Santa Fe, New Mexico, has so many wonderful local restaurants that are not chains — 250 in all –that a visitor could have a fine time doing nothing but eating out here. The town has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the U.S., with 400-+ restaurants for a population of 77,000.
But eventually, most visitors have to go home and cook, and so do all the locals who are not trust fund babies. That’s where the Santa Fe School of Cooking comes in to help. In fact, this school, that specializes in Southwest and New Mexican classes and offers chile workshops, Native American cultural food classes, restaurant tours and specialty events such as wine fiestas, has been going strong for 26 years with seemingly more offerings every year. You can take demo classes where you watch the chef/instructors do everything, or you can jump into the demonstration kitchen for hands-on classes in foods that use the local specialties of this part of the country. Classes in tamales, rellenos, burritos, salsa, and both red and green chile workshops are available year-round, with menu ideas for special Christmases in Santa Fe, cooking inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, barbecues and Southwest breakfasts, traditional New Mexican Christmases, native harvest feasts and the like.
At an autumn hands-on class students met chef/instructor Michelle Chavez, lead instructor for the Santa Fe Community College culinary arts program, a former chef de cuisine for the Professional Golf Association’s Champions Dinner in Rochester, N.Y., and chef an one time or another for Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Vincent Fox of Mexico. She is a chicken farmer and mountain biker, among other talents, and is brimming with historical stories about the food of Northern New Mexico. “Corn is a deity here,” she noted, while getting the class busy chopping onions and summer squash and zucchini and chiles, in addition to adding corn, to “Calabacitas,” a dish that is layered and baked using much of the most iconic produce of this area. Oaxaca, Mexico, she noted as the group started to make corn tortillas, is the birthplace of corn, and that vegetable is rich in niacin.
Chavez has a colorful way of describing how to cook various items. The way to make the best tortilla dough, she told the group, was to mix it “until it feels like your earlobe; that’s the consistency you want.” While guiding the group in creating cheese enchiladas, Chavez advised they “think of butter and cheese as chewy milk.”
Her dessert instruction for that day was for a traditional Easter Sunday dessert representing the Crucifixion called “Capirotada,” in which torn pieces of French bread represents the body of Christ, Madeira wine and sugar syrup represents the blood, cloves represent the nails of the cross, and so forth.
At the end of the hands-on cooking demonstration, everyone sits down in the school’s airy kitchen to enjoy the fruits of their labor. On the other side of the kitchen and dining room is a market where visitors can buy the specialty foods for these and other Northern New Mexico recipes.
When you have stopped cooking and want to dine out, two of the very best restaurants in Santa Fe are The Compound, at 653I Canyon Road, a beautiful facility that is celebrating its 50th year in business this year, and Julia, the prettiest restaurant in town located inside La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa.
Situated halfway up Santa Fe’s art center, Canyon Road, surrounded by the best galleries, it is natural that The Compound is also filled with art, some of it from Dan Naming, the most prominent Native American artist of today, and in the garden, sculptures made by Allan Houser, one of the most renowned Native American painters and Modernist sculptors of the 20th Century. Mark Kiffin, the Compound’s chef and owner, won the prestigious James Beard Foundation award as Best Chef of the Southwest 2005. He combines his contemporary American menu with the culinary style and flavors of the Mediterranean, and brings in a sparkling wine made by a local vigneron family named Greut. In October of last year he offered, among other delicacies, a fall roasted cauliflower soup with fried sage pesto.
Julia restaurant is named after Julia Staab, the original chatelaine of La Posada. The Santa Fe art on the walls is filled with ever-changing paintings, since the resort’s in-house curator is constantly selling them and bringing in new art to replace them. Executive chef Todd Hall, a guest chef in the James Beard Foundation’s Best Hotel Chefs of America series, was behind the world’s first four-star Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda in Scottsdale, Arizona. In Boston he brought upscale Mexican cuisine to town with the restaurant Temazcal Tequila Cantina and he was executive chef with Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado. Some of the items he has brought to La Posada include cornbread crusted oysters with hatch chile marmalade and a tuna and lobster claw parfait with Navajo fry bread. The full wine list at Julia includes “Conundrum,” a blend of different vintages of red wine that is delicious, but a secret combination of the sommelier’s.
Following is the recipe for Calabacitas of the Santa Fe School of Cooking, 125 North Guadalupe Street:
2 T. butter
2 T. olive oil
1 c. finely chopped onion
2 t. minced garlic
2 1/2 c. diced yellow summer squash
2 1/2 c. diced zucchini squash
3/4 c. (1 bunch) thinly sliced green onions
1 c. fresh or frozen corn kernels
1/2 c. mild green chile, roasted, peeled and chopped
1/2 c. hot green chile, roasted, peeled and chopped
salt to taste
Heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet, and saute the onion until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauce 2 minutes. Add the squash and sauce for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the green onion, corn and green chile and sauce for 3 minutes. Stir in optional seasonings to taste and heat through. Season with salt to taste.