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La Casa De Los Sabores Cooking School in Oaxaca
If visitors to the Oaxacan cooking school at La Casa de los Sabores come away with great recipes and nutritious food with the unique herbs and spices that are the hallmark of Oaxacan cuisine, they will leave satisfied. But accompanying the owner and chef extraordinaire Pilar Cabrera also inspires and delights travelers and immerses them all day in the sights, sounds, smells, yes, tastes and time-tested recipes of the south of Mexico.
As always, the latest culinary odyssey with Pili, as he is known, began at La Casa de los Sabores in the morning – at 9:30 in the next few hours, he introduced me and others in the class. wisdom and knowledge of its great matriarchal culinary culture. Pili learned the basics and secrets, including the secrets of the seven famous molecules, from his grandfather, who learned from his grandfather before him. He is a master born in Oaxaca of southern Mexican cookery and epicurean practice of the world, he can share the secrets of preparing various dishes with beginners and experts alike – in English and Spanish.
Our day started with Pili’s great talk about food and cuisine introducing us to one of Oaxaca’s beautiful markets. The extra attention to the main ingredients of Oaxacan cuisine made us cautious. “What we’re going to achieve today is chili,” he told us, “it’s hot and hot… we keep this beautiful, green color.”
Prepared with this information, we all set out for the famous market, Mercado de La Merced, equipped with multhued bolsas – market bags – carrying compras – shopping. Pili had already prepared a grocery list, but he advised us that he always added “surprises,” such as the new foods that the poor mountain women sometimes brought down.
“When you have the opportunity to find something unique or unusual, you buy it and combine it in comida,” he said. For example, today we look at mushrooms because they grow best in the rainy season.
His knowledge of specialty shops and small factories enriched the short walk to the market. Rich flowers drew us into a factory that was making chocolate from scratch. As Pilar told us about the ingredients – cocoa, cinnamon, almonds and sugar – the owner welcomed us, “want to taste?”
The lesson began in earnest as Pilar began exploring the indoor and outdoor markets and exchanged pesos for her many fresh produce.
“Look at the woman sitting there, what she has in those dishes,” he said. “He just brought raspberries and blackberries from Sierra Juarez. We can use them for dessert. Look how fresh and beautiful they are. Mushrooms beside them, look at their size, their size and their bright orange color… these are the times of the year, but not about our recipe today… Here, we don’t buy very green tomatillos. I like the little ones. These are the small ones. small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small small the little ones. the salsa we’re preparing today.”
He encouraged us to smell the herbs as he explained how they are used in Oaxacan dishes. “Today we use this yierba santa to make mole,” he said while examining samples of the aromatic leaf until he found the best and freshest stored in one of our bolsas. But we also use it to wrap fish and make tamales.
Andrea, who was in Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan coast for six months, expressed the desire of many when she lamented, “I wish I had been in this class at the beginning of our journey.”
Our excitement and appetite grew when we returned to Doña Pili’s fully equipped and large kitchen. Its large counters, food preparation island and eight-burner gas stove open to the dining room on the green patio, make this kitchen a classy one.
As we looked at the printed recipe sheets for the dishes we were preparing, she showed us what we bought in baskets full of ingredients for each recipe to help us figure out why we bought what. We then spent the next two hours preparing a sumptuous four-course meal.
Mary, his sous-chef, did the prep work like slicing lemons, setting chips and preparing chicken and mole chickens, freeing Pili to teach us the traditions and secrets of Oaxacan culinary seduction. The light from Pilar’s knowledge lit up even the most educated people in the class as she pointed, touched, and passed each item we bought, telling us how it would be included in the meal.
Once the actual cooking began, he made good use of his bilingualism, giving instructions and asking questions in one language, then repeating it in the other, as his other guests requested. “Necesito otro ayudante para quesillo, I need another helper for the cheese.” Pilar can also be a Maestra de Español, a beginner Spanish teacher.
Everyone learned every job and participated in the preparation of almost every menu item. And as the group peeled, cut and moved, Pili’s precious reputation spread.
We learned more than just how to enjoy the taste. Pilar taught us how to get the right tone and texture: “Many people ask me how to clean mushrooms,” she said at one point, showing the correct technique. “Now watch to see how we clean and plant this type of pepper,” he said while preparing chile guajillo cha mole. “Once we start cooking chile de agua, we must remember to always check it and turn it regularly.”
“Look at the hot side of the comal… now is the time when you know when to flip,” he said while demonstrating the art and science of making tortillas.
Every time a new recipe rolled off the tip of his tongue as we worked… some dishes we can prepare are mole; different types of quesadillas such as potato, chorizoor huitlacoche, unusual corn mold… the shape we would like for corn masa if we are making tamales and not tortillas.
Soon, after the aprons were removed, we were ready to party. But first – “now before we sit down, remember in the market I told you that there are two types of roundworms? These are the ones, so who wants to try them?” he asked. “Now you know about mezcal. Taste this one Alvin brought, and tell us how it looks. Here’s another kind. What do you think it’s about?”
We sat at a well-appointed table with handmade linens, plates and cutlery. Bottles of Mexican and Chilean red wine were already resting. The beautiful music of Oaxacan singer Lila Downs sang in the background.
Pilar reminded us that her grandmother and other relatives often prepare their desserts with meat and vegetables mixed together in a mole, a bowl of rice on the side, and a bowl of soup. But our food, like all the recipes cooked by the guests at La Casa de los Sabores, would be his modern way of making everything and the good taste of modern Oaxacan cooking.
It was a celebration of everything. We started with wild mushrooms, onion, tomato, chili and cheese in quesadillas de champiñones (mushroom quesadillas), perfectly paired with a smoky salsa verde asada (green sauce from the grill) served in his molcajete. Then it was time to settle our palates with the bright yellow crema de flor de calabaza (cream of squash blossom soup), flavored with real cream, toasted calabaza seeds and fresh squash blossoms. The main course or Plato fuerte was mole amarillo – tender pieces of chicken breast on top of a sea of fragrant saffron oil, followed by fresh green vegetables. Finally, arroz con leche (rice pudding), with a tall wild vanilla and dressed with fruits picked the day before.
I left believing that the famous chefs in Manhattan’s most luxurious factories would be hard pressed to compete with the young Oaxaqueña’s ability to marry the local chefs with a modern interest in color, texture and fire. For Pilar Cabrera, it comes naturally. For the rest of us, it comes with a trip to his house.
La Casa de los Sabores Cooking School is located at Libres 205, downtown Oaxaca. Maximum class size is 10, and private lessons are available upon request. You can sign up for Pilar’s classes by calling (951) 516-5704 or emailing her at: [email protected]
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