A Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende was high on our to-do list in line with the experiential travel goals of our yearlong grand tour of the world, promoting slow travel, local travel and experiential travel. We’d been cooking Mexican food since our first trip to Mexico in the 1990s. But we’d never taken a Mexican cooking class. Had we been doing it right? We were about to find out.
“The focus of my Mexican cooking school is traditional Mexican food, not the cuisine of chefs!” announced Marilau Ricaud, the owner of the Marilau Mexican Ancestry Cooking School, where we’d decided that I would do my Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, where we had settled into a colourful casita for two weeks.
Little did I know at the time, but Marilau’s Mexican cooking class would go on to become one of the world’s best cooking classes we’d ever do, when a decade later we’d reflect upon the countless cooking classes that we’d undertaken on our travels around the world.
Mexican Cooking Class in San Miguel de Allende with Marilau Ricard
“I felt San Miguel de Allende was lacking in good restaurants to eat Mexican food and I think it’s rare for foreigners to get the opportunity to eat in a Mexican home, so I decided to teach home-cooked Mexican food,” Marilau explains, as she hands me an apron.
Marilau’s Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende was exactly what I had been looking for. Authentic traditional home-cooked Mexican food. Not fancy Mexican food. Nor Tex-Mex food, which, as much as we enjoy it, is comfort food and best for placing speed humps in front of hangovers late at night. Or blunting their impact the next morning.
San Miguel de Allende, for all its picture-postcard beauty and folk culture does not have a dining scene to rival that of Mexico City‘s restaurant scene, nor even traditional restaurants to match Oaxaca’s, arguably Mexico’s best provincial eating city.
Which was all the more reason for me to get lessons from a local in how to cook local food ‘at home’ in a Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende.
Cooking Mexican Dishes from San Miguel de Allende
Today I’m learning to cook just three Mexican dishes from San Miguel de Allende, which are recipes that Marilau learned from her mother and grandmothers: sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup), the pre-Hispanic dish of pollo en pipian rojo (Chicken in a spicy pumpkin seed sauce), and sarapitos (plantains in tortillas with mole sauce).
I have to confess that at the start of the class I had a few reservations…
Firstly, I love my own recipe of sopa de tortilla and wasn’t keen to find out that I had been making it wrong all those years! I’m not a huge fan of chicken, unless it’s in Thai food (laab gai preferably or chicken satay) or a plump Bresse chicken with skin filled with truffles and butter before a stint in the oven.
Plantains are best left for monkeys. And mole, in my opinion (Lara loves the stuff), is a horrid concoction best used to disguise mal carne (bad meat). What was I thinking?!
Pollo en Pipian Rojo
We begin our Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende by prepping what Marilau says is a very local dish. It’s the second course, pollo en pipian rojo, but it will take longer to make.
“Cut the chillies, open them up, and pull the vein and seeds out,” Marilau instructs me. “But never rinse them as water reduces the flavour. The most important thing is to pull out the vein, the spiciest bit, but not scratch the inside of the chilli. With chillies, there are two types, fresh and dried, and there are different techniques for each. You can’t work in the same way for each one.”
Marilau asks if we eat pork lard (we do), because many participants don’t.
“Mexicans never use olive oil – it belongs to the history of Spain, not Mexico. When the Spanish came, Mexico didn’t have olive oil. Mexicans always use pork lard,” Marilau insists.
Marilau demonstrates how to toast the chillies – for less than half a minute – “simply to wake up the natural oils” – then we add the onions, chicken stock and salt (preferably rock salt), and put a lid on it all to simmer for 10 minutes. After we will blend it.
Next, we toast the almonds, then the sesame seeds (“when they pop they’re ready”), and blend these together.
Traditionally Mexicans used a metate, a large sloping stone, to grind grain and seeds, but Marilau opts for a blender because she wants people to feel comfortable doing this at home. Then we blend the pumpkin seeds separately into a powder as well.
“We’re not too attached to texture in salsas in Mexico,” Marilau says, explaining the consistency. “I like smooth salsas and that’s because of French ancestry.”
We return to our pot on the stove and spoon the contents into the blender to blend the hot chillies and onion into a smooth paste.
“We always serve this salsa with meat,” Marilau says, as we strain the sauce. “The pre-Hispanic people always used meat, pork and duck, never vegetables, though we could add potatoes if we wanted, or cactus, which is very traditional.”
“We’ll simmer it for 5 minutes more,” Marilau says, asking me to add the powdered seeds and whisk carefully. “You can smell the change in the aroma as you add the seeds, can’t you?”
The seeds add an extra taste, but while they season they also thicken. Mexicans never use corn starch or flour, according to Marilau.
The sauce now has complexity and a nutty flavour, and the fiery heat of the chillies has calmed down like a wayward child after dinner. We add the pumpkin seed powder next.
“If you want it even thicker, let it simmer more on a light boil,” Marilau advises. “Then add chicken stock. With the meat, you can cook it any way you like. In Mexico, we normally like to boil it, but you can also bake, steam or grill it. Just don’t season it, as the salsa gives it enough flavour.”
