B&B Chefs – Finally Going to School

by Mari Pintkowski  (April 2012)

You might wonder why a B&B owner/operator who prepares breakfast each morning for guests would opt to go to a cooking school on a get-away vacation. I guess the answer for me would be that I am a die-hard school addict. I am energized when I have the opportunity to learn something new, especially with a group of fun travelers from all over the world.

Puerto Morelos is only a short 1˝ hour drive from Tulúm and less than ˝ hour from the Cancún airport, a few miles off a “Mexican Super-Highway.” The setting is different enough from our little oasis in the Maya jungle, La Selva Mariposa, that it turned out to be a perfect choice. Puerto Morelos is a vibrant little fishing village that is still rough around the edges, even though its shores a few miles north are being developed by classy five-star hotels. I suspect that change will come quickly and its authentic flavor will soon be transformed.

Upon arriving at Casa Caribe, where we had made reservations for two nights, we glanced up to see the signs for The Little Mexican Cooking School and The Little Kitchen Shop. We walked through the arches and onto the large open-air veranda that was furnished with comfortable, fresh tropical furniture at one end and four Equipale-style tables with four chairs each facing a Mexican-tiled bar with a large mirror that gave the illusion of a stage where something interesting might take place.

I was pleased that I had made reservations ahead of time to attend the school on the last day of our stay, as many people came and went through the large wooden gates, shopping in the store and signing up for the classes.

Cat, the mastermind of The Little Mexican Cooking School, hails from Down Under and, with a background in theater, is very poised and engaging when she tells stories that are interspersed throughout the day’s activities about the history and origin of Mexican foods.

As participants gathered for the class which began promptly at 10, Cat greeted each one personally and offered freshly ground Chiapas coffee, with a side of Rompope liquor and warm cranberry scones. She let us know that the hotel was “ours for the day,” and introduced the chef, Pablo Espinosa, who would guide us through that day’s cooking activities. The theme was Comida de Campestre,  foods you might enjoy on a picnic or casual gathering. We each received a printed recipe book at our table. The class began promptly and did not stop for the next 5˝ hours—all for less than $100 US.

As Pablo was setting up for salsa making, Cat served us our first agua fresca, a delicious beverage, Jamaica, that was made with dried hibiscus flowers, water and sugar. The beverage is often served at small family restaurants that offer comida corrida,meaning food cooked in the family kitchen. Just learning the meaning of a simple term like this produced a smile on my face. I had seen this on the sign for the Mexican restaurant near La Selva Mariposa, but just assumed it meant fast food. How did I not learn this in eight years of living in a small Maya pueblo? Perhaps it is not a common term in our neighborhood, that is, until the new restaurant owners from Mexico City moved in. I added the term to my mental Spanish dictionary, and made a mental note to start serving agua frescas for breakfast rather than the box juices.
Now back to Pablo, who was ready to begin his lesson on preparing guacamole. In one hand, he held a lime and in the other an avocado. Before long he made us realize that in most guacamole recipes we taste more lime than avocado, when the addition of lime is only meant to keep the soft green pulp from turning brown. His solution was to eliminate the lime, and mash up a fresh jalapeno pepper to get the same results AND preserve, not hide, the flavor of the avocado.

With each fresh ingredient and cooking tool Pablo introduced, he told us its origin and purpose in the history of Mexican cuisine. One story that I put into my personal hard drive to share with guests over breakfast was “The Brotherhood of Three Sisters.” In the milpa where the Mexican farmers grow their corn, there is a system of planting that has worked successfully for hundreds of years. First the corn is planted during a full moon and after one month, the beans are added below the corn plants, so that they have something to grow upwards on. Last of all the squash is planted and it covers the ground and keeps the moisture in.

Interspersed throughout the day, there were lessons on local honey, vanilla, cooking oils, and cinnamon, chocolate, and dried and fresh chiles. We were offered many opportunities to use our senses of taste, touch, smell and sight.

The guacamole was ready and now for the salsa preparation.Our turn to help began with the tasks of mashing, chopping and mixing the ingredients for Salsa Asada, Salsa Mexicana, Salsa Frita, and a Maya specialty, Si kilp'aak. There was a plan for the guacamole and salsas and we were part of the plan. We began with a brief lesson for making the base of sopes. Cornmeal masa was shaped into small balls and then placed in a tortilla press to get a uniform size and thickness. We gently placed our small tortillas on the comal or flat grill to cook. When our creation was ready, we carefully used our index finger and thumb to form a raised rim around our warm corn cake. We filled the warm shell with beans (previously cooked by the kitchen staff), sour cream and fresh, chopped lettuce. Now our sopes were ready to top with guacamole and our choice of salsas. This tasty treat, along with crisp jicama spears drizzled with fresh lime, chile and salt was washed down with the popular Mexican rice beverage, horchata.

While Pablo and the young kitchen helpers prepared the kitchen classroom for the next course, Cat gave us a lesson in tequila that included tasting the spirits. We were invited to follow Pablo and get some more hands-on experience with Mexican cooking. At one table some of us prepared the ingredients for a corn and chile poblano soup. Another table chopped and prepared the small green- husk-covered tomatillos, onion, chiles and ground-up pumpkin seeds for the chicken dish. Another group began working with Pablo on the Mexican chocolate torte and the last group worked preparing the ingredients and stuffing the dried corn husks to make tamales. The teaching kitchen was bustling with activity at the prep tables and at the stove. The atmosphere in the room was light with a constant hum of chatter from students talking as they worked in a team. Photos were taken by many of us with each step of the meal's preparation.

While Pablo finished off the chicken breasts and Lucy and Daisy set the tables, we were invited to come into the kitchen shop for a cold cerveza and to browse and make purchases. The shop is colorful, well organized and is stocked full of fresh-ground spices, other dried ingredients from local farmers, tools like lime squeezers and molcajetes, cookbooks and delicious Mexican chocolate. The products Cat sells in the store reflect her seemingly passionate interest in preserving the sustainability of the local Maya farmers and fishermen who originally settled this little village.

We returned to our tables and the delicious meal that WE HELPED PREPARE was served. We savored the simplicity of the fresh ingredients that were used and the friendships that were made cooking side by side. Each participant was handed a LMCS shopping bag with his/her purchases and an embroidered apron. No one would soon forget the amazing experience we shared this day.

My husband, who spent the day biking, joined us at the end of our meal and was delighted to hear me retell one story after another about the history and culture of Mexican cuisine on our drive back to Tulúm.

P.S. When I got home, I checked out the fridge and assembled some fresh tomatoes, garlic, cilantro and chiles, and recreated Salsa Asada to be served with Huevos Rancheros the next morning at La Selva Mariposa.

To find out more about The Little Mexican Cooking School and Casa Caribe in Puerto Morelos, go to www.thelittlemexicancookingschool.com and www.casacaribe.com.

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate the #1 B&B in Tulúm, www.laselvamariposa.com . To rea