Cookbook author Diana Kennedy shares her knowledge of Mexican cuisine

Cooking classes

The Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, a kitchen specialty shop at 2080 Badlands Drive in Brandon just east of the mall, conducts both demonstration and hands-on cooking classes. The classes range from skills courses to cake decorating to party planning. For information, call (813) 653-2418 or go to www.rolling pinonline.com.



BRANDON — Diana Kennedy is an exacting taskmaster. She wants the jicama cut "nicely" in uniform sticks and orders the mole verde blended once more to achieve a smoother consistency. She doesn't tolerate chatting while she teaches; her icy stare lets you know when to zip it. Silence the cell phones, she says sternly. • "I'm allergic to them," the famed cookbook author and authority on Mexican cuisine tells two dozen rapt students. "If you have questions, ask me, not your neighbor. You have 364 days to talk with your neighbor. Tonight, you talk to me." • We've gathered at the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium for a two-hour-plus demonstration class that includes sampling dishes made by the master. We are hungry for her wisdom and, of course, the food. • Her legendary strictness comes with a sly smile. There is no meanness in her directives, only the passion born from studying a subject for more than 50 years. Kennedy, who is British, moved to Mexico in 1957 and has spent many years since traveling the country, learning and writing about its regional cuisines. She is often referred to as the Julia Child of Mexican cooking.

That's not to say she doesn't cook other foods, including the dishes of her native England and French specialties.

"I keep foie gras in the freezer and when I'm feeling sorry for myself, I cut a big slice," she says.

No need to feel sorry on this night. Kennedy, 85, is being assisted by Rene Valenzuela, the owner and chef of the Taco Bus restaurant in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood, and a handful of eager volunteers. Valenzuela, 38, has traveled to Mexico many times to take classes with Kennedy, and clearly the mentor-student relationship is special to both of them. He lightens her heavy hand, and she reminds him he still has things to learn. Before the class begins she directs him to keep her supplied with water and towels. Then Kennedy rushes off to freshen up.

"I have great trouble looking after myself," she says. "The food comes first."

Burners on, the cooking begins. We're all eyes and we wince collectively as we watch Kennedy test and stir toasting sesame and pumpkin seeds with her bare hands. To taste the green mole sauce, she flicks it onto the palm of her hand with a wooden spoon. And licks.

"Ooh, that's hot," she says.

We're all ears, too:

• "Cook chicken with the skin. You don't have to eat it but you have to cook with it if you want flavor."

• "If you have a cookbook that tells you to take the seeds out of serrano chilies, they don't know what they are talking about. Throw the book away."

• "In Mexican cooking, the sauce is more important than the meat because meat can be scarce."

• "We cannot have healthy food unless we look after our environment."

This last statement is a recurring theme through the class. Kennedy rails against plastic bags, aluminum foil and gargantuan produce whose size doesn't make up for its paltry taste. If we don't already, she encourages us to compost our kitchen waste.

"You must start controlling the food czars. They are making the corn too sweet and the tomatillos too large," she says.

After we've sampled jicama doused in lime juice and chili powder, fried pumpkin on crunchy tortillas, spicy shrimp, and chicken in a green mole sauce, Kennedy settles in with a glass of red wine to sign The Art of Mexican Cooking and The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. She has signed thousands of books over the years and will be penning her name again the next day at several book signings and a class at the Taco Bus.

She is relaxed, and our bellies and heads are full.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

>>Moderate

Camarones en Chipotle (Spicy Shrimp)

1 pound large shrimp, peeled with tails left on

Sea salt and ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup lime juice

1/3 cup light olive oil

1 medium white onion, thinly sliced

3/4 pound tomatoes, broiled

3 to 4 chipotles in adobo sauce

1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped

1/3 cup dry white wine

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

Season the shrimp with salt, pepper and lime juice and set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, add drained shrimp (reserve marinade) and onion. Fry for about 3 minutes and remove mixture from hot pan with slotted spoon leaving oil in pan. Remove pan from heat. (Shrimp may not be completely cooked but will be added back to the sauce to cook through.)

