The taxi winds up a narrow street that twists through the prosperous neighbourhood of Conchas Chinas. It’s 4pm and Puerto Vallarta’s late afternoon sun still heats the cobbled streets and bounces off the white walls of buildings. I’m heading to a cooking class with one of Mexico’s rising culinary stars, Chef Miriam Flores and I’m looking forward to learning her secrets. She’s the real deal.
She’s a Bridgestone Award-winning chef, but she is much more than that. While she has all the credentials such as training at Le Cordon Bleu and experience in fine dining restaurants in the United States, England and Ireland, she contends that she really learned to cook in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“I have had a lifelong relationship with food,” she explains. “In the small village or rancho where I come from we have a direct connection with the food we eat. It is there I learned the essentials of cooking, from my Abuelita, my grandmother, Natividad Flores.”
In her cooking class, held in the cool space of her orange, blue and white-washed rooms in Conchas Chinas, Chef Miriam Flores reduces the complexities of Mexican cuisine to its basics: the freshest of local ingredients, meticulous preparation, mostly by hand, and respectful love of local flavours and traditions.
Before we proceed to the business of food, the chef’s assistant Paul gives me a quick lesson in how to make the perfect margarita. He explains the different grades of tequila and demonstrates the steps needed to make a chilled margarita that is less sweet than the usual commercial drink, spiked with lime and orange and splashed with a bit of soda water.
It’s the perfect match for Chef Miriam Flores’ segue into the kind of cooking she learned from the women in her childhood village.
She spreads the building blocks of her cooking tradition out on the table like jewels – firm white onions, ripe tomatoes, green, black and red peppers, plump purple garlic, green cilantro, shiny limes, gnarly avocados. And for the next three hours, she guides me through the infinite variety of ways these ingredients can be combined.
Sometimes the tomatoes and peppers are roasted, sometimes garlic is added, sometimes not. Sometimes they combine to make a spicy sauce for seafood and sometimes they smoother slow-cooked pork or chicken dishes.
With a short minute of grinding, she shows me how to produce a silky but still chunky guacamole using the Molcajete, a locally made mortar and pestle, fashioned from volcanic rock that is a staple in any Mexican kitchen. (Later I purchase one in the local market and have a devil of a time packing it in my checked luggage to take home – it must weigh over 25 pounds!)
Fish and seafood are plentiful and fresh in Puerto Vallarta, situated on the Bay of Banderas, so these ingredients play a large part in local dishes. Chef Miriam Flores guides me through the steps to make shrimp empanada, with fresh gulf shrimp, tomatoes, onion, garlic and jalapenos, wrapped in puff pastry and baked until golden. We make an herb salsa verde to serve with it and the results are incredible – snappy shrimp, soft crusty pastry and a piquant sauce. Next is a traditional enchilada, made with chicken and topped with sour cream, crumbled cheese and a sauce made from seven different chiles and a touch of melted chocolate.
A type of stew, cochinita pibil, slow cooked small pork shanks in a sauce that is spiced with achiote paste, cumin, fresh orange juice and oregano, is served with slices of red onion, cilantro and a wedge of lime.
And when the cooking is done, we relax on the patio with cinnamon spiced Mexican coffee and still-warm handmade churros.
“Mexican cooking is simple,” Chef Miriam Flores tells me, “but there are certain rules you must observe. Ingredients should be the best and should be as local as possible. You need to invest time and care – and love. And then you need to relax and enjoy.”
Mexican cuisine, it seems, is not about dignity and solemnity. It is about robust flavours, joyful sharing and strong local tastes. Viva Mexico!
Book a cooking class with Chef Miriam Flores
Chef Miriam Flores gives group cooking classes year round in Puerto Vallarta, with a menu that changes weekly and seasonally – with topics like Best of Puerto Vallarta, Classic Mexican cuisine, Chiles of Mexico or Fiesta Dishes. You can contact Chef Miriam Flores or book a class at www.lalunapv.com
You can watch her in action on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/57120056