The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, July 27, 2007, Columns

The Santa Fe School of Cooking in Santa Fe, N.M., teaches food-preparation techniques that your mother might not have passed along. The school mixes the fun of watching someone else do the cooking with a great foodie store, and at the end of the three-hour class, the students get to eat the lesson.

Let me say up front that I like to cook. Sitting in a kitchen, sipping a glass of wine, and listening to a professional chef talk about cooking is almost as exciting as riding a New Mexican river in a raft.

Over the years I've learned my way around the cupboards pretty well, mostly by trial and error. I can make a very palatable meal, although my son won't let me forget a spinach lasagna with too much of the wrong something. I was a foodie before being a foodie was cool. It used to be called liking to eat and not being able to afford eating out.

I attended a Contemporary Southwest cooking class and was thoroughly entertained. Chef Rocky Durham, a Santa Fe native, made the three hours pass in what seemed like minutes. I wasn't as much impressed with the menu as I was with his side stories and food tips. Tumbleweed of Sweet Potato isn't something I'd try at home.

One of Durham's first tips was to buy local. A proud booster of the local economy, he uses as many local products in his recipes as he can. It's not just to support area farmers but because of the flavor. Local produce is almost always fresher, and local growing conditions affect the taste of the crop. Even something as ubiquitous as corn can display qualities unique to a region.

The class was seated at five round tables in front of a long counter with a stove top and a mirror on the ceiling to allow us a view into the pots. The noise of the street and the famous Santa Fe plaza occasionally drifted through the open windows, and mingled with the smell of the Apple Pinon Chutney cooking on the stove.

With the help of two assistants and prechopped ingredients, Durham sailed through the preparation of our meal with envious ease. While the food was cooking, the chef and cookbook author went through a long list of fun facts. For instance, heat changes the flavor of the food; think of the difference between raw and cooked peanuts. He then applied the theory to a big, green New Mexican chile pod roasted on the stove top, wrapped in Saran wrap, set aside for 10 minutes, and then easily separated from its thick skin.

"Recipes are just guidelines," Durham said. He supports experimenting and adjusting cooking instructions to personal taste. The judicious use of sodium helps to wake up all the other flavors, he said.

Occasionally, Durham would break into a commercial for something in the store, but it never was overbearing. In fact, after demonstrating the use of the expensive stove-top smoker, he told us how to make one using common kitchen utensils.

It was Durham's commercials for his home state that were some of the best insider information he divulged. He recommended we try the wines from Dixon, N.M. For lunch, Santacafe (231 Washington Ave.) offers the best Southwestern cuisine. For green chile burgers we needed to drive to the hamburger stand in Las Vegas, N.M. To find the best margarita, Coyote Cafe (132 W. Water St.) is the place to go. But if we wanted to taste a Santa Fe tradition, the Frito pie from the lunch counter in the Five and Dime General Store at the corner of the central plaza is as real as it gets.

The Santa Fe School of Cooking is at 116 W. San Francisco St. Classes cost between $45 and $125; some are hands-on, and others are just demonstrations like the one I took. The store sells mostly regional foods and spices and has a great selection of chile-pepper seeds for sale among the chile pepper pot holders. They even carry New Mexican-grown piñon nuts. For more information, call 505/983-4511 or go to

839th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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