As many of my Twitter and Facebook friends already know…last week, my husband, son and I took a trip to the Yucatan. In case you are unfamiliar, it’s the eastern side of Mexico that includes Cancun, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya. This is not to be confused with the YUKON, as one of my friends wondered why we would visit somewhere cold in the winter…and come back with a great tan. White [topless] beaches, turquoise waters, 83 and sunny…a lovely region, if you’re into that sort of thing.*wink*
With staying south of Cancun, we were close enough to enjoy several of the area’s attractions including 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen, an all day excursion to Chichen Itza and a ferry ride over to Isla Cozumel. You might probably possibly guess that we like our adventures to always involve food. A bakery on 5th Avenue? Of course we had to stop in. A trip to Chichen Itza without stopping at an authentic Mayan buffet? No way! I knew we wanted to visit Cozumel, but what would we do there? To be completely honest, our vacations don’t usually consist of shopping, gambling or anything considered “touristy.” All three of us are culture lovers; we want to be completely immersed whenever possible and participate in as much as [safely] possible. That’s when I found Cocina con Alma (Cooking with Soul) – a private cooking class in Cozumel taught by Mrs. Josefina Gonzalez Luigi. As soon as I read the description, I knew this was an opportunity that we had to experience. (How very Bourdain of us, right?)
So…it was the 5th day of our trip and we were off on the half hour ferry ride to Cozumel. (Here’s a tip: if you get motion sickness, don’t sit INSIDE the ferry…even if you have taken Dramamine.) After an unsure boat trip and being over-charged in a taxi (we had no clue the class was within walking distance), we finally arrived at Josefina’s. Well, it’s not her primary residence, but a little place within walking distance to a local market that she rents to hold the classes. Through a tiny squeaky gate, past a white lace tablecloth door…it was here that we experienced one of the best meals we have ever eaten. No fancy linens. No glitz and glamor. Real food made by real people. Complete love.
Once inside, we were welcomed by beautiful Josefina and another couple, Jay and Betty, who were sharing the class with us. How wonderful to have other people in the class who were just as excited about food as we were! After introductions and a few shared stories, we reviewed our menu for the day. Are you ready for this?
- Drinks: Hibiscus Water, Cerveza Barrilito, Margaritas
- Snacks: Jicama/Guava/Mandarin plate, Salsa Verde, Oaxaca & Queso Fresco
- Sides: Cucumber/Mango Salad, Nopales Salad, Guacamole, Black Refried Beans, Handmade Corn Tortillas, Habanero Sauce
- Main: Conchinita Pibil w/toppings (pork roast cooked in a Mayan achiote sauce, wrapped in banana leaves and slowly steamed to perfection) Albondigas en Chipotle (succulent meatballs stewed in a smokey semi-hot smokey pepper sauce)
- Dessert: Coconut Praline (bought pre-made at the market)
In order to start making some of these dishes, we had to visit the neighborhood “mercado” for fresh ingredients. Here, Josephina showed us typical Mexican items (such as Tajin and Old Fashioned *Tlilxochitl), how to pick out good produce and where to order [unrefrigerated] meat. If you’ve never been to a Mexican market, you are surely missing out. Here you can find a colorful array of just about anything you want. From kid’s shoes to fish heads to the brightest of yellow mangoes, everything is covered in the local “mercado.”
Upon returning to the house with our bounty, we welcomed the glasses of refreshing Hibiscus Water that awaited us. Otherwise known as Agua de Jamaica or Hibiscus flower tea, we all agreed it was like cranberry juice on steroids. Thirst quenching and delicious, who knew it also had so many nutritional benefits (improves cholesterol levels, lowers blood pressure, provides antioxidants and promotes weight loss?) I have since ordered organic hibiscus flowers and know exactly what I’ll be doing with my giant yard flowers when they dry up this summer. (Added: I have since learned that giant hibiscus that grow in Indiana are not suitable for this tea. Poohey.)
Though the hum of the oscillating ceiling fan and the noise of the street beyond the lace door, a salsa rendition of Beatles music continued to enlighten and inspire us. We each then plucked a colorful apron out of a basket, made our way to the table and prepared our minds (and stomachs) for the experience that was to come.
(to be continued…Cozumel Cooking Class Part 2: Let the Feast Begin)
*The tribes in central Mexico to Costa Rica were the first ones to incorporate vanilla into their lives. Possibly around 2,000 to 2,500 years before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1520. Vanilla had sacred and religious connotations (a gift from the gods) and it was treated with reverence and considered a sacramental herb. During the late 1500’s its name was changed from tlilxochitl (pronounced tleel-soch-eel; name in the Nahuatl language) to vanilla which meant “little scabbard”. The name describes its appearance which is similar to the covering for swords.