In a blender, blend the broiled tomatoes and their juice, the chipotles and their sauce and garlic to make a paste. Reheat the oil in the pan and add the paste, then fry over high heat, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan for 8 minutes. Add wine, oregano, reserved marinade and salt to taste and cook for another minute. Add the shrimp/onion mixture and cook for about 2 minutes.

Serve with rice or alone as an appetizer.

Serves 3 to 4.

Source: The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy (Clarkson Potter, 1989)

>>difficult

Pollo en Mole Verde

(Chicken in Green Mole)

Chicken:

4 pounds chicken pieces

1 small white onion, roughly chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled

Sea salt to taste

Chicken broth for simmering

Sauce:

1 cup sesame seeds

1/3 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds

3 whole cloves, crushed

3 peppercorns, crushed

3 whole allspice, crushed

4 or 6 tablespoons pork lard

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

8 romaine lettuce leaves, roughly chopped

5 Swiss chard leaves, roughly chopped

1 large bunch of cilantro, with stems, roughly chopped

1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

2 poblano chilies, seeds removed, roughly chopped

6 to 8 serrano chilies, roughly chopped

8 medium tomatillos, roughly chopped

Sea salt to taste

Place chicken, onion, garlic and salt in a large pot and cover with chicken broth. Simmer 25 minutes until tender. Drain; set chicken aside and reserve broth.

To make sauce, toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes. Spread on baking sheet to cool. Grind raw pumpkin seeds until broken down but not powdery; pour into a medium bowl.

Mix spices and sesame seeds in a grinder. Mix with ground pumpkin seeds to make a paste.

Heat lard to medium heat and fry paste until golden, about 5 minutes and stirring constantly. Set aside.

Put broth, chopped greens and cilantro, parsley, garlic, chilies and tomatillos in a blender and process until smooth. Add blended mixture to fried paste in a large pot. Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes. Add reserved broth from cooking the chicken, cook for another 20 minutes. Add chicken pieces, heat through and test for seasonings.

Serve with heated corn tortillas.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy (Clarkson Potter, 1989)

>>moderate

Calabaza Frita (Fried Pumpkin)

2 pounds of unpeeled pumpkin, seeds removed and cut into 1-inch dice

1/3 to 1/2 cup mild olive oil (not extra-virgin)

1 small white onion, finely chopped

1 cup diced peppers (red, green, orange or a combination)

1 hot pepper, diced small

12 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped

Salt to taste

1/3 cup finely grated queso anejo or Romano cheese

Put the pumpkin pieces in pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cook covered until easily pierced with a fork but not mushy. (The pumpkin pieces should keep their shape.) Drain, peel and set aside. Heat oil in skillet. Add onion, all peppers, tomatoes and salt and cook over medium heat, about 8 minutes.

Add cubed pumpkin. Continue cooking on low heat, adding water if need be to avoid sticking, for about 15 minutes. Add more salt if needed. Let sit for 30 minutes then sprinkle with cheese. Serve on tostadas.

Source: The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy (Clarkson Potter, 2000)

if you go

Cooking classes

The Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, a kitchen specialty shop at 2080 Badlands Drive in Brandon, conducts both demonstration and hands-on cooking classes. The classes range from skills courses to cake decorating to party planning. For more information call (813) 653-2418 or go to www.rollingpinonline.com.

cooking class

Mexican cuisine

While not particularly difficult, cooking authentic Mexican food can be laborious and requires some special equipment like a spice grinder and a heavy-duty blender, says author and teacher Diana Kennedy.

For instance, the Pollo en Mole Verde recipe that accompanies this story has numerous steps that take time. You may be tempted to skip toasting the sesame seeds, but Kennedy says you will give up flavor if you do.

Read the recipe through a few times to understand the timing. This is a great dish to tackle on a weekend when you have plenty of time.

The spicy shrimp in chipotle sauce is much quicker and would be a good weeknight meal. Serve it with rice.

When Kennedy demonstrated the dish, she left the shells on, which is how it is served in Mexico. Cooking shrimp in their shells adds flavor, but it can make for a mess at the table. Have lots of napkins. You can also make it with peeled shrimp.

To get a good sear on the shrimp, don't crowd the pan. In both recipes, coarse salt can be substituted for sea salt.

Janet K. Keeler

Cookbook author Diana Kennedy shares her knowledge of Mexican cuisine 02/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 3:30am]

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