Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eating at American Family Restaurants

Some people might be surprised by this entry given I'm usually a bit of a food snob. My partner and I are regular feeders of our inner child and this means semi regular trips to geek conventions and theme parks. Now the occasional churro at Disneyland might be acceptable but there comes a point after a long day of queues and walking when what you want is a real meal. In the US tourist areas are usually flush with family restaurant chains where a decent (if homogeneous corporate kitchen designed) meal can be found at an affordable price.


You will almost certainly find such a venue attached to your local American mall

I think there's a place in the industry for this kind of food and tired, cranky and unable to face burgers and fries I've had a few dinners at such venues. Being a foreigner though I find the entire process daunting and outside my usual eating experience, a fine reason for a blog entry. For the purpose of simplicity I am going to use female and gender neutral pronouns, though service staff at such chains are usually well mixed between genders.

Getting a table



The hostess stand at a Buca di Beppo

On arrival you speak to the lead hostess usually behind a podium in the vestibule for table allocation. If it is busy your name and number of diners is taken until a table is ready. I always give my partner's name or a pseudonym since having an unusual name means every restaurant struggles to correctly write down my real name, similar to the Starbucks phenomenon. If it is especially busy you will be given a wireless buzzer informing you that your table is ready, similar to how 'self service' meal collection works at pubs in Australia. A small lounge, outside seating and an easy to access bathroom is usually provided while you wait.

Almost none of these restaurants take reservations, meaning you wait in line with recent arrivals and large groups can wait for extended periods for the few tables larger than a 4 top to be available. This almost always leads to complaints from seemingly endless number of patrons taking a birthday party to a Cheesecake Factory. If we're at a convention where I know we'll be competing for a table with 10000 other caffeine filled geeks this means I will always eat dinner very early or late (at 5pm or after 9pm) to avoid the 45+ min waiting period.

Another hostess calls your name when the table is ready. You are then lead to a table, this is the correct time to say you wish to be seated with particular requirements (booth, table, light, no light, away from bathrooms). I have discovered this is because each server (ie. waitress) is allocated certain tables and switching from one to another after you have been assigned means a change in allocation and ergo a change in the possible tips earned by your server. Not following this rule leads to cranky looks from the wait staff.

Ordering



The Menu(s)

Once seated you are usually presented with an impossibly large menu (delivered by your host) designed to meet the needs of any plausible combination of diners that could attend such a chain restaurant. For first time diners this can take up to 15 minutes to digest. For reference the Cheesecake Factory menu has over 200 items and usually comes in a book with an additional addendum for low calorie options. The calorie content of most meals is included for reference, though some stores only place the calorie value by section rather than by dish.


Breadsticks and dipping sauce at The Olive Garden

Your server will usually come by and present some kind of free 'snack' and request drink orders while you attempt to digest the menu. This is likely to be a basket of bread or chips or in some cases a salad. I have never understood how this is economical since eating an entire basket of bread sticks guarantees you will be able to eat less food you are actually paying for, but since most of these restaurant servings are designed to be larger than a single person can eat then presumably it doesn't prevent you spending the same amount of money. Most of these chains will offer some kind of "more than you can possibly eat" option such as endless pasta, shrimp or salad or a 3 course meal that should serve 5 that comes under $20. For families on a budget this must be an incredible boon, at scale they are able to offer food prices that you as a family could never cook for this price. Should you choose one of these options you should go in knowing that no mere mortal could eat all 3 courses comfortably, you are better off leaving half of each serving.



A "small" platter of pasta at Buca di Beppo is designed to feed two people but often has enough for 4 servings for under $20

The server will come and take your order, usually bringing your unbelievably large drinks at the time. If you have ordered a non alcoholic drink this will come with free refills, often topped up without request. Do not feel compelled to finish your drink each time, as this will lead to a busy server, a cold tummy and a bursting bladder! The exception to the free refills are alcohol, milkshakes and juices since these tend to be labour intensive and made from expensive ingredients. In some restaurants a sommelier or bartender may bring your drink instead of your server.

