When you think about eating in Cancun and Cabo San Lucas, do you imagine only tourist taco menus and Mexican party bars? I know I did. But that was before I signed up for cooking classes that opened my eyes to the vibrant food traditions thriving in both of these Mexican resort towns.
Can Cook in Cancun
Chef Claudia Garcia Ramos and her husband, Lorenzo, host “Can Cook in Cancun” classes in their home near downtown Cancun. I joined a dozen other aspiring cooks for a day-long culinary experience celebrating the traditional foods of the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday. We arrived in a downpour and gathered on their large, covered patio where a ceramic pot of hot Mexican coffee awaited us.
Called “café de olla,” the coffee is made by steeping strong, ground beans with cinnamon and piloncillo (the dark cane sugar formed into a cone.) Lorenzo ladled the strained, sweet, steaming brew into mugs for us.
As the rain continued to pour, we enjoyed the rich coffee with freshly made churros.
And we met another member of the family, who is also a fan of churros.
When we were dried out and warmed through by the café de olla, Chef Claudia welcomed us into her professional kitchen theater. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Mexico City, Chef Claudia has made Cancun her home for over a decade. She is passionate about authentic Mexican cuisine.
Before she began to cook, Chef Claudia gave us a brief history and overview of the regional cuisines of Mexico, plus a bit of tortilla trivia. To wit: the Spaniards brought the Moorish technique of making flatbread to Mexico. In central and southern regions, the indigenous people of Mexico grew corn. And in northern Mexico, they grew wheat. That’s why the Mexican tortilla tradition includes both corn and flour varieties.
While we finished our Mexican culinary history lesson, Chef Claudia’s three assistants assembled ingredients for our first cooking exercise. A variety of tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles, onions and garlic had been blackening on a “comal,” which is a type of flat griddle used for dry roasting. We used these roasted vegetables, combined with other fresh ingredients, to prepare five varieties of salsas and pico de gallo, including a spectacular green tomatillo and avocado salsa and a tangy roasted red salsa.
We tasted salsas and sampled platters full of fresh Mexican fruits, washing it all down with hibiscus tea and Cerveza.
Then we moved on to preparing the main dishes for our afternoon feast. Our first course was lime soup with onions, garlic, and shredded chicken.
Chef Claudia’s assistants also prepared “cochinita pibil,” which is a regional Yucatán specialty of slow roasted pork in a rich marinade made with the juices of oranges, lemons, and limes. But the highlight of the Day of the Dead feast was a dish called “mucbipollo,” which is essentially a breaded meatloaf that is wrapped and baked in a banana leaf.
We baked our mucbipollo in the oven. But Claudia’s assistants told us that their families had different customs.
One remembered taking the banana leaf bundle to a local bakery to cook in a communal oven. Another recalled her father’s practice of burying the mucbipollo in an earth oven filled with hot stones.
When we finished cooking, we returned to the covered patio for a taste of tequila. We laughed and compared notes on the dishes we had prepared. As we finally sat down to share our Day of the Dead feast, the sun was just beginning to peek through the rainy-day clouds.
Check prices for cooking classes in Cancun
Casa de Colores
Donna Somerlott is an American expat who has been living, traveling and cooking in Mexico for over 35 years. She teaches cooking classes at her home, “Casa De Colores,” in Cabo San Lucas.
I contacted Donna through her website about a cooking class on a particular day. She was available and since I was the first person to inquire about that date, she let me choose the menu. On the day of the class, five other cooks and I joined Donna at her stunning, desert garden home for a half-day lesson on chiles rellenos.
Donna welcomed us to her open and airy upstairs kitchen with hibiscus tea and a brief introduction to authentic Mexican cooking.
She began our lesson with one of the most basic building blocks of Mexican cooking: salsas. First, we charred red Roma tomatoes on a hot, dry comal with onion, garlic, and serrano chiles. Instead of grinding the charred vegetables in a stone molcajete, however, we pulsed them in a blender – carefully adding the serrano chiles at the end to make sure that the heat of the “salsa de molcajete” was just right. (Donna reminded us that “pain is not a flavor” and recommended increasing the heat little by little.) The result was a light, fresh and flavorful salsa.
We set a portion of the salsa de molcajete aside to enjoy, then Donna taught us how to take it to the next level. She heated a splash of oil in a deep soup pot, poured the remaining salsa de molcajete into it and simmered the mixture for about ten minutes. Donna called the technique “frying” a salsa. The result was a thickened and more concentrated salsa similar to a marinara.
Next, Donna taught us to toast dried guajillo chiles on a comal, plump them in hot water, puree and sieve them. We added the loose guajillo paste to the thickened salsa for an even deeper, richer flavor.
We added cream to the thick, rich salsa and used it to finish the first of three chiles rellenos dishes. Using the dry heat of the comal, we toasted ancho chiles (which are dried poblano chiles), reconstituted them in hot water, seeded and stuffed them with shredded asadero melting cheese. Then, Donna showed us how to submerge the stuffed chiles in the sauce, allowing the heat of the salsa to melt the cheese and finish the dish.
After the stuffed chiles simmered, covered, for just a few minutes, they were ready to serve with just a sprinkle of fresh cilantro. Homemade chiles rellenos in a cilantro cream sauce. . . voila!
Using the same technique of toasting, reconstituting and seeding dried chiles, we next prepared a batch of chipotle peppers for stuffing. Because the chipotles (which are dried and smoked jalapenos) tend to be spicy, they pair well with sweet flavors. We sautéed sliced plantains in butter, added fresh squeezed orange juice and mashed them with raisins and crumbly queso fresco cheese. Then we stuffed the chipotles with the plantain mixture, breaded and crumb-fried them. Served with a bit of sour cream, they were perfect finger food to enjoy alongside a sampling of Mexican tequila.
For our last dish, we prepared fresh poblano peppers by roasting them over an open flame and removing the charred skin and seeds.
After stuffing the poblanos with shredded queso asadero, we dipped them in a light, fluffy egg batter and fried them quickly until golden brown.
Before going our separate ways, several of us eagerly purchased comal grills just like Donna’s, in hopes that we could recreate some of the dishes from Casa de Colores back at home.
If You Go
Can Cook in Cancun classes are offered weekly on Wednesday and Thursday. The cost for a full-day class is $115, with a 50% deposit due at the time of booking. Reservations can be made online several months in advance. (Check before your trip to make sure your class size has met the minimum number of participants.) Lorenzo handles confirmation and can arrange reasonable and convenient transportation from the Cancun hotel zone for about $15 per person.
To schedule a class at Casa de Colores in Cabo San Lucas, send Donna a message using the comment feature on the website. The cost for a half day class is $50 per person for a minimum of four participants. (The price increases slightly for less than four people per class.) You can pay in cash on the day of the class using either pesos or US dollars. Prior to the class, Donna will send you directions to the meeting point, which will differ depending on whether you are driving or taking a taxi.
LOOKING FOR A GREAT HOTEL IN CANCUN?
To perfectly compliment your trip to Cancun, rest your head at Paradisus Cancun. With over nine restaurants to choose from and a variety of other culinary experiences, this resort appeals to foodies on a whole other level. Guests can choose from cooking classes, sushi-making classes, wine tastings or even tequila seminars.
About the Author
Catherine Fancher is a Dallas-based attorney who decided to take some time off in 2012. She sold her house, put everything in storage and traded her high heels for hiking boots. More than 30 countries later, she is still traveling. Catherine’s photographs and stories about the places she has seen, the dishes she has eaten and the things she has learned along the way are collected on her website GreatTaste.Travel.