Sopa de Tortilla
My favourite Mexican soup is sopa de tortilla. The fact this was on the schedule was one of the reasons we chose this particular Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende. I hadn’t had a decent tortilla soup so far on this trip so I was keen to see how this turned out…
First, we prep our ancho chilli pepper, toasting it a little in a pan, then putting it in hot water.
“Never boil chilli, and never burn chillies either,” Marilau advises, showing me how to turn the chilli constantly. “You can tell when it’s ready by the smell – the smell is different when it’s untoasted and toasted. Mexicans always use their nose when they cook.”
When it’s toasted, we put the ancho chilli in hot water and put a weight on top of it. We could also snip it open to allow some hot water inside to reduce the spiciness a little. We put a lid on the pot for 15-20 minutes until the chilli is soft enough to blend.
“Soups in Mexico are always light in consistency and texture, due to the weather,” Marilau says, as we chop the tomatoes, a slice of onion and a clove of garlic.
“Just a small amount of garlic and onion,” Marilau advises “This is not European cuisine.”
Next, we add one cup of chicken stock and the soft chilli – “never touch the inside of it!” Marilau warns – and put it whole into the blender, blend it all together, then strain it just as we did with the salsa. We add salt and pepper and we simmer it all. When the soup has lots of colour, it will be ready.
Next, we prep the garnish. We add vegetable oil to a pan and some small pieces of corn tortillas.
“We only use corn tortillas in Mexico,” Marilau insists. “You’ll only find flour tortillas in the USA and along the Mexico-USA border.”
Traditionally, tortilla strips are used, but Marilau prefers tortilla squares because they stay on the spoon. “The taste is what’s important,” she explains.
We deep fry the tortilla pieces, and as they should be crispy, not soggy, and they should be served alongside the soup with the other garnishes. I think I’ve overcooked them, but Marilau says they’re fine.
“In Mexico, we think it’s important for people to eat the soup how they like it,” Marilau explains. “So all the condiments are served on the side and people can add things to suit their own tastes.”
We chop Manchego cheese (cow’s cheese) into cubes (Marilau warns not to use Spanish goat’s cheese and to use Gouda if you can’t get Manchego) and we put Mexican crema or sour cream into a dish (Mexicans never use regular cream, Marilau says).
We slice an avocado, scoop out the seed, and cut the avocado into cubes (or slices, if you prefer); and we roughly chop cilantro (coriander for our non-American readers) and put everything on a plate to serve beside the soup.
(Update: here’s a link to my sopa de tortilla recipe, which I made after the cooking class, at our casita in San Miguel de Allende; it’s a combination of Marilau’s recipe and the tortilla soup I’d been cooking since our first trip to Mexico many years earlier).
For the dessert called sarapitos, Marilau has already made a batch of mole sauce to her own secret recipe, for which she uses 30 different ingredients.
“There are thousands of different mole recipes and just two, from Oaxaca and Puebla, use chocolate,” she tells me. “You know, I once had an American student who walked out because I refused to put cheese in mole!”
First, we fry whole tortillas lightly on each side. Marilau uses plantains not bananas, and explains the difference: the plantains are hard to peel, unlike a banana, and they also smell sweet and are starchy.
We slice the plantains thinly, then fry them in vegetable oil, turning them over when they’re golden and dark around the edges.
When they’re ready, we put the plantains in the tortilla with a little mole, fold the tortilla in half, and serve more mole on top, sprinkling some sesame seeds on at the end.
It’s a sweet end to our Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende.
My Verdict on Marilau’s Mexican Cooking Class in San Miguel de Allende
My Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende has been outstanding. Marilau’s charming kitchen is well set up and was a fun space to spend a few hours.
Marilau is a superb teacher, explaining the process every step of the way while sharing Mexican cooking tips and insights into the history of Mexican cuisine. And the dishes are all sublime.
The sopa de tortilla has a delicious flavour but is a little mild for my taste. Marilau suggests I add another chilli to the recipe. I also like the idea of the DIY condiments on the side, as they do in Asia. It makes more sense. I used to put the garnish on the soup when I plated.
The pre-Hispanic pollo en pipian rojo is fantastic as well, and making the sauce was instructional in terms of seeing how the flavours develop complexity and how the initial overt heat of the chilli was tamed during the cooking process.
The sarapitos are delicious. I’m in shock as I finish the plate in seconds. Had every mole sauce before this one tasted that bad? On this trip they certainly had. Marilau’s mole sauce was a revelation.
After the class, Lara and I stroll back to our casita through Marilau’s neighbourhood, along hilly cobblestone streets with ramshackle unrestored houses, and not a single expat in sight. Phew.
As we pass shops, locals are buying last-minute ingredients like corn tortillas for their lunch, the most important meal of the day.
We can pick up the aromas of soup simmering in homes. Marilau will already be enjoying her meal with her family.
We now know where the best food in San Miguel de Allende is to be found. And it doesn’t come with an English-language menu, orange cheese, or the ‘ding’ of a microwave.
Marilau Mexican Ancestry Cooking School
Have you done a Mexican cooking class in San Miguel de Allende? Which Mexican cooking school did you try and how was your experience? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments below.