The main meal


The kitchen in these corporate affairs is treated like a factory line and so if you have ordered more than one course these will often come out as soon as they are cooked with little regard for the pace of your eating. Sometimes you may find your appetizers come second or all your dishes come at once. Servers will periodically check in on you to see if you need drink (or bread/salad) refills or if there is a problem with your meal. Bus boys will periodically check in on you to see if plates need to be taken away. Under no circumstances should you ask a server not assigned to you or a bus boy to bring something, as this again violates the service tip social rules. If you make this mistake as a foreigner they will usually tell you that they will fetch your server. In California it is fairly common for non wait staff (eg. Kitchen staff, bus boys, custodial staff) to not speak fluent English; so they can be also daunted by any request you are making to them.


This food combination of "half" a sandwich, salad and soup is served on a platter sized for a large roast for only $10.95USD at The Cheesecake Factory


Once the meal arrives it will be huge, possibly leading you to laugh at the ridiculous platter of food presented for one person. The only way to avoid this experience is to order from the 600 calorie or less page which each chain has. Generally we choose to skip any kind of appetizer knowing that this is true and concentrate on the main meal (inexplicably called an Entree in the US). The first time I ate at such a place I ordered a dish for each course and then looked horrified at how much food was taken away and thrown out.


The giant portion you couldn't possibly eat is given its own branded "doggy bag" and box to take home and finish later

The usual etiquette is that your server will bring a box for you to take the leftovers home and in fact most Americans believe that this extra food is built into the price. Many are budgeting for the fact that the price includes lunch for tomorrow; the Olive Garden even build this into their marketing offering a "buy one, take one" meal deal. Even if you do not ask for a 'doggy bag' then your server will usually offer one; if you are travelling and in a hotel room without kitchen facilities they will look at you oddly if you say no. On the plus side this means that my original fears about how much food must be wasted in America are lessened. If you are uncomfortable with the wastage then consider taking the leftovers and giving them to someone needy on the street.


A typical pasta dish at The Olive Garden $15.49USD includes unlimited salad and breadsticks

The food is decent, if unremarkable across the board. Warm comfort food classics done reasonably well, nothing fancy, but definitely satisfying.

If there is a problem with your meal this is cause for alarm! Chain restaurants like this focus on efficient, friendly reliable service. Any change to the garnishes, any time an allergy has been forgotten in ordering, any time something is cold or damaged is a ding on the reputation of the company. Each time we have had a problem we have immediately been sent a restaurant manager to discuss and apologise, frequently we are offered a discount on our bill. Sometimes this occurs even when there is not a problem as the manager is checking that the service and experience is up to code. As foreigners this is a little embarrassing for us and sometimes leads to cost benefit analysis of mentioning any mistake with the food. As someone with food allergies this care and attention is appreciated though and one assumes that this is a response to the high litigation in the US and the ubiquity of digital rating systems for restaurants.

The end of the meal


Once you have eaten your main meal and negotiated about leftovers you will be asked if you want coffee and dessert. If so your table will be cleaned (more bus boys) and new - possibly different - menus will be brought (by your server); otherwise we skip to the negotiation of the bill.

Dessert will be fancy - drizzled with caramels, sauces or nuts and sprinkles - and almost certainly as many calories as the rest of your meal. Some chains are starting to realise that most people are too full to eat another bite after their main dish and started offering "mini selections" of 400 calories or less. It is rare that we would order dessert, I struggle with weight control and the portion sizes make this difficult anyway.


A panna cotta "mini dessert" and coffee at The Olive Garden

If I am really hankering for a dessert I will usually order only an appetizer course with no main or no savoury food at all. My partner has a sweet tooth and a larger stomach though; sometimes he orders dessert or we order it "to go" (ie. Takeaway) and he will eat it at home after a suitable digestion period. The coffee will be pre-Starbucks era American drip filter coffee without exception. Weak, watery and very forgettable, your only choices will be "regular or decaf?" and you will be given cream and sugar / sweeteners without needing to ask. Some chains stock dairy free creamer or soy milk for the lactose intolerant. Coffee is treated as a soft drink, you will be brought refills if you sit for long enough.


The cake display at The Cheesecake Factory

Now finally the eating is over and before you must roll your distended stomach to the parking lot the bill must be navigated. This is another entirely daunting experience as a foreigner.

