La Casa de los Sabores Cooking School
holding court in class
visitors to Oaxacan cooking school La Casa de los Sabores
came away with nothing more than great recipes and a gastronomic
meal rich in unique herb- and spice-accented flavor combinations
that are the hallmark of Oaxacan cuisine, they would leave
fully satisfied. But a visit with owner and chef extraordinaire
Pilar Cabrera also inspires and sates travelers with a sensual
day-long immersion into sights, sounds, smells and, yes, tastes
and time-tested recipes of southern Mexico.
As always, a recent culinary odyssey with Pili, as she is
known, began at La Casa de los Sabores first thing in the
morning at 9:30 a.m. Over the next few hours, she introduced
me and the others in the class to the wisdom and experience
of her great matriarchal culinary tradition. Pili learned
the basics and the subtleties, including the mysteries of
the famed seven moles, from her grandmother, who learned from
her grandmother before her. She is a Oaxaca-born master of
southern Mexico cookery as well as international epicurean
trends, capable of sharing the secrets of preparing the most
multifarious meal with novice and expert alike in English
and in Spanish.
Our day began with Pili's informal talk about the menu and
the foods she was going to introduce us to in one of Oaxacas
colorful markets. The extra attention to the key ingredients
of Oaxacan cuisine kept us spellbound. What we will
achieve today with the chilis," she told us, "is
hot and tropical
with the Chile de agua, you
will see we use it not only for flavor but color as well,
and I will teach you how we keep this beautiful, brilliant
Once prepared with this knowledge, we all embarked on a shopping
trip to the well-known marketplace, Mercado de La Merced,
armed with multhued bolsas market bags
to carry the compras purchases. Pili had readied
a partial shopping list, but, she advised us, she always adds
"surprises," such as fresh foodstuffs which peasant
women from the mountains sometimes bring down.
When you have a chance to find something real special
or unusual, you buy and incorporate into the comida,"
she explained. "Today, for instance, we look for mushrooms,
because they grow so beautifully in the rainy season. Also,
we will see what kind of fresh fruit we can use for the dessert.
Her insights into the unique stores and small factories enriched
the short walk to the market. A rich bouquet drew us into
a mill that was making chocolate from scratch. As Pilar told
us about the ingredients cacao, cinnamon, almonds and
sugar the owner welcomed us with, do you want
The lesson began in earnest when Pilar began methodically
searching through the indoor and outdoor portions of the marketplace
and exchanging pesos for its plethora of fresh produce.
Look at that lady sitting there, what she has in those
bowls," she said. "She just brought those raspberries
and blackberries from the Sierra Juarez. We can use
them for the dessert. Notice how fresh and beautiful. The
mushrooms beside them, see the size, how big and the bright
this is the time of year, but not for
our recipe today
Over here, we dont buy the big
green tomatillos. I prefer the little ones grown locally
because they are not acidy like the others, and they have
much more flavor, perfect for the salsa we are preparing
She encouraged us to smell the herbs as she explained their
use in particular Oaxacan dishes. Today we use this
yierba santa for the mole, she said as
she was examining samples of the fragrant leaf until she'd
found the best and freshest for storage in one of our bolsas.
But we also use it to wrap fish and make tamales."
Andrea who had been in Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan coast
for six months, expressed the wish of many as she lamented,
I wish Id been in this class at the beginning
of our trip.
Our enthusiasm and our appetites grew once we returned to
Doña Pilis well-equipped, spacious kitchen. Its
wide counters, food preparation island and eight-burner gas
stove opening onto the lush courtyard dining area made this
cocina into an ideal classroom.
While we were reviewing printed recipe sheets for the dishes
we were about to prepare, she displayed our purchases in baskets
filled with the components of each recipe to help us learn
why we bought what. Then we spent the next two hours preparing
a sumptuous four-course meal.
