilled glasses of lime-cucumber juice (one of Mexico’s refreshing aguas frescas) while Gahafer and fellow cooking teacher Kris Rudolph prepared a feast. It began with sopes and huaraches (round and sandal-shaped masa tarts) and progressed through three moles: a peanut mole, a black mole made with assorted chiles plus chocolate and cloves, and a mild green mole prepared with tomatillos, poblanos, and almonds. We finished with fantastic margaritas, chocolate-chile brownies, and mango-lime ice. Rudolph, who is tall, with curly brown hair and a ready smile, grew up in Houston and learned Mexican cooking while working in a now-defunct Austin restaurant named Tula. She has owned El Buen Café, a little neighborhood restaurant at Calle Jesús 23 in San Miguel, for nine years. Gahafer, who grew up in Phoenix and radiates an earth-mother calm, has cooked most of her life, including five years as the chef on a luxury yacht. Besides giving their own weekly classes, they intend to teach at various local B&B’s in the near future. One of them, La Casa de Espíritus Alegres, is a delightfully whimsical bed-and-breakfast in a converted hacienda in Marfil, about eighty miles west of San Miguel.

The next class I visited was not in San Miguel proper but eleven miles outside the city. Patsy DuBois’ tiny house sits on a windswept hill that looks as if a mother ship might appear above it at any time. As she does with all her students, DuBois—a redhead with a pixie haircut and energy to burn—picked us up at our hotel and drove us to her place. It’s a rustic retreat with a little tiled shrine to Frida Kahlo beside the entryway and chickens, turkeys, and assorted dogs in the yard. Of course, I fell in love with it. While we sat at the counter in her small, muy mexicano kitchen, DuBois, who is a caterer, whipped up a trio of different chiles rellenos (“stuffed peppers”): a poblano filled with nutmeg-scented ground beef and fried in a fluffy egg-white batter; chile en nogada , lavished with a walnut cream sauce and accented with rubylike pomegranate seeds; and a cheese-filled ancho, an interesting variation on the theme made with a dried pepper rather than a fresh one. After the class we talked for an hour and left with recipes galore, chocolate chip cookies, and a hug. In addition to classes by appointment at her house or the homes of clients, DuBois also teaches cooking to guests at La Casa de la Cuesta, a lovely, hacienda-style B&B owned by Heidi and Bill LeVasseur.

Of all the savvy people giving cooking classes in San Miguel, Victoria Challancin took the most intellectual approach: “The amino acids in corn masa help the body use the protein in beans,” she declared. “That’s why the traditional Mexican diet is actually quite nutritious.” Well-informed and well-traveled not only in Mexico but around the world, the Florida native brims with enthusiasm as well as information (unfortunately, her cookbook, Flavors of the Sun, is now out of print). Challancin sometimes teaches at her house “around a big old farm table,” but for the moment she is giving classes at Casa Luna, a romantic, bougainvillea-drenched B&B owned by Dianne Kushner. The day we sat

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