Authentic Mexico with Chef Kurt Spataro

I joined other students at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op this past Monday to learn from Centro Chef – Kurt Spataro about the flavors, techniques, and ingredients that celebrate regional Mexican cooking – just in time for Cinco de Mayo!

I’ve loved the co-op’s local chef series and knew that I needed to add Chef Spataro’s class to my calendar for Spring.

Chef Kurt and Chef Dio talked strategy before the class got started. Judging from the table of ingredients and the recipe handout, the chefs in the back kitchen were in for a wild ride and we were in for a fun evening filled with wonderful food.

We started off the evening with chips, salsa and guacamole provided by the co-op.

It’s definitely hard to say “no” to chips… or wine…

The selected wine for the evening was a 2008 Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda. Although originally an Italian grape variety from Piedmont and the Oltrepo-Pavese region, the Bonarda grape has enjoyed much greater success in the rich soils and generous climate of Argentina, where it is one of the main grape varieties grown. Our table gave it a two thumbs up, it paired well with our tasting menu for the evening.

Chef Kurt talked about how he got into authentic Mexican cooking and mentioned that he started by reading Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks and was mesmerized by the ingredients. He later had the opportunity to travel to Mexico to take many classes from Diana.

Chef Kurt talked about Mexican cuisine being pork based. There were several jokes about the perception of Mexican cuisine not being classified as “sexy, expensive, or indulgent” because of that. He then went on to talk about pork back fat and pulsing it in the Cuisinart and baking it in the oven at 300 degrees F. and then pouring off the fat… Julie at our table said, “yep…definitely not sexy” – everyone laughed… we had a really great table last night!

The first dish of the evening was Tlacoyos – oval shaped fried or toasted cakes made of masa and commonly served as an appetizer. Our tlacoyos were filled with ricotta. We learned about the different types of masa, lard and how to make the tomatillo salsa topping.

The serving platters were gorgeous and the tlacoyos had the perfect amount of heat – I loved where the evening was headed.

The tlacoyos were prepared on a flat top grill known as a comal. I also learned that there isn’t any lard in tortillas and that I could purchase Keller Crafted Meats “Leaf Lard” at the co-op. Leaf lard is the highest grade of lard obtained from the visceral fat deposit surrounding the kidneys and inside the loin – again, “not sexy.” 😉

I also learned about using avocado leaves as a spice.

After toasting the leaves on a comal, they can be added whole, ground, or crumbled to your dish. The leaves have an anise-like flavor and are often used as seasoning in regional dishes. Chef Kurt included them in the second dish of the night – Enfrijoladas.

The Enfrijoladas were incredible – topped with chorizo, crema and black bean sauce.

The co-op stocks a Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche and that is what was used for the dish.

Chef Kurt mentioned that Herdez was a preferred brand for canned chipotle chiles. What’s cool about the co-op classes is that you learn about the ingredients, they pass the containers around from table to table and then you can purchase some of them with your coupon from class. A lot of times I see a recipe ingredient list and I don’t even know where to start.

We also got to learn about epazote – a Mexican herb.

I thought the leaves smelled like tires, ha! I looked it up on the Internet as part of the research for this post and found that they compared it to gasoline – so tires? Not too far off my friends.  Epazote has been used in Mexican cuisine for thousands of years dating back to the Aztecs who used it for cooking as well as for medicinal purposes. Although epazote is poisonous in large quantities, it has been used in moderation to help relieve abdominal discomfort (gassiness) that can come from eating beans.

We also learned a little bit about hoja santa (holy leaf).

The large heart-shaped leaf is widely used in Mexican cuisine to wrap foods (such as fish and cheese) and to season while cooking. I kind of thought it smelled like root beer, but others thought it had a slightly anisey flavor. Root beer, tires… yum!

The next dish of the evening was my favorite. Pollo en pipian verde. The photos I took do not do the dish justice…

The sauce on this chicken was mind blowing. Had we not been in public, I’m pretty sure the entire table would have licked their plates clean. I loved the dish so much, I asked Chef Kurt if I could share it with you readers. He agreed and made me promise that I will definitely make it at home. That’s a no brainer, this dish will be made many times at home. Thanks Chef Kurt!

Pollo en pipian verde
3.5 – 4 lbs. Chicken Thighs or Legs and Thighs – they used boneless thighs
1/2 White Onion, Thinly Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic Crushed

Combine ingredients in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil – skimming off the foam that rises to the top. Add salt and turn down the heat to a simmer. Cook until the chicken is tender when pierced with a fork. Let the chicken cool in the broth, then remove the chicken, strain the broth and reserve.

For the Sauce:
1 Cup Raw Hulled Pumpkin Seeds
12 oz. Tomatillos
2-3 Serrano Chiles
A Few Romaine Lettuce Leaves
1/2 White Onion – Rough Chopped
2 Garlic Cloves – Chopped
4 Sprigs Cilantro
1/8 Teaspoon Cumin Seeds
6 Peppercorns
1/2 Inch Piece of Cinnamon
2 Cloves
1.5 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
2.5 Cups Chicken Broth

Toast the pumpkin seeds in a saute pan until they begin to swell and pop. Be careful not to brown the seeds. Place the tomatillos and chiles in a saucepan, cover with water and simmer until tomatillos are tender, but not falling apart. Grind the spices in a coffee grinder or with a mortor and pestle (Molcajete). In a blender, place seeds, tomatillos, chiles, spices, cilantro, lettuce, onion, and garlic and process until smooth – adding some broth if necessary to grind the mixture efficiently. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, Add the pumpkin seed mixture and fry, stirring constantly for 4-5 minutes or until quite thick. Add 2.5 cups of broth and the cooked chicken and simmer for about 30 minutes. Season with salt. If sauce becomes too thick, add a little more broth. Radishes were used as a garnish.

This sauce would be incredible on fish (salmon), boneless chicken breast –  if you aren’t a dark meat fan, pork, shrimp… I think it would go with just about anything.


The last dish of the evening was Puerco en Adobo.

Boneless pork shoulder in a wonderful sweet, tangy, spicy, adobo sauce. We learned about the different chiles Ancho, pasilla, etc. and the reason behind frying your sauces – it takes the raw onion and garlic flavor out of the sauce. It enables you to cook some of the ingredients bringing out the flavors.

I’ve become so used to Americanized Mexican food that this class opened my eyes to many new possibilities in my kitchen. I usually try to come up with something fun for Cinco de Mayo at home and I’m thinking one of these dishes will be showcased at my house this year. Who’s coming over for dinner?

Question: What’s your favorite Mexican dish?

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    • Aim on May 4, 2011 at 7:48 am

    I love learning about all these “new” dishes you share with all of us.
    I would come over in a heartbeat if……I lived closer!

    I love many mexican dishes….. enchiladas….chips….salsa….guacamole…the works 😉

    • Kristen on May 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    What time??? I’ll help with the cooking!!! I enjoyed the class too. His sauces were wonderful and very versatile to be used for other purposes. I can’t wait to make the pepian verde!!!

  1. Love the authentic meals! So much better than the slop of beans you get at standard On The Border places. Pictures of them all look so gorgeous too. What a neat class.

    • Jen B on May 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Wonderful, thank you so much for sharing! I wish I would have taken this class, I wonder if he will ever teach it again? I was looking for a local cooking class in Mexican food when I found your blog. I’m going to try to make the pollo en pipían verde tonight!

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