Mary, her sous-chef, did preparatory work such as halving
limes, slicing chilies and preparing chicken stock and poultry
for the mole, freeing Pili to teach us the rituals and secrets
of Oaxacan culinary seduction. Sparks from Pilars hearth
of experience ignited even the most learned in the class as
she pointed, touched, and passed around each item we purchased,
telling us how it would be incorporated into the meal.
Once the actual cooking began, she put her bilingualism to
good use, giving instructions and asking questions in one
language, then repeating it in the other, as required by some
of her visitors. Necesito otro ayudante para quesillo,
I need another helper for the cheese. Pilar might as
well be a Maestra de Español, a Spanish teacher
Everyone learned each task and participated in the preparation
of virtually all menu items. And as the group peeled, diced
and sautéd, Pili's gems of information flowed on.
We learned much more than how to achieve flavor. Pilar taught
us techniques on how to attain desired tones and textures:
A lot of people ask me about cleaning mushrooms,
she said at one point, demonstrating the correct technique.
Now watch to see how we clean and seed this kind of
chili, she pointed out while preparing chile guajillo
for the mole. Once we start cooking these chile
de agua, we need to remember to always check them and
turn them constantly.
Look for the hot part of the comal
this is when you know when to turn it over, she said
while demonstrating the art and science of making tortillas.
Every once in a while a new recipe rolled off the tip of her
tongue as we worked
other dishes we could prepare with
this particular mole; different fillings for the quesadillas
such as potato, chorizo or huitlacoche, the
exotic corn mold ... the texture we would want for the corn
masa if we were making tamales rather than tortillas.
Soon, aprons removed, we were ready to feast. But first
now before we sit down, remember in the market I told
you there were two types of gusano worm? Here they
are, so who wants to try?" she asked. Now know
about mezcal. Taste this one Alvin brought, and tell us how
it seems to you. Heres another kind. What do you think
is different about this one?
We sat down at a table exquisitely set with local hand-made
linens, dishes and stemware. Bottles of Mexican and Chilean
red wine were already breathing. The fine music of Oaxacan
songstress Lila Downs serenaded us in the background.
Pilar reminded us that her grandmother and other relatives
usually prepare their comidas with meat and all vegetables
mixed together in the mole, a plate of rice on the
side, and a bowl of broth. But our meal, like all the recipes
she prepares with visitors at La Casa de los Sabores, would
be her modern take on all the elements and flavor combinations
of the best that contemporary Oaxacan cookery has to offer.
It was a celebration of every ingredient. We began with wild
mushroom, onion, tomato, chili and cheese stuffing in the
quesadillas de champiñones (mushroom quesadillas),
complemented perfectly by smoky salsa verde asada (green
sauce from the grill) served in its molcajete. Then
it was time to calm our palates with bright yellow crema
de flor de calabaza (cream of squash blossom soup), garnished
with a drizzle of real cream, toasted calabaza seeds
and indeed fresh squash blossoms. The main course or plato
fuerte was mole amarillo tender slices of
chicken breast atop a sea of aromatic deep saffron-colored
mole, accompanied by a medley of crunchy-fresh steamed
vegetables. To conclude, arroz con leche (rice pudding),
speared with a length of wild vanilla bean and crowned with
berries that had been picked only the day before.
I left convinced that the grandest chefs at the most trendy
Manhattan beaneries would be hard-pressed to compete with
this petite Oaxaqueña's ability to marry the regions
complex cooking with post-modern attention to color, texture
and flare. For Pilar Cabrera, it comes naturally. For the
rest of us, it comes with a visit to her home.
La Casa de los Sabores Cooking School is located at Libres
205, in downtown Oaxaca. Maximum class size is 8, with private
lessons available upon request. You can register for Pilars
classes by calling (951) 516-5704 or e-mailing her at: email@example.com
. ( Websites: http://www.laolla.com.mx
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
one or two Oaxaca tours with Alvin, regardless of whether
or not you stay at Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
). Alvin is the Oaxaca destinations expert for a major international
travel website, and a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed and
Breakfast Association, whose members provide an attractive
Oaxaca accommodations alternative to lodging in traditional
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