A Traditional Chilean Culinary Class

Posted by on December 12th, 2019

A reporter once asked famed chef Anthony Bourdain what his least favorite cuisine was. He replied that he didn’t have a least favorite cuisine, but when pressed, he said he found Chilean cuisine “boring.”

I’ve lived in Chile for four years at the time of writing this post. While it is true that the capital, Santiago, doesn’t have diverse cuisine deep in its roots, the varied Chilean ecosystems range from desert, to Andean mountains, to subtropical lake region, to the wintry tundra at the tip of Patagonia. Cuisine across Chile is quite heterogeneous and has been taught mother to daughter in the Mapuche culture: clapping out the round, flat shape of sopaipilla dough before it is dropped into the deep fryer; extended by the Spanish colonists, layering cuts of meat and a variety of sausages onto the barbecue grill; and refined by the chefs of today, fusing old-world cooking techniques and ingredients with more varied flavor profiles and pairing them with complex Chilean wines.

After living in Chile for such an extended period, it was time to take a cooking class, so I decided to learn from Chile Cooks, located in Santiago. A trip to La Vega Market at any time of the year is proof of what produce is currently in season, and a visit to the Mercado Central provides evidence of the wide variety of fish and seafood that can be caught off the coast.  For any lunchtime class, you will visit both markets to select the freshest ingredients available, and you will have ample opportunities to photograph market vendors in their stalls with the bounty on offer. I opted for a dinner time cooking class, however, and these markets close in the mid afternoon, so Noelle picked our ingredients earlier in the day and we met in her apartment to prep our four-course meal.

We started with the toughest and bulkiest ingredients: chopping onions, which would go in three of the four dishes we were preparing, and dicing tomatoes, which would also be added to several dishes. While cutting, Noelle gave us some tips on how to most efficiently use the knives. The first dish we pulled together was chimichurri: a tomato- and onion-based salsa with cilantro and lime. This salsa is typically placed on the table shortly after diners are seated and served with freshly baked bread. After breaking a bite sized piece off the bread, Chileans pile a spoonful of chimichurri on top and eat it in one bite. Noelle served our chimichurri in a large bowl and set some piping hot, homemade rolls down next to it, and I couldn’t resist diving right in before moving on to the next creation.

When learning culinary arts in Chile, it is important to include a Pisco Sour, a cocktail similar to a whiskey sour, but with Pisco, a liquor made from fermented grapes. While one of my colleagues juiced quite a few limes, I was busy separating some egg whites from the yolks. We used Pisco, the juice, the whites, and a little sugar, all blended together, to make our tart little cocktails to enjoy while we continued cooking.

Ceviche was our next dish. I chopped up the cilantro while my colleague cubed the raw fish into bite-sized pieces. While we tossed the fish into the other ingredients, Noelle taught us a little about the chemistry of ceviche. While many people say the lime juice “cooks” the fish, that technically isn’t true. The fish becomes opaque because of a chemical reaction to the acid of the lime. To allow that process to happen, we let our ceviche rest at room temperature for about twenty minutes. This also gives the ceviche time for all the flavors to blend. Unlike Peruvian ceviche, which rests for several hours to give the raw fish a firmer bite, or Ecuadorian ceviche, which is served with a high ratio of lime juice to fish, Chilean ceviche has a very soft texture and is served in bowls with a little juice at the bottom, which is made of a mix of lime juice and a splash of Pisco.

While our ceviche rested, we moved on to prepare the empanadas and the stew, which made up our main course. The empanada de pino, the most popular empanada in Chile, is stuffed with a mix of sautéed onions and beef. Noelle instructed us on how often to stir the onions and beef in order to give the onions time to caramelize and become sweeter. Meanwhile, we added the ingredients of the stew to a large pot so it would have time to cook and thicken. Into the pot went sweet potatoes, potatoes, some onion, tomatoes, and beans that had been soaked overnight. We also added some vegetable broth, and once it all came to a boil, it was put on medium-low heat to simmer. Noelle explained that we wouldn’t be adding salt until the very end, since the beans get tough when cooked in salt, and we wanted soft beans. Later, when the ingredients were thoroughly cooked, we added a pinch or two of salt and used the immersion blender to mash some of the ingredients, thickening up the stew.

At the same time, Noelle put some white sugar in a heavy bottomed pan to caramelize. She explained that only a white pan can show exactly when the sugar has reached the fine line between melted and burned, and we wanted a golden caramel shell for our leche asado dessert. Once the caramel was melted, it was poured into the bottom of a few ramekins where it was left to harden.

At this point, it was time to make the empanada dough as the empanada filling was just right. We mixed yeast with warm water, added flour and salt, and when it was time to add more liquid, instead of adding water, Noelle instructed us to add a splash of white wine. The alcohol of the wine was to give our empanada shell a charming crunch when biting into it. After rolling out the dough and filling our empanadas, Noelle explained the different ways to fold an empanada and how the method of folding shows what each empanada is filled with. Even though we all had empanadas de pino, we each tried our hand at a different technique, then brushed the dough with egg yolks before pushing them into the oven.

While our empanadas were cooking, our stew was simmering, and our ceviche was resting, we finished preparing our final dessert: leche asada, which is like a soft flan. We blended eggs, sugar, milk, and several spices, then beat them together until they were completely blended and foamy on top. We then poured the mixture into the candy-coated ramekins, which crackled delightfully when the cold, creamy mixture was added. Soon, the ramekins would be put into a larger pan of boiling water and placed in the oven to cook, but for us, it was time to start eating.

We started with the ceviche, which was a fresh mix of textures, soft fish and crunchy onions. The bright herbs were balanced with the tart lime and hint of sweet Pisco. Once we finished the ceviche, we were served our empanadas, hot from the oven. Upon cutting into the shell, the nutty, meaty aroma greeted us. Each bite of crunchy empanada shell was stuffed with juicy filling of stewed meat and soft, sweet onion. I was starting to get full, but there were still two courses to be had. We took a break to check on our leche asada, which was thickening up in the oven in its boiling water bath. Once back at the table, we had our stew, true comfort food. The mix of sweet and savory of the sweet potato and broth was delightful, and the beans were both filling and flavorful. We finished the meal with our individual ramekins of soft, creamy leche asada. Each spoonful was spiced with just enough cinnamon and smoky sweet caramel.

There was quite a bit of food left over. We asked Noelle what would be done with the remaining food, and if her family was going to eat it. She welcomed us to take home whatever we wanted, and said she donated all the leftover food to the members of a nearby community where there were a few low-income families who could claim one or two of the dishes later that evening. It was tough to leave Sonia’s inviting dining room and warm, cozy kitchen to go into the Santiago night, but our class had come to a close, and I would be bringing a Tupperware full of warm stew to my husband, so we said our goodbyes.

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