Cooking a Mexican feast with Urban Element

I know there’s more to Mexican cuisine than tacos and nachos (if those even really qualify), but I’ve always been a bit at sea when it comes to making it at home. Fortunately, I was able to learn some of the basics recently at an Ottawa cooking school.

The Urban Element is housed in a converted fire station on Parkdale Avenue in Wellington Village. When I found out it was offering a three-hour, hands-on cooking class called Modern-Day Mexican, my friend Stephanie and I signed up.

A one-time fire station is now a spacious, high-ceiling kitchen at The Urban Element. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

A one-time fire station is now a spacious, high-ceilinged kitchen at The Urban Element. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Our fellow students in the evening class were a diverse and lively lot, ranging from university students to retirees. Several were there because they’d received the class as a birthday or Christmas gift. (You can buy gift certificates from the school or from a company called Breakaway Experiences that sells vouchers for a wide range of experiences in Ottawa and other Canadian cities.)

All told, about 20 of us sat down around a counter that borders the huge open kitchen on two sides. Initially, I wondered whether there would be enough for all of us to do, but I needn’t have worried.

Before we started cooking, Chef Devin Marhue outlined the extensive menu and then let us choose which dishes we wanted to try. Options included smoked chicken legs (prepared in an outdoor smoker), Gulf shrimp and scallop ceviche, yucca chips with lime and black pepper, and sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup). “The Gulf of Yucatan area is where I draw much of my inspiration from,” Devin explained.

ceviche small

Ingredients in this ceviche included coconut milk, basil and star fruit. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

At stations throughout the kitchen, all the ingredients and most of the tools we needed were already set out—what the pro chefs call mise en place. The idea is that you find, measure and chop everything before you start cooking, a time-saving and stress-reducing technique I always mean to use in my home kitchen but rarely manage.

Stephanie and I chose one of the blender stations because we were intrigued by the jalapeno green sauce on the menu, a rich blend of jalapeno peppers, cilantro, mint, garlic, mayonaise, lime and many other ingredients. It is well named—when it came out of the blender, it was a vivid hue. It was an excellent accompaniment to the burritos we would assemble later from components made at stations around the room, including re-fried black beans and stacks of tortillas.

Bursting with fresh flavours, these burritos had little in common with the versions drowned in tomato sauce and Monterrey Jack cheese common in Tex-Mex restaurants. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Bursting with fresh flavours, these burritos had little in common with the versions drowned in tomato sauce and Monterrey Jack cheese common in Tex-Mex restaurants. Check out our jalapeno green sauce. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Neither Stephanie nor I had seen tortillas made from scratch before, and it was an interesting process. “It’s very important in the recipe to incorporate warm water in the dough,” Devin noted, adding that cooks should also let the dough rest before rolling it out, to hydrate the flour and break down the gluten to some degree. We all had the opportunity to roll out thin tortillas and quickly cook them on the massive griddle.

Devin demonstrates the technique for rolling tortilla dough. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

Devin demonstrates the technique for rolling tortilla dough. Photo copyright Laura Byrne Paquet.

The menu also included a clever dessert. I already knew and loved churros, the popular Spanish deep-fried pastry, but I’d never tried them with fresh lime curd. That was a great addition. Devin explained that lime curd also is a nice accent for another well-known dessert. “Just throw it in your ice cream maker,” he advised us. (I love that he assumed we all had one, even though I would barely recognize one if I saw it in a shop.)

After two hours of cooking, we sat down to a feast with wine, plated and served by Devin, his assistant chef Mark and our hostess Lily. Everything was delicious, but I couldn’t imagine how tired they must have been after prepping the ingredients, coaching all of us, serving the food and cleaning up afterward. They assured me it was a relaxing picnic compared to working in a restaurant. If that’s the case, I’m definitely not Gordon Ramsay material.

Disclosure: I attended this class as a guest of the Urban Element and Breakaway Experiences, neither of which reviewed or approved this post.

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