What you're paying for depends entirely on where you are and how many people are at the table. Some states have sales taxes, some have health care stipends for the staff, some may charge for the boxes or plastic bags you are taking home. Large groups will usually have a flat service charge (ie. tip) included so read carefully. Otherwise the bill you are paying does not include the tip and you must now decide what to pay.


Philosophy on tipping is hotly debated in the US but being clear - service staff are not paid a fair living wage in America and tipping is taxed and considered part of their salary. Forgetting to tip or choosing not to tip is punishing a minimum wage worker who is not responsible for the system. Standard amounts range from 10% to 25% and the choice is left to you as a customer to decide what is fair for the service you received. 15-18% would be considered a normal amount for standard service in California. One of the benefits of a large family restaurant is that they will often include a guide on the bill for how much a 15 - 20% tip would be so that you don't have to do the maths yourself. Rounding up to an even amount (ie paying and odd number like 17% to reach a $20 or $50 multiple) is perfectly acceptable. You can pay the tip and the bill with your credit card, we usually pay the bill on a card and pay the tip in cash. This ensures that the server will receive their tip immediately rather than having to have it processed through the accounting system but does require you to carry small bills. If you receive very poor service and wish to comment on this with your tip leave $1 rather than no tip; this signifies that you have not forgotten the tip but wish to make a statement.

Unlike Australia there is no concern about bill splitting; choosing to pay on multiple credit cards is no problem. In a large group this can be very useful if you wish to split the bill between 4 or more people or if corporate travelers are trying to stay under a per diem. Just tell the server how much of the bill to charge to each card. Once the credit bill is signed or cash is left you may leave this in the payment folder on the table and exit the restaurant.

The Good and Bad of Family Restaurant Eating


At the end of the day these restaurants are popular and common for a reason. They are the ultimate in lowest common denominator eating. Comfortable food, comfortable surroundings and comfortable service are the aim of the game.

Pros:

  • You can guarantee a familiar experience and menu across many locations in many states making it a good choice for travel
  • Close to tourist sites in easy walking or driving distance
  • Unlimited refills on soft drinks are a boon after a hot day walking in the sun or around a convention floor
  • Clean, efficient facilities like bathrooms and car parks are better than waiting in line at conventions or theme parks
  • Low calorie and allergy options abound 
  • Budget friendly food - $20-30 per head ensures an abundant amount 

Cons:

  • Encourages over eating or food wastage
  • Interactions with many unnecessary staff - usually 6+ people involved in delivering your dining experience
  • Typically uses factory farming and food preparation
  • Sometimes no alternative small eateries exist near tourist centres
  • Heavy family attendance and large size restaurants mean these are big and noisy establishments

Choosing the right chain


There are a huge number of these establishments and many can be found around tourist sites so what's my thinking on these?

The Cheesecake Factory - Probably the most familiar and frequently mentioned on TV. They do stock cheesecakes but the main point of this chain is huge diner/bistro meals, huge menus and family eating. Comfort food options like pasta, burgers, sandwiches and small plates are well presented efficiently. Usually this is our go to chain if family eating and I have yet to have a bad experience in one of their restaurants.

Bucca di Beppo - Family style Italian comfort food that is surprisingly good quality. Cheap pastas and salads abound, deep fried Italian American appetizers like mozzarella sticks and fried ravioli are a hit. I go for Classic Italian fare like Saltimbocca or simple pastas. Their store in Anaheim is the best option for dinner when visiting Disneyland or the Anaheim Convention Center.

Olive Garden - Another Italian American chain known for endless salad and good quality classics like spaghetti and meatballs or meat lasagne. Italian style accompaniments like antipasto, red wine and Italian pastries are rotated in a seasonal selection. A more casual affair than Bucca di Beppo.

Chili's - Casual Tex Mex diner food with kid friendly options like tacos, burgers and flatbreads. Free chips and dip, large burritos, fresh fajitas and more make this a great roadside stop on a long drive.

Famous Dave's - Smokehouse BBQ and sticky sauces presented in a beer and ribs family environment. Huge servings of meat and sides like baked beans, grilled corn, cornbread, mac and cheese or fried pickles make this a stick to your ribs affair. Expect paper table cloths and sticky fingers, make sure you've walked off your calories before you go!

