cook Johnny Wee stood in his test kitchen, welcoming a dozen students to his New Mexico Combo Plate class, trying to explain how the list of dishes we were going to make got so long.
“I don’t smoke pot,” he said, “but it looks like it—I’m like, ‘Maybe we should make an enchilada.’ Yes, and let’s make carne adovada. Oooh, and chile con queso! Chili rellenos! Bob! And sopaipillas with honey for dessert!”
Being able to handle cooking all of these dishes—basically the classic “combo plate” served at any respectable New Mexico restaurant worth its weight in chili—is what drew my wife and I, cheerful, in Chef Johnny’s kitchen. (Other cooking classes in Santa Fe tend to focus on one dish.) Our instructor was relaxed and full of hilarious stories, so if we felt stressed about cooking with a group of strangers, he immediately put us at ease.
Mary, who is a good cook, handled the heavy lifting. She kneaded blue corn masa and water into a batter of just the right consistency—not so wet that it sticks to the tortilla press, not so dry that the tortilla falls apart. My personal zero-skill job was to place small balls of dough on the hand press and press them down to flatten them into disks.
Fortunately, even if we messed up our tortillas, they would be disguised in the creations of other teams who were busy making green chile chicken enchiladas, carne adovada tacos, and blue corn chile rellenos. Various students washed beans, roasted chilies, sliced chicken and combined fifteen separate ingredients to make the world’s best chili con queso. (Before that, I was only served Velveeta at friends’ parties.)
Chef Johnny – full name Johnny Vollertsen – told us a little about himself. “I’m from New York, so there’s no reason to pay attention to what I’m saying! I grew up in Rochester, went to restaurant college and moved to Manhattan to be a chef, I peeled a lot of potatoes. Soon Johnny was working in New York’s top eateries; then helped open a chain of Southwestern-flavored restaurants in Australia. To entertain the customers, he and the waiters danced in the dining room to “Achy Breaky Heart.”
“Down under they never understood the Spanish pronunciation,” he added with rolling eyes. “So a jalapeño was ‘jah-LAP-a no’ and quesadillas were ‘kaysa-DILL-uhs.'”
Cheerful and brave, Johnny made the class great. It is also effective; his assistants had already done much of the prep work (peeling, dicing, measuring) so we students could get down to assembling our meals.
Chili peppers are a staple of New Mexico cuisine, and Johnny gave us a rundown of some of the planet’s 4,000 varieties. Most of the world’s cuisines use chili peppers, especially in countries near the equator, perhaps because chili peppers make you sweat, which is good conditioning.
As green New Mexico chiles ripen and dry, they turn red. Visitors to Santa Fe see strings of grape-like red peppers called strings, hanging from porches all over town. “You can cook with them if they’re not bug-sprayed or shelled,” Johnny said. He once considered contacting the Santa Fe mystery writer Ann Hillerman, a friend, to write a murder mystery in which a woman slowly kills her husband with red chili sauce made with bug spray. “I said this one day in class, and a woman sitting next to her sister said, ‘What a great idea!’ And the sister said, ‘Is your marriage okay?’
Scientists use a scale to rate the heat of different chili peppers, measured in “Scoville units.” One pepper is zero or no heat. A jalapeño has 3000 units. New Mexico’s hottest green chile, Hatch, hits 6,000. Habanero rings the mouth-burning bell of 300,000 units.
On a kitchen counter, poblano peppers were being chopped and cheddar cheese was being grated by two local men on the chili dip detail who had taken Johnny’s classes before. Meanwhile, Johnny handed us spices to smell before adding to the dip, including toasted ground cumin seeds. (“Toast your spices to get more of them.”) The end result will be scooped up later with freshly baked tortilla chips. (Mary and I decided to make chile con queso at home; it freezes well and doesn’t separate when left in a fondue pot over a flame at the dinner table.)
The carne adovada team measured caribe chilies, which are found only in New Mexico. This variety is not ground into a powder, but crushed into large flakes. “They smell like sun-dried tomatoes or tobacco,” Johnny said, “and create the distinctive flavor of carne adovada; the meat absorbs the red chili flavor.” Another duo was making Drunken Pintos (Drunken Bean) with coriander, bacon and tequila (!).
Meanwhile, Mary and I made the tortillas—some successful, some ridiculous—and passed them to the duo making the chicken enchiladas. In New Mexico, enchiladas are not rolled, but stacked. “Nobody really knows why,” Johnny said. “Texans say it’s because we’re lazy. But hey, if you go through the process of making your own tortillas by hand and they go stale after a day or two, you don’t want to throw them away. So just dip them in a delicious sauce to soften and refresh them. That’s how enchiladas came about.”
When the three hour class was over, our creations were lined up on the kitchen counter and everyone dove in. By now we were all talking, joking and getting to know each other, making the class more like a good party. We all had something in common – our time cooking together – and now we were celebrating what we had done.
We all headed out the door with fond memories, detailed recipes to use at home, and—most importantly—leftovers!