ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Light flashed off the swift-moving blade of Philippe Waffelaert’s paring knife, peels falling away in ribbons from potatoes and carrots as he prepared vegetables for Tortilla Española and Gazpacho Andaluz, both recipes on a menu at a recent Instituto Cervantes cooking school at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
Some of the other 15 participants, whose fingers weren’t as nimble, joked with Waffelaert that he must be a professional as they passed along other vegetables for his expert touch: red juicy tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, onions and garlic.
“I have done this before,” he admitted. Michéle, his wife, ran the French Pastry Shop in La Fonda in Santa Fe for 26 years, she says. Philippe cooked at home.
They have joined the others on a recent evening to learn about authentic Spanish cooking and practice their Spanish.
The Waffelaerts, who immigrated 40 years ago to New Mexico from France, retired to Mexico a few years ago and take classes through the Instituto Cervantes whenever they’re back to improve their Spanish.
Milly Castañeda, who organizes the cooking class, El Sabor de España, and coordinates other cultural events for Instituto Cervantes, say participants come together to learn Spanish in a more relaxed setting than a classroom. As they cook together, those who can speak in Spanish and others listen. The words and phrases are reinforced, becoming more natural and easier to access in a conversation, especially if the students make the food at home using the bilingual recipes.
“People can make authentic Spanish food with ingredients they can buy locally,” she adds.
Native Spaniards Charo Arellano and Manuel Jiménez have been teaching cooking for Instituto Cervantes for four months, preparing national dishes, all kinds of tapas and paella, as well as speciality dishes from their home in Andalusia and other regions.
“Food for us in a kind of ceremony in Spain,” Jiménez says. “Food for your health and your mind. What we teach is the kind of home cooking you would find in Spain. I learned to cook at home from my father and my grandmother. Spanish cuisine is good for you. You can’t beat a Mediterranean diet.”
The married couple, who have two teenagers, have been in Albuquerque for three years. When Jiménez isn’t cooking with Arellano, he teaches high school here through an exchange teacher program. His family enjoys living in Albuquerque and the couple hopes to extend their stay, but the food and customs are different.
They’ve enjoyed New Mexican enchiladas and American hamburgers. Whatever they cook, they try to eat together once a day.
They linger over meals during the weekend with little cups of coffee as they finish dining: “Sobremesa con un cafecito,” Arellano explains in Spanish. She teaches the cooking class in Spanish and Manuel, who is bilingual, translates for the students who aren’t as fluent.
“Some people have zero Spanish and some have zero English,” he says.
After the vegetables for the cold gazpacho are chopped they are pureed in a blender and then strained and beaten again to create a thick velvety texture, he says.
“We give you all the secrets, so you can make it at home,” Arellano says.
Meanwhile Waffelaert’s expertly pared and cubed potatoes are frying in Spanish olive oil.
While the potatoes are still warm, they will be folded into eggs and popped back into the frying pan for the Tortilla Española, a variety of omelet that is mostly sliced and served, cold or hot, as a tapa or appetizer or for lunch, instead of breakfast, they say.
They prepare one for the class with just egg and potato and another with egg, potato and onions. Arellano, a purist, says the onions make it less a traditional dish.
Jiménez disagrees. They laugh and say the controversy could be cause for divorce for some couples.
Participant Julie Pérez, who loves to cook and learn new recipes, says in her native Puerto Rico they even add avocado. “But it’s fun to hear how native Spaniards cook their recipes and learn their secrets,” she says.
5 pounds very ripe tomatoes, not less-juicy Roma variety
1 medium to large cucumber
1 medium to large sweet red bell pepper
1 small onion
2 large cloves of garlic
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup vinegar (sherry is best)
1 tablespoon salt
Refrigerated cold water
Peel cucumber, carrot, onion and garlic and place in blender. Add tomatoes; then add bell pepper. Blend all vegetables, working in batches if necessary. Strain vegetables to remove any remaining seeds or skins. Add oil, vinegar and salt and mix again using a hand mixer or blender. Add refrigerated water slowly while beating to obtain desired thickness and texture.
You can drink gazpacho or eat it as a cold soup. If serving as a soup, add diced tomato, cucumber, bread and boiled egg to the bowl.
COOK’S NOTE: Wash the raw vegetables thoroughly with soap and water. Remove the innermost center of the garlic clove to avoid strong taste. Never add ice or freeze. It causes gazpacho to separate. Refrigerate leftovers and discard after two days.
2 pounds potatoes
1½ teaspoon salt
Wash, peel and cut potatoes into small cubes and sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt over them. Fry the potatoes in plenty of oil, careful not to burn or brown them. In a separate bowl, beat eggs and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Fold in drained, warm fried potatoes with eggs.
In a frying pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil on low heat. Pour egg and potato mixture into pan. When the bottom of the tortilla, which resembles an omelet, is cooked, put a plate on the top of the pan and turn tortilla over onto the plate. Gently slide and transfer back to the pan, allowing it to cook or harden to desired consistency.
For variety, add chopped onion, peppers or chorizo to the tortilla. Eat hot or cold with mayonnaise, ketchup or other sauce, in a sandwich with meat and vegetables or sliced as an appetizer.
COOK’S NOTE: Wash eggs with soap and water to avoid contamination. To avoid browning or burning, the oil for potatoes, which should cover the bottom of pan completely, shouldn’t be too hot.
– From the kitchen of Manuel Jiménez and Charo Arellano, courtesy of Instituto Cervantes, El Sabor de España