BJ's or Gordon Biersch - Only America could take the concept of a  micro brewery and gastro pub and turn it into a mass marketed chain restaurant concept. Honestly though the results aren't bad. Pub friendly comfort food like burgers, pizzas, salads and small plates and 'own brand' beers with seasonal offerings come in a family restaurant efficiency feel. Ask to sit by the bar to enjoy your favourite sports team on large screens while you indulge in beer and wings.

We avoid chains which specialise in seafood such as Red Lobster or Bubba Gump Shrimp company. The same philosophy of cheap large portions ensures that seafood is factory farmed and often shipped from Asian food factories with dubious reputations. We also avoid themed restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe and especially Outback Steakhouse because as Australians the premise is embarrassing. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

What I'm watching right now: Films for Foodies

Those hoping for a new food TV will be disappointed; there's no new reality TV reigning in my house. Instead it seems it is the season for food film to take the crown. The unfortunate reality is that good human stories of life, love and the senses are not for Hollywood, but support your local independent cinema and seek out these gems. These are all uplifting and heart warming cinema outings.


The Hundred Foot Journey


Helen Mirren stars as the cranky Michelin starred restaurateur faced with the changing times when an Indian family moves into her classical French village and starts a food revolution. Some good laughs and touching moments as family, friendship and the rules of classical cuisine are explored. 




Chef


Jon Favreau's very personal movie project returns him to his Indie roots but show the loyalty he's gained with a stellar cast including John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson. A touching father and son tale with a sidebar of social media blundering hilarity. Do yourself a favour and take the time to listen to Favreau's interview on The Nerdist where he talks at length about how and why he chose to make this low budget film after box office success with the likes of Iron Man.




Le Chef


Jean Reno stars in this quintessentially French film about a 3 Michelin Star chef lost in a post Molecular Gastronomy world. Michael Youn is positively hilarious as the bumbling but lovable Chef with a heart of gold who just needs to keep a job for more than one day. Foodies will recognise some nose thumbing at the likes of Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Paul Bocuse. In French with Subtitles.





The Search for General Tso


As a foreigner living in the US American Chinese is... confusing at best, mostly fusion dishes created in East or West Coast kitchens. General Tso's Chicken is one such dish that is synonymous with takeout Chinese food in the US but relatively unknown outside America. This documentary explores the American obsession with a dish that confuses the Chinese. In English with some subtitled interviews in Chinese.



A Tale of Samurai Cooking - A true love story (Bushi no kondate)

Japanese themes of family, loyalty, honour and obsession are explored in this mild but delightful story of a woman with an amazing palette who marries into a family of retainer chefs during Edo Japan. Aya Ueto is delightful as the mild mannered Oharu and Toshiyuki Nishida stars as the warm and fatherly head of clan. The Japanese food ideal of deep local knowledge is explored through Kaga specialties. In Japanese with Subtitles.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Harry's Grill, Cancun Mexico

Formal steakhouse dining isn't for everyone, but it's my perfect way to celebrate. After a few nights in an all you can eat resort in Cancun it was time to head out and get something different and we weren't disappointed. Our night at Harry's was the perfect kind of meal - great food, great company and great service. 


Harry's is all about great meat and good wine with old fashioned service. A pre dinner Martini and a post dinner Cognac kind of place. There's even a balcony fit to bursting with Hispanic men sharing cigars. If you are the kind of person that fears calories and machismo, this is probably not for you. This would make a wonderful place to take business partners or a convention meal; an entire table behind us was sporting high end Swiss watches and shouting about finances. 


Aging meat on display


Choosing your cut

In the theme of the old fashioned steakhouse was the presentation of choices; not only did they bring us half a butcher's window to help choose our meat cut but later they would do the same with a rolling aperitif bar.

Now unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the entire menu, and their menu online conveniently forgets to include prices. Being clear though this was an expensive meal and we ordered as much alcohol as we did food. The Bill for two very excitable foodies came to around $500USD

We ordered waaaaay too much food, but the menu was ... everything we love and so we couldn't help ourselves but over order and try everything. We were on vacation after all! 


