Red Chile Vacation Bible School

…finding God in a chile relleno

I moved to Santa Fe nine years ago. Should I have formally immersed myself in the regional cooking methods? Should I have signed up for a class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking back in 2002?

Maybe. But maybe it's perfect that it happened now.

Timing is a funny thing. There's the kitchen timer, which you set according to a mandate, and it tick-tick-ticks disquietingly like a bomb, and then goes off with a brr-zing, or there's smelling when something's done, seeing the color, feeling the texture—sensing the readiness.

I had avoided taking a class at the School of Cooking, deeming it touristy. But unlike Kokopelli candlesticks, the traditional cooking classes happen to appeal to tourists but also more than hold up to my gimlet-eyed, foodie-fied, local gaze.

Chef Deena Chafetz encouraged our questions and fielded them as she taught, folding verbal and physical comedy deftly into crystal-clear instructions and countless nuggets of chef know-how. She was well paired with the more reserved Noe Cano, kitchen manager, sous chef and tortilla whisperer.

Although I have blundered my way to making passable red and green chile sauces (thank you, Bueno container instructions), Deena made me want to get beyond the basics.

She urged us not to rush, to brown the meat slowly, in small batches that establish the deep, rich flavor that will make the onions and garlic sautéed in that same pan even more delicious. After the meat has a golden crust, it braises for hours in a red chile mixture, ultimately morphing into silken, dulcet, unforgettable carne adovada.

Once unattracted to chiles stuffed with cheese and then battered and fried—which struck me as the KFC Double Down of the New Mexican food world—I also learned to love chiles rellenos. Anytime a teacher is passionate about a topic, it's infectious, and Deena loves chiles. When she had her first bite of chile sauce, she wept. Her dog is named Chile. You get the idea.

She showed us how to roast and peel a green chile on the stovetop, then prep it for stuffing by cutting a slit lengthwise, removing the seeds and packing it with cheese, while Noe whipped up a beer batter (flour, beer, red chile powder, salt and eggs).

As Noe slathered the chiles with golden batter and lowered them into the vat of hot oil, I lost sight of circumspection, and the entire class soon earnestly, raptly devoured carne adovada with homemade tortillas, frijoles refritos, calabacitas, and sopaipillas served with apple-pie-spiced honey…and one single, gorgeous, big-ass chile relleno each.

I contemplated asking for seconds, but instead drove to a trailhead and walked up and down a mountain. This food really is site-specific; it's helpful to be able to use the food as fuel to conquer the terrain, and vice versa.

This past weekend, I attempted carne adovada for the first time and served it with posole, another new dish that the cooking class emboldened me to try. Deena talked about "carryover cooking," the way food keeps cooking even after you remove it from heat. I feel like I'm "carryover cooking," too—I'm still steeping in the class' knowledge, and it's given me confidence to try new recipes—such as posole, even though it wasn't a dish the chefs demonstrated.

I was going to make chiles rellenos, too, but the co-op didn't have any green chiles in stock. It doesn't matter. That jones of mine isn't going anywhere, anytime soon. Even if I have to wait until next fall…I'm going for it.

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