It’s funny how things have a way of repeating themselves. It’s funny how things have a way of repeating themselves. A couple of weeks ago I published a post about my visit to a pottery workshop and then, days later, my account of the Tequila Festival. Here the two were combined, with a masterclass on the subject of Mexican food.
I had met up with Simon Chappelow, the Zest Food Project Coordinator, at the Harrogate Food and Drink Festival in late June and he invited me along to Leeds Cookery Club to witness one of the courses, so I had a scan down the calendar and thought that this Taste of Mexico would be just the thing. How right I was, it was a blast. I have visited Mexico a couple of times, in 1989 and 1991, when I took a drive down the West Coast of the USA ending in San Diego where you can get a tram to the border and cross over to Tijuana. I was struck by the difference in food that a couple of miles can make with the American chilli con carne being nothing like anything in the country from which it purports to come. I accept that things might have changed in the intervening 30 years and the Tex-Mex influence more prevalent to cater to the expectations of foreign tourists, a bit like the chip shops in Benidorm.
The food we prepared on Wednesday night was certainly the authentic stuff. I am not normally a participant in extreme sports, but whilst South of the Border I did sample Pork and Black Beans from one of the seediest looking food stalls I have ever seen. It was on a dusty side street but had the longest queue, seemingly totally comprised of locals, always two good signs so I gave it a shot. Although the dish prepared by we students was cooked in far more hygienic surroundings, it certainly transported me back to the mean streets of TJ.
All of this was thanks to the skill of Chef Dan and, the most versatile and hard working kitchen assistant on the face of the planet, Anne. Speaking of faces, I visited Leeds Cookery School in 2019 as part of Leeds Indie Food Festival and she had a permanent smile on hers which was still much in evidence these three years on. She is either an extremely happy person or the victim of a facelift which has gone very wrong. I believe it to be the former, but should it be the latter, I would like the name of the plastic surgeon responsible so that I can send a few of the people I know a voucher for Christmas in order that the same fate might befall the miserable so-and-sos.
Anyway, on arrival at Leeds Cookery School I had a chat with Simon who told me that it is a Social Enterprise operated by Zest, a charity whose aim is to level up the prospects of those who live in Leeds. He said that there is a 10 year difference in life expectancy between the most affluent residents compared to the poorest. All profits go to Zest which also operates other facilities at the premises. Please go to https://zestleeds.org.uk/ for full details of their work. Other ways in which they help the people in the area is by having special cookery classes for men who find themselves living alone and unable to fend for themselves properly.
I was told by Simon that there were two no-shows for the class and he asked if I would like to take part rather than just be an observer in order to write about it. He convinced me by saying that the food would only go to waste should I not take up the offer, and I would have hated for that to happen. He then left us in the more than capable hands of our chef for the evening, Dan.
We were asked to take our places at a workstation complete with chopping board, induction hob, various implements and a bowl covered in what looked suspiciously like a hotel issue shower cap, which indeed it proved to be, so next time you are staying at Claridge’s don’t forget to take advantage of the free bathroom product to add to your kitchen drawer.
The bowl contained masa harina flour and a pinch of salt so that we could get cracking making the tortillas. This was a straightforward process and much easier than you would think. Once kneaded, the sausage-shaped dough was returned to the bowl and shower-capped in order to prove.
The next step was to get the pork and beans on the hob to begin cooking. Although Dan took us through the mechanics of this specific dish he kept digressing – you wouldn’t catch me doing that! – giving us more general tips such as how to use a knife properly, how prevent your cut avocado from discolouring during storage, stressing the importance of keeping your preparation area tidy and, most important of all to we chaps, to wash your hands in cold water when you have cut a chilli and before you touch your eye area, or before you go to the loo! You never get Delia or Nigella telling you that, some of us have had to learn the hard way.
The ingredients were pre-measured with small tubs containing minced pork, black beans, chopped tomato, a mixture of spices which provide the perfect Mexican Seasoning, and half an onion, hence the knife skills bit. Once this was bubbling away nicely Dan came round to see if we wanted him to add a splash of rehydrated ancho chilli liquid to give the pork an added kick. Of course I did.
It was then that a tray of amazingly colourful ingredients was brought to us so that we could make the Guacamole and a Pineapple Salsa. I have made guacamole before but usually succumb to the supermarket tub as I find that a fruit makes too much for one person, however, now that I know the secret of keeping it green rather than letting it go brown, I will have another go. Although made at about 7.00pm on Wednesday, it looked and tasted just as fresh when I finished the tub off by having it on toast for breakfast on Friday morning.
When all was done we were ready to heat the tortillas in a dry frying pan after ripping bits of dough from the ‘sausage’ and putting them in a taco press, an implement which is a stranger to my stash of kitchen tools, but won’t be for much longer as these wraps are so simple to make and, although I might be biased here, taste better than the bought variety.
Unfortunately I had to leave when the course was finished, but the rest of the students had a taste of Dan’s version and compared it with their own. They seemed such a friendly and interesting bunch that I wished I could have stayed on for a bit of a natter but that is the price you pay for living out of town and being reliant on public transport. The journey seemed even longer with the aroma of the food, which I had transferred to containers to take home, wafting around the buses. I am sure that my fellow passengers appreciated my firing up their appetites so late in the evening.
Not only were all the ingredients provided but there was also a selection of posh soft drinks and snacks to keep the hunger pangs at bay until dinner was served. Thinking that I wouldn’t be staying for the full duration I had had a sandwich before leaving town so I didn’t participate. I am a cook of the school which believes in constant tasting so that did the trick, and a couple of slices of pineapple and tomato didn’t make it as far as the salsa!
I heartily recommend the courses held at Leeds Cookery School as they are very well presented and both Dan and Simon, who I have seen doing demonstrations before, pitch the instructions at just right level as well as both being most affable chaps. You also get a copy of the recipes and ingredients so that you can repeat the exercise at your leisure. To top all this there is the sense of achievement in a job well done and the bonus of Anne whose smile and constant cheeriness mean that it is impossible to go home feeling anything other than elated.
OK, I don’t want to put anyone off attending one of these courses, especially as the profits go to a great cause, but I have several readers in the USA, on the Continent and other strange places outside Yorkshire who can’t get to Gipton Fire Station very easily, so I will divulge the secret of green guacamole as they are suffering enough. You need to add plenty of lime juice and don’t throw away the avocado stone but put it in an airtight container with the guacamole so as to ‘fool’ the flesh into thinking it is still a whole fruit. If that doesn’t work for you blame Simon as he told me that. I dare not ignore his advice because, as everyone knows, when the instruction begins with ‘Simon says’ then it must be done.
For more details of Leeds Cookery School please go to https://www.leedscookeryschool.org.uk/
All photographs by Stan Graham. Featured image from Leeds Cookery School