Rob Roy


Cucumber Martini with Chilli Lime salt ring

Each drink came with the full shaker making a Martini more like two. The bar staff are excellent and made both to order and menu items with flair. 


Fresh baked brioche with whipped butter and fresh sauces (included)


Toasted flat breads (included)


Beef Carpaccio

Another favourite - raw beef hammered thin and served with fresh herbs and spices. 



Empanadas - Blue cheese and Sundried Tomato & Six Cheese

These were amazing, no street food here! High end cheeses are folded into flakey shortening pastry and then fried. Served with fresh chili and salsa verde.


Jalapeno Mash

Honestly we didn't need this in the end  and barely touched it but I think my man got excited by the idea of rich buttery potatoes with Jalapeno chilies. 


Caprese

Honestly it was like they'd rung up our psyche and asked our favourite sites - while the boy squeed about the potatoes I ordered this caprese and then discovered it was a huge platter full.


Creamed Spinach

Again, we didn't need this at all but again... creamed spinach is one of our favourite things. They could only have topped it by adding a soft duck egg. 


Filet Mignon 8oz 420MXN

Usually my man prefers big macho cuts of steak but I think having gone a little wild on the appetizers he thought he'd order a more sensible petite filet. Melting on top are large salt crystals.


Bone in Cowgirl cut 16oz Steak 580MXN

When the staff so clearly treat their meat reverentially it seemed a must to get a bone in steak for that marrow infused flavour. This Cowgirl option is a clean cut Rib Eye on the bone, frenched in the "lollipop" style. Grilled to perfection with salt. 


2011 Terrazas Reserva Malbec

Of course good Latin beef deserves good Latin wine and there's nothing we like more with steak than Argentinian Malbec. Unfortunately most the vintages older than this 2011 were drifting off into ridiculous price territory. Of course were you in the mood to spend money they had a cellar to support any high end choice from Australian Grange to Californian Screaming Eagle.


Brownie Sundae

Having been on a diet for months it was time to blow it all with one dessert. This brownie was studded with nuts and the whole thing was topped with salted caramel. 


They billed these as "mini desserts" and so my partner ordered 2... at this point the calorie count was basically laughable so it seemed fitting.


Mini Lemon Cheesecake


Molten Lava Cake

There may have been some cognac and port that came with the dessert and coffee but honestly we were a bit tiddly by this point and I forgot to take pictures. 


Fairy Floss (Cotton Candy) included

The bill on arrival was accompanied by this huge paddle of Fairy Floss, for what I'm sure was about 20c worth of spun sugar they had the entire dining room full of otherwise serious adults wooping and cheering. 

The whole meal was absolute perfection, short of one soft egg and one order of liver parfait this was basically every single one of our favourite foods in one sitting. Add in immaculate service and a lovely setting, vacation relaxation and wonderful company... this may have been one of the best meals of my life. Had I realised how rich and plentiful the servings would have been I'd have split this meal into two visits. We chose to walk home to our resort to try and pace off some of the wine and the fat.

Harry's Grill Cancun

http://www.harrys.com.mx/

High end steak house cuisine

Harry's Grill CancĂșn
Boulevard Kukulkan Km. 14.2
Zona Hotelera
77500 CancĂșn, QROO, Mexico

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review: Mazza Luna, San Francisco

After a movie outing at the local cinemas on Van Ness with some friends we were looking for a local eatery. For those not familiar with the layout of San Francisco this is a major thoroughfare through the city and not really prone to local eateries. There are some great diners nearby but we were looking for something a little more refined. Mazza Luna is a wonderfully authentic Lebanese small plates restaurant. 


Now it was early on a Sunday evening that we were going for dinner but I admit I was scared by the lack of patrons on arrrival. We shouldn't have been worried though since the restaurant was soon packed with cheery diners. 

Given that we had a group we decided on the banquet option - all of the restaurant's best dishes in portions that you would be hard pressed to finish. Despite having several ravenous foodies at the table we ended up taking most of the food home at the end of the meal.




I will say that their wine list is not that great and featured heavily on strong Mediterranean wines. They were out of most of the items I wanted to order but this local Zinfandel was more than adequate and soft enough to sit well with the salty and rich food. 



