I never did like school. To me, the golden rule was, if their was a golden ball in the sky, find a reason not to go.
History and geography and literature were all OK. But my favorite subject was always lunch. Which is why I returned to school a couple of weeks ago at La Pina Azul Escuela de Cocina.
I was back in class first because this San Miguel school is run by Kirsten West and I like Kirsten West. I was there second because her school, like most cooking schools, includes lunch. I was there third because Kirsten West feeds me with the kind of information that I’m starving for.
Now usually I avoid Mexican cooking schools because, as much I enjoy eating a complicated mole that includes 38 different ingredients, I don’t want to be taught how to make a complicated mole with 38 different ingredients, because I know I’m never in my life going to make a complicated mole that includes 38 different ingredients.
At Kirsten West’s relatively new cooking school, La Pina Azul, she keeps it simple. In four hours, she taught me and four others how to make seven different things, all of which had less than ten ingredients, and that includes ingredients like salt and pepper. And there is no one in this town more knowledgable and better equipped to teach La Cocina Mexicana than Kirsten West.
Take a look at Kirsten’s credentials:
Around 1970, Kirsten became one of the first to discover Mexican cuisine and began sharing her opinion that it deserved to be just as respected as French, Chinese, Spanish, Thai and other much more celebrated cuisines.
She told us, “Everyone would say what’s the big deal? Tacos, enchiladas, come on!”
Then, in 1989, Kirsten went on a 12-day tour of Mexico with Marilyn Tausand’s Culinary Adventures. On the trip, she had some classes with Diana Kennedy, the woman who, today, is considered the person who, almost singlehandedly, put Mexican cuisine on the world map. Diana and Kirsten became friends and colleagues and, it didn’t take long before Kirsten was as hooked on Mexican as Diana.
“I totally fell in love with the food and the markets”, Kirsten told me. “I was almost helpless as far as having any other direction in life.”
“I loved the fact that I didn’t have to make a single decision about food for almost two weeks”, Kirsten continued. “And every dish was a total mind blower.”
If Diana Kennedy is the queen of Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless is the crown prince. Kirsten West’s appreciation of Mexican cuisine was culminated when she met Rick Bayless in Oaxaca and, subsequently, spent eight years in Chicago working with him on his PBS television show and testing all of the recipes that went into his book, Mexico, One Plate At A Time.
La Pina Azul is located on Calle Orizaba in Colonia San Antonio. Walking down Orizaba is a lesson in arithmetic as the house numbers go up and down more than a toilet seat during Montezuma’s most revengeful moments. To find La Pina Azul, don’t look for a blue pineapple, look for something else that’s symbolic for Kirsten West. Look for a white apron.
The apron is part of her tribute to the days, a century ago in Mexico, when men were not allowed in the kitchen. The women who worked in the wealthy homes were dressed in an all white outfit similar to the cooks in feudal households in Europe. They belonged to a guild that still exists today and Kirsten takes pride in wearing the same costume.
The history of Mexican cuisine and its ingredients is a constant subject at a Kirsten West cooking class and I’m constantly amazed by the treasures of trivia that I walk away with.
Here are three things I learned just about amaranth:
The plant was more revered by the original Mexicans than corn.
Each amaranth plant has 70 to 80,000 flowers.
Amaranth was outlawed with penalty by death by the Spaniards because they thought the indigenous people were mocking communion in the style that they consumed it.
Eva Eliscu, one of my fellow students who is working on making San Miguel’s Food in Film Festival an annual event, said, “Spending time with Kirsten in her kitchen is a Mexican culinary history lesson, one dish at a time.”
At Pina Azul, we made some starters from sliced jicama and achiote. We made a soup. We made quesadillas where I learned that most people mistakenly use already cooked tortillas for quesadillas whereas in fact they should be made from fresh, uncooked tortillas.
We made two different salsas, a red and a green, and Kirsten agreed to let me share the recipes with you. I chose the green because I get perhaps too many red sauces but never enough tomatillo-based green sauces.
Salsa Cruda de Tomato Verde
Recipe by Rick Bayless from Mexican Everyday
Makes 1-1/2 cups
4 medium tomatillos (about 8 ounces)
1 large garlic clove, peeled and quartered
1-2 medium serrano chiles (or 1 jalapeno)
1/2 cup cilantro (or a little more)
Salt to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon
Combine the tomatillos, garlic, chiles and cilantro in a blender jar or food processor. Add 1/4 cup water and the 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Process to a coarse puree. If using a blender, begin blending on low to get the mixture moving evenly through the blender blades. Pour into a salsa dish and thin with a little more water if necessary to give the salsa an evenly spoonable consistency. Taste and season with additional salt if you think necessary.
Kirsten had some different sized tomatillos for us to sample and surprisingly, to me, the giant hybridized one that was almost 10 centimetres in diameter had a more agreeable taste than the ones similar to what the Spaniards would have originally discovered in Mexico that measured only 2 centimetres wide. I also learned from Kirsten that “tomatillos will easily last up to four weeks when you store them in the bottom of your refrigerator”.
For me a class at La Pina Azul Escuela de Cocina is as much about learning about the ingredients as it is discovering new recipes and I know Brenda Sexton, the features writer at San Miguel’s online magazine Lokkal, and another fellow classmate, agrees. I’ll leave Brenda with the last words:
”What I loved about Kirsten’s class was her deep knowledge about the history and sources of the foods used in Mexican cooking. Not only did I come away with very practical knowledge, especially about making some delicious salsas that can quickly make a delicious meal, but I loved learning about how Mexican food was isolated from Europe and has a heritage that is recognized by UNESCO, that chile peppers were called peppers because that’s what Columbus set sail to find! Kirsten is a fascinating wealth of knowledge!”
La Pina Azul is located at Orizaba 39A in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You can learn about Kirsten West’s schedule of classes or book a private class by telephoning her at 415 101 4155 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.