Summer is coming. That means it's time to eat. Soon, the stalls at the Santa Fe Farmers Market will teem with color and consumables. Luminous pyramids of peppers. Fennel as long as your arm. Zucchini so prodigious they look like implements of war.
Summer is the season of abundance, although most of us are woefully unprepared for it. If we weren't coddled by the supermarket and the frozen-foods section at Trader Joe's, we might make better use of this annual caloric windfall. If not for the ease with which we can drive up to Bumblebee's downtown and order a steamy Tito Burrito with shrimp and roasted salsa, we would probably spend this summer doing what our winter-respecting ancestors owed their lives and tribes to. Stuffing our faces.
There's one problem. That requires cooking.
Most Americans can't cook what doesn't come with instructions on the back and, despite Santa Fe's star on the map of culinary destinations, the same holds true here. I can vouch, at least, for myself. In my years of on-again, off-again bachelordom, I've eaten my share of macaroni and cheese, frozen burritos and pasta marinara (noodles from the box, sauce from the bottle).
Which helps to explain how surprised I was on a recent Saturday afternoon to find myself forking into some Thai red curry with pork, Thai green vegetable curry, chicken tikka, Sri Lankan eggplant and fresh garlic naan that I—the anti-chef—had helped create. Not only was it good enough to keep my dinner companions from gagging, but it was no fluke: I made most of the same meal a week later, and both my date and I survived.
Credit goes to Chef Johnny Vee—aka John Vollertsen—the man behind the apron at Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe's cooking classes. The three-hour classes are held Tuesday and Friday nights, and Saturday at lunchtime, in a full-size, catalog-perfect designer kitchen built in the back of the store. The kitchen is so well apportioned it's hard not to wonder if the classes are just a means to foster utensil envy among future Las Cosas customers.
But Vollertsen's pitch is soft, and he's clearly there because he loves to teach. Wide-eyed and animated, with spiked hair and a flair for the appropriately timed off-color remark, Vollertsen is a natural entertainer. He has taught the courses for 10 years, written a cookbook based on his classes' greatest hits (Cooking with Johnny Vee: International Cuisine with a Modern Flair, Gibbs Smith), and built up a dedicated local following.
On the Saturday I sidled up to the kitchen counter for "Hot & Spicy Curries," I was the only new student among six regulars. Martine Tharp-Sharman and her husband Piers were back for their third or fourth class. "They're beautifully organized, and it's always something I wouldn't normally cook. And Johnny's great," she says.
Vollertsen has a politician's sense of audience. As soon as his pupils hit their chairs, he sizes them up (the ones who know their meringues from merengue, the ones who are apt to melt butter along with its wax paper) and adjusts the instruction and tasks for each. "I don't want anyone to feel discouraged," he says.
Vollertsen starts the three-hour class with a rapid-fire overview of the meal, and how it will all come together—eight Indian and Thai dishes, none of which any of us has cooked before. Vollertsen spends only a little time lecturing. Most of the class time is hands on, with everyone broken into small teams making parts of the meal and Vollertsen orbiting from station to station distributing tips, gentle corrections and generally stirring the pot. The women quickly become "sweetie" and "hon;" the men quickly become targets of playful ribbing. Any lapse in the conversation is an invitation for Vollertsen to share his quirky, ribald sense of humor.
"I try to make it fun," Vollertsen, who says he's suffered through his share of dull culinary courses himself, says. "If I ever see the students dozing off, I tell a dirty joke," Vollertsen says, then tries to acquit himself.
"They're all PG."
His taciturn, 16-year-old assistant David Campbell pipes in to correct him. "R."
Vollertsen doesn't miss a beat. "It's never, ever boring."
The dishes are simple, but not basic; the red lamb curry may have 12 ingredients but the dish only has about four main steps, so it's hard to get lost. Since most of the ingredients are prepped before class by Vollertsen's assistants, Campbell and Katie Crosman, this richly aromatic, exotic dish suddenly seems easy, despite all my best efforts to make a mess of it. "I want everyone to come away and think, 'Wow, I can't believe I did that,'" Vollertsen says.
Vollertsen treats his students to a wide range of courses, from the elementary (Knife Skills Workshop) to the foreign (Exotic Asian Appetizers), the practical (High-Altitude Baking) to the indulgent (Crazy for Caviar). There are Farmers Market-themed classes, classes for kids (without a PB&J in sight), classes on lobsters, Peking duck, French food, Spanish food and, of course, New Mexican food. "Santa Fe has always been a culinary destination. Even locals who like enchiladas and chile rellenos—they don't know how to make them," Vollertsen says.
In the end, it comes down to eating. By the time we get to dig in to the banquet of Indian and Thai dishes we prepared, Vollertsen has the class members uncorking their own off-kilter jokes and stories. And since we suddenly feel like master chefs and are all a little punch-drunk with kitchen envy, after desert (fried bananas and ice cream) a few of us waltz straight into Las Cosas and start cleaning house.
I make it halfway to my car before I realize I've spent $29 on a spatula. One spatula.
But it's not just a souvenir. I'm planning to use it.
Upcoming classes at Las Cosas
(for a complete schedule, go to lascosascooking.com)
May 29: Fajita Party
Wow your summer guests with sizzling meats, vegetables, homemade tortillas, guacamole and, yes, margaritas. $75
June 2: World Vegetarian
Hot off the Grill: Learn how to BBQ veggies like a pro. Think grilled pizzas with confit of tomatoes, grilled asparagus with goat cheese and herbs, grilled romaine with chive blue cheese dressing, etc. $75
June 9: Peking Duck-Fest
A Chinese feast with hot & sour soup, scallion pancakes, dipping sauces and a ginger sorbet dessert. $75
June 12: Exotic Asian Appetizers
Prep your palate with spring rolls,
pot stickers, and more from Malaysia, Thailand, China, Vietnam and Indonesia. $75