“Let’s talk about the history of American Southwest foods dating back 14,000 years.” “Having fancy kitchen tools doesn’t make you a better cook. Just like a golfer with a big bag of fancy clubs doesn’t mean he/she is a better golfer.” “People in New Mexico need two freezers. One for their food, one for their chiles.” These remarks and a zillion other gems from our instructor, Michelle Roetzer, let us know right away this was not going to be just an average cooking class.
I’ve taken many classes at this exceptionally informative school.
Their instructors are some of the finest, most knowledgeable chefs in the city if not the state.
The main classroom / dining area is set up with three overhead cameras linking to monitors. It feels like a Food Network taping studio with table seating. There is also a smaller classroom, and an outdoor patio.
…I will forever have a special place in my heart for them because they taught me how to roast my very first chiles, from a Hands-On class that Mr.D and I took, when everyone got into the kitchen to learn and help with the preparation.
There is also the option (luxury) of Demonstration classes, where everyone sits in the dining room while your instructor prepares a four course meal.
The menu for our Traditional New Mexican demo class was:
Classic Green Chile Stew, Blue Corn and Green Chile Corn Muffins with Pinon Nut Butter, Quesadillas, Salsa Fresca, and Natillas. (Menus change seasonally.)
With each dish, Michelle talked about the background, where it originated from, how it evolved, then gave the steps on preparation, tips on nutrition, with a history lesson on Southwest and New Mexican cuisine. Because it’s not just a cooking event. It’s a school.
She began with the blue corn green chile muffins. Before we knew it we’d learned the steps, how to determine the proper cake-like batter consistency, and that one fresh green chile has as much vitamin C as five oranges. She talked about the soil and climate conditions that make New Mexican chiles unique. And did you know that blue corn originated on the Hopi reservation? I didn’t. Now I do.
Michelle is an instructor, history buff, and gardener. She has her own catering company. Has worked in kitchens all over the country, started as a dishwasher and worked her way to executive chef. She has cooked for several presidents. And is lead instructor of culinary arts at the Santa Fe Community College. One of her priorities is to mentor young cooks, and if you dine in most white table cloth restaurants in Santa Fe, odds are one of her current students or graduates is serving or cooking for you. Pictured here is Matt, one of her students who came to assist with the demo.
Here is Michelle’s bio page with the school.
I recommend having a light breakfast before class. By the time the muffins are baking, the piñon butter is blending, the stew is simmering — your mouth is watering and your stomach growls. And isn’t that the best time to indulge in a meal like this? When you know it’s going to be amazing, and you’re really hungry.
Here is a tip I loved — stack all of your chiles and peppers flat on top of each other, then cut them all at once into strips. It’s quicker and they’ll all be uniform.
We were given a recipe booklet to follow along. When an adjustment was made, an explanation was given. “I wouldn’t use that much jalapeño here, and by the way, the best way to stop chile burn is with cooling foods like dairy and yogurt. Which is why so many dishes here are served with a side of sour cream.” While she assembled quesadillas, we got a history lesson on cheeses that melt properly, the medicinal qualities of oregano, how balsamic vinegar came to be, New Mexican seasonal foods, how to prep salsa ahead of time and finish it with extra virgin olive oil. Some fascinating insight on the evolution of the human digestive system. So many words of wisdom, I couldn’t possibly write fast enough.
This class was fun. I never once felt that I was being ‘lectured to.’ It’s tempting to want to write about all of Michelle’s stories, but I don’t want to give away too much. Like how cats react when you grind your own chile powder at home. (That one still cracks me up.) They’re uniquely her anecdotes, and I feel it’s better to hear it straight from the source for the full effect.
Carmelized tops, and fresh shucked corn. Chewy and sweet. With creamy nutty piñon butter.
Part of the lesson was a demonstration on how to taste test as you cook. Which is why everything was perfectly seasoned. The stew had a hearty broth, perfect chile heat, not overly salted. We were encouraged to dunk the muffins into the stew. A most excellent idea.
For three hours, longer than most one-woman shows, she cooked, gave history lessons, took questions. All the time I kept thinking that she reminded me of someone. And then it came to me. When I was an art student, I studied with a painting teacher who’d just returned from Paris and was full of inspiration and passion to share everything with us. I was energized to try something new, see differently. That’s Michelle.
Natillas is a cooked custard with stiff egg whites folded in, over a double boiler. Seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. A heavenly bowl of warm pudding marshmallow-like soup. I didn’t get a photo of my bowl with side of biscochitos, the state cookie of New Mexico. Natillas can do that, you know. Make you forget your camera, or that there is this thing called gravity and your feet are on the ground.
After class I like to shop in their store where I always find unique gifts and Southwest foodie treasures.
Beautiful wooden cutting boards.
Napkin rings. Isn’t the turquoise one just gorgeous?
I never leave without buying a cookbook. ‘Flavors of the Southwest’ is always on my kitchen counter. This time I bought ‘Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,’ a James Beard award-winning book by Lois Ellen Frank who is also an instructor at the school.
For those who won’t be dropping by Santa Fe any time soon, here is the link to their online market.
This December will mark their 25th anniversary, and a new cookbook (I cannot wait) called ‘Celebrating the Food of New Mexico.’
Thank you to Michelle, Nicole, Susan, Kathy and Matt. And for letting me share your Natillas recipe (below.)
Santa Fe School of Cooking
125 N. Guadalupe St.
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Phone 505 983 4511
NATILLAS Cooked Custard with Folded Egg Whites and Spices
- 4 eggs (separated)
- 1 quart heavy cream
- 1/4 cup flour
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp Mexican vanilla (or regular vanilla extract)
- canela/cinnamon (or nutmeg, or Santa Fe Sweet Spice)
Courtesy of the Santa Fe School of Cooking, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Note: Santa Fe Sweet Spice is a blend of: cinnamon, cloves, anise and allspice. It can be ordered online via the school's website.
Serves: 8 to 10
|Make a paste of egg yolks and 1/2 cup of the cream.|
|Stir in the flour, mixing well.|
|In a saucepan, combine the rest of the cream, the sugar, and salt. And scald.|
|Stir scalded cream gradually into egg mixture and place in a double boiler. Cook slowly, stirring constantly, until the mixture has become thickened, about 20 minutes.|
|Mix in the vanilla and let it cool.|
|Beat egg whites until stiff, then fold into the custard.|
|Garnish with canela, nutmeg or Santa Fe Sweet Spice, if desired.|