Author's note: Originally written and published for Alaska Women Speak, this is the abbreviated story about my cooking lesson with Ita, and her very fine family.
Just three days before, my husband and I were eating breakfast at Ita’s patio when I noticed the little brochure for her cooking school that offered a lesson on how to make Chiles En Nogada. I looked up at my husband, who had already accompanied me to one cooking school this trip. I looked at Ana, barista and member of Ita’s family, who gave me the most amazing smile.
“Es facile,” she said, still smiling. And then, using her hands and words, proceeded to describe how to make Chiles En Nogada. Ana then motioned for me to go see the owner, who was sweeping the restaurant’s terrace. I signed up for cooking school.
Ita, Jorge and I arrive at the market where the aroma of coffee beans roasting and the sweetness of ripe fresh fruit permeate the air. The mercado municipal campesino is bustling at noon on this Saturday. Families are shopping; children are eating corn on the cob and paletas, a popsicle made with fresh fruit and cream. We pass by baskets filled with tamarind seeds, cocoa beans, and raw coffee beans. Ita shows me three different types of plantains and chooses the one for our recipe. She shows me three fresh white Mexican cheeses, and then we buy sour cream and cream cheese. We buy pears, apples, peaches, and cactus candy. We visit two different butchers to find the right ground beef and pork. We gather cloves, garlic, onion, oregano, cinnamon, and almonds. We buy a perfect pomegranate then head back to Ita’s.
Back at the restaurant, Ita has a young waiter bring us a blended drink of fresh fruit juice, one for the student and one for the teacher. In the center of the terrace is a simple wooden table covered with a fuchsia colored, woven tablecloth. A mortar and pestle, cutting board, knives, and bowls accompany the fruit, onion, and garlic for making the dish. The spices are all in little bowls, everything watched over by a little ceramic pig that holds toothpicks.
At first, I sit and watch Ita show me what I’m to do, which is to finely chop the ingredients on the table. When she believes I understand, she moves around to the other side of the table, sits down and watches me begin.
It’s hot. Sweltering in fact, and I think that part of the heat is from having Ita observe how I’m cutting, chopping each fruit, the onion and garlic as finely as I ever have. She nods and tells me I’m doing a good job.
As I prepare the fruits and vegetables, I notice Ita’s daughter, young Ita, in the far corner of the terrace with her little girl, who she was swinging back and forth in a bassinet.
Ita’s Restaurant has grown from three tables to more than twenty. The newest addition is the terrace styled room where we are working. Giant photos of Oaxacans adorn its walls. Young Ita tells me, “This restaurant is a passion for my mother.”
She continues, “This is my office. This is my paradise. Why? Because this is where we create our passion.”
Its and I stuff fried Poblano Chiles with a mixture of fruit, meat, onion, garlic and spices. We pour a creamy, almond cinnamon sauce over the chile and sprinkle bright red-jeweled pomegranate seeds over the top. My cooking lesson is running a half-hour late and so my husband walks into the restaurant to see how we are doing. Ita greets him and says, with Jorge translating, “Come sit down and enjoy the meal your wife has prepared for you.” And he does.
The next day we stop at Ita’s for coffee and breakfast. I am forever remembered by Ita's cooking lesson of Chiles En Nogada, the dish of emperors and presidents.
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