Haloumi $8.00USD

It's important to note that there were a couple of dishes we were really craving that were not included in the group sampler and so we ordered separately. This haloumi was amazing; I assume it is made on site or at the very least from a local cheese specialist. Fresh, morish, soft and not too salty. Just perfect with wholemeal pita.



Roasted Cheese Dates $10.00USD

Also not included with the banquet, but too amazing to pass up. Roasted dried palm fruits were stuffed with a soft goat cheese and served warm. The sticky dried fruit makes it hard to eat more than a couple but these were amazing and I will be recreating this dish at home. 

The rest of the food was included with our sampler at a cost of $22.00USD per person and well worth every penny. The servings were fit for a sultan and came with seemingly endless fresh high quality pita bread. 


Mezze platter - hummus, baba ghanoush, labneh and ouzi

All made in house and with great fresh textures; topped with amazing garnishes like fresh spices, pine nuts and roasted lamb.

Fatet Betnjan

Sweet soft roasted eggplant is covered with a tangy yoghurt sauce and toped with fried pita and pine nuts. Just amazing, the texture of the vegetables was fantastic. 


Arnabeet

Fried, spiced cauliflower topped with a garlic tahini sauce. This dish reminds me of Aloo Gobi the Indian cauliflower dish. 



Fatoosh

A fresh light salad topped with more crunchy fried pita. The mint/citrus dressing on this salad was double take worthy and cut through some of the heavier dishes on display. 

The small plates and dips really lend themselves to a family style serving and the group sampler was the perfect way to try their food. A Vegetarian banquet also exists; in fact owing to the family style pick and choose approach and the type of food this would make a perfect location for groups with many food issues. Vegetarians, vegans, lactose intolerants and low carb eaters could all easily choose from the menu here. 

Service was unremarkable given the family style eating, but the food did come very fast and fresh. Highly recommended. 

Mazza Luna 



Upscale Lebanese food and small plates

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Snapshot: Blue Front Cafe, San Francisco

The Blue Front Cafe is my go to casual eatery in The Haight, the oh so San Francisco hippie heartland. Nestled in between the vintage stores and bong shops there are some really great eateries. 


Blue Front never fails to hit good quality food and friendly service and is a great place to stop before or after shopping. They do a range of cafe stables like wraps, sandwiches and brunch dishes but I come for the Mediterranean platters. 

Though they never quite mention where the owners are from I assume Greece with some of the flourishes that come with the food rather than say Turkish or Lebanese. Dolmades and feta abound. 


Chicken Schwarma Platter $12.95USD

As well as meat the platter comes with a greek salad, spiced rice, felafel, dolma and some of the best Hummus to be found in the Bay Area. A basket of warm pita is provided to dip, wrap and devour!


Gyros Plate $12.95USD

More of the same with different meat options; I like the fact that they have a number of Lamb options since  Lamb rarely seems to make an appearance on American menus. All the meats I've tried here have been delicious, if you've walked off the calories then I would recommend the Kofta. 

Another great option for fussy eaters since there are many low carb and vegetarian options; request a vege platter without the cheese for easy and satisfying Vegan.

Service is super casual, it's a pay and seat yourself, wait for your number sort of place. The coffee is decent and there's a huge range of cold drinks. Sit at the window to people watch the very random assortment of folk that visit Haight St.

Blue Front Cafe


Casual cafe and Mediterranean eats
Sandwiches and brunch items 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Little Mexican Cooking School, Puerto Morelos Mexico

The thing that I like to do most when I have free time is cook so when we were on Vacation in Mexico we took the time to visit the Little Mexican Cooking School. The school is located in a small hotel in Puerto Morelos a picturesque fishing town not far from Playa del Carmen, about a half hour drive from the hotel zone in Cancun. 



The day that we attended was the first time their current chef was returning after a break so he was jovial but nervous - without reason! The entire class was well organised and entertaining and the recipes were wonderful. He took the time to plan out the cooking so that our meal was all prepared and ready to eat as a multi course meal.  



We started with some lectures on the local food and how to prepare it, some misconceptions about Mexican food and the history of some of the major ingredients. Then we moved into the large kitchen to prepare our dishes; a 4 course meal. 



