A Crash Course In Santa Fe Cooking

I'm crazy about New Mexican food. But with marginal cooking skills, I wouldn't dare prepare it for my friends. So, on a recent trip to New Mexico, I enrolled in the Santa Fe School of Cooking.

We're not talking Cordon Bleu here. "The focus is not to train chefs," says proprietor Susan Curtis. "This is for everybody. We want to enlighten them on the foods of the area." The class, which cost $30, including lunch, lasted just three hours. Still, I came away with enough culinary secrets and confidence to try a New Mexican meal on my family.

Santa Fe (505 983-4511) is one of several cooking schools located in popular vacation spots that lets you take home the local cuisine through half-day crash courses or longer seminars. The dishes range from gumbo and pralines at the New Orleans School of Cooking to brioche bread pudding with dried cherries and apricots topped with caramel sauce at Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco. Reservations are required for classes, which range from $50 or less for a half day to several hundred dollars for an extensive course.

Eighteen of us were seated around tables in the Santa Fe school's kitchen, which was adjacent to a specialty food store in a boutique shopping complex. There were teachers, housewives, even contractors, and our skills ranged from zilch to gourmet.

GAS-FREE. Instructor Lawrence McGrael, executive chef at Geronimo's Lodge in Santa Fe, first explained the basics of New Mexican cuisine. It's heavy on blue corn, fresh veg- etables, chilies, and beans. When he mentioned beans, McGrael advised us to add a pinch of the herb epazote, or wormseed, during the last half-hour of cooking. It's an antiflatulent. That tip alone was worth the price of the class.

McGrael prepared the food, explaining each step and answering questions as he went along. We gasped as he threw cupfuls of red chili powder over pork cubes for carne adovada (meat cooked in chile), the main course, but McGrael promised it was a mild pepper that gives flavor rather than heat. We were not convinced, although he explained there are 200 different chili peppers, from sweet Anaheims to lethal habaneros. Another McGrael tip: If you use too much chili powder, add orange juice, tortilla pieces, "or go to the market for another six-pack."

McGrael popped the carne adovada into the oven, then began working on calabacitas, a mixture of squashes, onions, corn, and green chilies. Everything in New Mexico, it seems, contains green chili--it's even used in ice cream. Next were the refried beans, which had been simmering all morning. McGrael added the epazote and chipotle chilies. Like ham bones, chipotles give a smoky flavor but don't add fat.

TORTILLA FLAP. Then, it was our turn. McGrael mixed up dough for flour tortillas and asked for volunteers to roll them out. That had to be easy enough, so I joined others in the front of the room, where we were handed balls of dough and tortilla-rolling pins--8 1/2-inch sections of 1-inch dowel. "That's a good one," McGrael said to the man next to me, who had rolled a perfect circle. "Hmm" was all he said about my tortilla as he plopped it onto a dry hot skillet. It came out looking something like a map of the U.S.

Then came the best part: McGrael's carne adovada was spicy but sweet, the beans flavorful but not greasy, and the tortillas chewier than the kind that comes in packages.

We were now surfeited, happy--and confident we could make a reasonable facsimile of our meal at home. In fact, the school promised to send diplomas at no extra charge to those who mailed back forms saying they'd tried. So, in the school's shop, we snapped up canned chilies, spices, and those valuable cellophane bags of epazote for about $1.95 an ounce.

I haven't invited the neighbors in, but my family likes my efforts so far. The calabacitas I prepared at home were wonderful. And although I haven't attained a perfect circle, the shape of my tortillas has most definitely improved.

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