Cooking Lesson in Mexico
Patricia Wells makes French food so simple and accessible you’d never associate it with heavy cream sauces or hours bent over a simmering flame.
Her recipes are delectable to adults, palatable to kids and easy on the chef. It’s French without the fuss. Her 1989 Bistro Cooking is sometimes fondly known by kids raised on its hearty fare as the “Beasty Cookbook.”
So when I heard that Wells was teaching at Rancho La Puerta, a beautiful spa in Tecate, Mexico, that’s just over the border from San Diego, I jumped at the chance to attend.
Nor was I alone. Her classes at La Cocina Que Canta, the spa’s gorgeous cooking school (set in the heart of a six-acre organic farm), elicited so much interest that Wells bowed to the demand and added another class to her schedule.
I’d never taken a cooking class before. I got my culinary education through osmosis – from watching my mother in the kitchen, absorbing her reverence for food, collecting and reading cookbooks and, of course, experimenting on a willing, hungry family.
Wells’ culinary education began similarly enough – raised in Milwaukee with a mother who canned, made her own bread and pies, yet remained a Betty Crocker, 1950s kind of cook: “Pork chops on Tuesday, meat loaf on Wednesdays,” as Wells recalls.
A former editor at the New York Times, Wells moved to Paris with her husband, an editor at the International Herald Tribune, 32 years ago.
Though she didn’t speak any French (“There’s nothing more humbling than learning a foreign language as an adult”), she soon began reviewing restaurants.
Her approach was unique. If, after dining anonymously, she decided to write a review about the restaurant, she introduced herself and asked the chef for permission to spend a day in his kitchen.
“It’s the only way you get to see what it’s really like,” she explains. “It’s only in the kitchen where you see the chef’s techniques, his personality, the cleanliness of the kitchen.”
In that way, she learned from all the best chefs of France.
Passing on the Secrets
What did I learn from her? I came away with a renewed appreciation for techniques like “sweating” – a process best used when cooking onions. Instead of beginning by heating up the olive oil, one should place the sliced onions in a dry pan, and then pour the oil over the onions. That way, they sweat and never brown.
A little thing, perhaps, but it’s those little things that make the difference between a good cook and a great chef.
“For most home cooks, cooking is haphazard affair,” says Wells. “You look at a recipe, open the fridge to see what you have and then decide what to do ... It’s like going on a trip. You can either pack carefully the day before. Or 10 minutes before you leave for the airport, you can throw your things in a suitcase.”
I’m rethinking my approach. All the meals at Rancho La Puerta were fantastic, but my lunch with Patricia Wells was memorable – if only because I helped make it.
Of our 10-course meal, here’s my favorite dish that I will definitely try at home: Eggplant in Spicy Sauce. I like it because it does double duty. It’s elegant enough for a dinner party and even more delicious the next day, after the flavors have had a chance to blend together.
That’s when you can throw the remainder into the blender and churn it up into a sauce for the kids’ pasta. Fabulous!
Sara Solovitch is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Eggplant in Spicy Tomato Sauce
- 4 small, firm, fresh eggplants, washed but not peeled
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
- 6 plump, moist garlic cloves, peeled, halved and green germ removed
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, cut into thin slivers
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 2 teaspoons toasted ground cumin
- 1 28-ounce canned tomatoes in their juice
- 4 ounces feta cheese, cubed (optional)
Center a rack in the oven. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Trim and discard the stem ends of the eggplants. Halve them lengthwise. Brush the flesh lightly with the oil and season with salt. Place the eggplant halves, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake until the eggplant skin is soft and wrinkled, and the cut side golden, about 30 minutes.
While the eggplants cook, prepare the sauce. In the skillet, combine onion, garlic, remaining oil and salt. Toss to thoroughly coat the onions and garlic with the oil, and sweat – cook, covered, over low heat until soft and translucent – about five minutes. Add the ginger, pepper flakes and cumin, and toss again to evenly coat the onions.
Drain the tomatoes, but reserve the liquid in case the mixture seems dry. Add the drained tomatoes and simmer, covered, for about five minutes. Add the roasted eggplant halves, burying them cut side down, in the sauce. Cover and cook until the eggplant is very tender and has absorbed much of the sauce, about 20 minutes more.
If using feta, add the cubes of cheese, warming the dish until the cheese melts. Taste for seasoning.