For some of the attendees this included some basic guidance on knife skills, seasoning, mise en place and kitchen cleanliness but it was a great tutorial for the beginner and experienced cook alike. The range of dishes included salsas, soup, appetizers, a main dish and a pastry and covered a great variety of cooking skills was covered like baking, frying, sauteing and more. 


The kitchen is large and well kept and perfectly suited for cooking classes, I was particularly enamoured of this above stove mirror system which meant the whole room could see what the chef was doing on the stove. I wish that my school had had something similar for home economics classes as a teen. 

The recipes we cooked that day focused on Caribbean Mexican food; tropical and fresh flavours combined with the familiar spicy comfort food that many were used to eating Mexican in the US.  



The class took up a whole morning finishing with the meal as a lunch so be prepared to spend an entire day at the school. This was well worth the time out of our sight seeing and relaxing schedule though and was one of the more memorable vacation days we've had travelling. 

On leaving the school they provided us with a recipe book of everything we had done that day and a lovely apron each, that I use constantly. Here I'm going to give one of the recipes that they provided but I will say that the experience, the hands on fun and the time we had as a couple make the cooking school experience worth far more than the recipes we walked away with. Much recommended.


Chilled avocado soup with tortilla sticks and chilli oil


Fresh potato and corn gorditas; including all the salsas and salads


Crusted tuna fillet with mango salsa and cilantro lime rice


Chocolate Truffle Tart with Spicy Pecans


Spicy nut topping

1/4 cup dark agave
2tspn ground cinnamon
1 tspn ground orange peel
1/4 tspn dried chile arbol (ground)
2 tbspn brown sugar
2 cups pecans
1/2 tspn salt

Method

  • Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper and set asside
  • Mix the agave, cinnamon, orange peel, chile arbol, brown sugar and salt together in a small bowl
  • Place the nuts in a skillet and set over medium heat. 
  • Add the nuts to the skillet and cook while stirring frequently for 4 -6 minutes until they start to brown and a toasty scent is found
  • Add the spice mix to the skillet and stir continuously until the mixture thickens and coats the nuts, approximately 2-3 mins
  • Transfer the nuts to the sheet pan and separate with a spatula. Allow the nuts to cook then use to top pastry or on their own with cheese or dried fruit

Crust

3 cups plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup cold butter cut into cubes
1 large egg
1 tbspn white vinegar
3 - 5 tbspns cold water

Method
  • Preheat oven to 220C (425F)  
  • In a small bowl mix egg, vinegar and 3 tbspn water
  • In a food processor combine flour and salt and pulse slowly. Add buttter and pulse until you get a small crumb consistency
  • Add the egg mixture and continue to pulse until the dough comes clean off the sides of the mixer
  • Portion dough into 2 equal disks and rest the dough in the fridge for 1 hour
  • Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface into a 20cm (8 inch) circle 
  • Transfer to a shallow tart pan, cover the bottom of the pastry with a circle of foil and 2 cups of dry beans (to dry bake the pastry flat)
  • Bake pastry for 10 minutes
  • Remove the beans and foil and continue cooking for another 10 mins until light brown in colour
  • Rest the crust for 30 mins to cool before adding the filling

Filling

1 cup heavy cream
5 oz (125g) dark chocolate
1 tablet Mexican chocolate
1/4 cup melted butter
2tbpsn toasted ground coffee
2 oz liqueur - Xtabentun for Mexican flavour or your choice of spirits
2 tspn Vanilla extract 
1 tspn ground cinnamon

Method
  • In a small pot bring the heavy cream to a boil and then take off the stove
  • Mix the chocolates and butter into the cream folding well until you see that the butter is encorporated
  • Add the rest of the ingredients to the chocolate and mix
  • Pour the chocolate mixture into the tart shell and place in the fridge for 3 hours to set completely
  • Top with spicy nuts, cream or other garnish of your choosing
  • Serve with fresh berries and wild honey

The Little Mexican Cooking School

http://www.thelittlemexicancookingschool.com/

A hands on, all day cooking class 
Fun for beginners and foodies alike

Av Javier Rojo Gomez
77580 Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo
Mexico