By Richard Frisbie
Las Ventanas al Paraíso is an exclusive hotel on the Cabos “corridor,” part way between the luxury resort town of Cabo San Lucas to the south, and the quieter colonial city of San Jose del Cabo to the north. It is simply stunning in its landscaping and architectural beauty. With a little over 100 rooms and suites, Las Ventanas al Paraíso (which translates as Windows to Paradise) successfully combines a small luxury boutique feel with a fabulous spa experience. It is also a favorite of foodies, and offers cooking classes with Chef Fabrice Puisset at a station on the edge of his walled herb garden. Fresh heirloom tomato and beet salad, red snapper baked in a hoja santa leaf, and a delicious selection of desserts were all on the menu the evening I attended. Talk about clean, fresh food. The chef darted into the herb garden whenever he needed fresh ingredients. What a night!
The setting of the class itself was unusual. Inside a walled garden, the class quickly revealed itself as an herb garden with a three-sided counter , all inside a pergola. We classmates arranged ourselves on stools around the “bar” while the “bartender” – who was actually the chef – took his station in front of us. Slanted mirrors hung above him so we could see what he was doing. Two classical guitarists played behind us, and staff hovered to refill our champagne* glasses as necessary (often!). He also played sous chef when needed (rarely!) The setting was perfect.
First Chef Fabrice created a guacamole, taking care to avoid making it into a paste. It had chunky, whole-pieces-of-avocado-bursting-with-flavor, combined with other ingredients to create the freshest in-your face- guacamole I’ve ever tasted. We were served that with a fresh tomato salsa and saltless tortilla chips as “blotters” while we watched the chef at work. With the amount of champagne we were drinking, it was good to have the “blotters!”
Chef Fabrice was an unusual instructor in that he measured nothing , only eyeing ingredients he used. As he worked he explained the concept and the process involved to create each dish – but giving no amounts! That’s how he made the vinaigrette for our salad. He started with a big bowl, pouring in a “goodly” amount of local agava flower honey , made from the tequila cactus, and even more champagne vinegar, to which he added lime juice and olive oil. He poached some orange zest to remove the bitterness and then added the zest, some reduced orange juice, and a few orange chunks to the bowl. A quick whisk, a dash of salt and pepper, and it was done. Without exact amounts, the experienced cook can still easily recreate the recipe using a 3/1 oil to vinegar ratio, adding the other ingredients to taste. The fresh, citrusy flavors complimented the complex tastes of the heirloom tomatoes and beets beautifully.
This next dish seemed fussy to me. I mean, sautéing and then baking a tiny piece of red snapper seemed a bit of overkill. I can’t believe the fillet wouldn’t cook just baking in the oven for 15 minutes or so, but then it wouldn’t have that buttery edge. Anyway, it was fun to watch him put it all together. The red snapper was cooked in butter and olive oil, then it was set on a leaf of the hoja santa plant which is commonly used in Mexican cuisine for tamales, and fish or meat wraps. It imparts a hard-to-put-your-finger-on, almost sassafras, almost eucalyptus taste to the meal. Tiny fresh vegetables (carrots, zucchini, leeks, fennel) were arranged around the fish with fresh basil, then the hoja santa leaf folded over to make a little package. That is set on a sheet of newspaper, wrapped again, and popped into the oven to bake. While it baked Chef Fabrice created a simple lime infused aioli to drizzle on top of the finished dish. Piquant, fragrant, crunchy, elusive in the root of its flavor, the snapper was complex and tasty. I guess, with red snapper readily available and commonly served, involved recipes such as this increase the variety of tastes one can get out of mild white fish.
The desserts tray was crowded with individual little fresh coconut milk custards topped with a variety of fresh fruits and sauces. Tiny multi-layered chocolate cakes, and other sweet concoctions in quantities far exceeding the number of participants were also added. There was even a plate of churros with sweet dips! The selection and combination kept us busy mining the depths of flavors. It was an extravagance of sweetness; a fitting finale to an over-the-top cooking demonstration. Chef Fabrice is an adept and able teacher, engaging in his presentation and execution. The class was one of the best I’ve had,and it certainly was in the nicest setting.
The chef and I definitely connected during the evening. He said he was impressed because I was the only one who took notes throughout the whole three hour meal. (I was impressed because I could still write after three hours of affirmative answers to the constant question, “Would you like more champagne, sir?”) He really is a sweetheart of a guy. I left with his recipes and the Ventanas’ signature red glass heart. It’s hanging in my window at home. Each day when the morning sun fills the heart with light I think I’m back at the table in Las Ventanas al Paraíso again.
* In the interest of clarity, the “champagne” was actually a 2000 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvée Brut, a Sonoma California sparkling wine. With 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Chardonnay grapes, it fits within the range of comfort for my palate. Not too much Chardonnay, with the dark grapes (I really prefer the Pinot Meunier grape, but Pinot Noir is very similar) giving it the body and staying power for an evening of imbibing. At $25, this is a very good everyday sparkling wine.
The “Freshest” Guacamole
4 large avocados
1 medium red onion
1 medium tomato
1 bunch cilantro
2 chili serrano
1 oz lime juice
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut each avocado in half and remove the seed. Holding one half cupped in your palm, use a rounded knife to crisscross the flesh of the fruit, not breaking the skin, to create ½ inch pieces.With a spoon, scoop it into a large bowl. Repeat for all halves. Finely chop the next four ingredients and stir in, adding the remaining ingredients as you do. The idea is that the avocado will mash a bit as you mix, but it will still have a texture when served.
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Richard Frisbie can be reached at Richard@globalfoodie.com. He also does business at Hope Farm Press & Bookshop, 15 Jane Street Saugerties NY 12477 where, since 1959, he has specialized in New York State books. Questions? Call him at: 845-246-3522
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