Cooking Yucatan style A day at Los Dos cooking school in Merida
Discovering Los Dos
In December I had the unusual opportunity to take a cooking class with Los Dos in the colonial city of Merida, Yucatan. I had been interested in learning something about authentic Yucatecan cooking for a long time since it's my favorite style of Mexican food. David Sterling, the chef and proprietor of Los Dos, teaches one and two day cooking classes, and I decided to enroll in a one day class.
After morning coffee and pastries by the Los Dos pool our class started with David's introduction to the regional cooking of Yucatan and some of the local ingredients used in their dishes. There were four of us in the class. We were each handed a workbook with the day's menus, recipes, a list of the 100 most famous Yucatecan dishes, and a chile guide. After the intro and overview of the day's recipes we hit the street, armed with our shopping bags and lists, and headed to the market about six blocks away.
Fruit and ground spices at the nearby mercado
Shopping with David, the local chef
Through the busy streets we followed David, taking in the exotic sights and smells of downtown Merida at every turn. Merida is a real cultural experience and very different than your average US city.
We entered the mercado (market) and plunged into a throng of locals selling all manner of native goods including grains, freshly dead (and live) chickens, veggies, fruits, colorful bags of Yucatecan seasonings and spices, tortillas, and more. When you visit Merida don't miss the mercado. It's an excellent example of a typical Latin American market, entirely different from shopping at Walmart or even a US farmers' market. The energy is intense, if not a bit overwhelming at first, surrounded by so many people conversing in Maya and Spanish. Everything and everybody are squeezed into narrow isles overflowing with market goods, toys, gadgets and the like. The range of wares, vendors and smells is quite entertaining and after the initial shock it's easy to get into the experience. Since David knows many of the vendors we were allowed to take candid photographs of the local shop-keepers he patronizes. This wouldn't have been as easy had we not been with David. It's quite common for locals to shy away from tourists pointing cameras. So with our lists in hand we bought all the fresh ingredients we needed and had great fun together. The crew consisted of me, a woman from Australia, two great guys from Belgium, and of course David.
David moves through his punch list of goods
selections are made & goods are bagged up
local fruit, chiles, legumes and veggies are everywhere
Now, back to cooking
The kitchen is a hands-on classroom (below). One person chops, one stirs, one reads the recipe, and David gives demonstrations and pointers all the while. We knocked out three salsas in 30 minutes. Our meal was to begin with cream of cilantro soup which we prepared with all fresh ingredients. For the main course David taught us "Pollo Pibil" and "Cochinita Pibil" which are two of Yucatan's most celebrated dishes. Chicken pieces or pork are marinated in "Recado Rojo" (achiote paste) and sour orange juice, then garnished with onion and tomato. This is wrapped in banana leaves before being cooked in a Mayan "Pib" which is a hand-dug pit in the ground lined with stones and fiery hot coals. A lid is used to cap the hole and then the pib is covered with earth (don't try this at home). Meats cooked in a pib are typically wrapped in banana leaves to seal in their juices and flavor. Since David was not very keen on digging up his yard we used his pre-heated smoking pot (essentially a "Gringo pib" dutch oven) with some smoking chips. The pot is then placed in the oven to cook.
Team work in preparation
The ingredients are mixed, garnish added and David demonstrates the banana leaf wrapping
The students work together to prepare enough Pollo Pibil to feed everyone in the group
Next the dessert, David's version of the Yucatecan postre Caballeros Pobres
My favorite recipe was dessert Caballeros Ricos or "rich gentlemen", the Yucatecan version of bread pudding. It is actually called "Caballeros Pobres" or poor gentlemen but David upgraded the name to ricos because we added rum to the recipe. This bread pudding is made of stale bread dipped in egg batter and fried, like French toast, then baked in the oven in a "piloncillo" syrup (piloncillo is a Mexican type of brown sugar). It is served warm, covered with chocolate ice cream, and it is absolutely delicious. There's probably no way to make this Atkins friendly so we just grinned and ate it (after dinner that is), with all its butter, sugar and cream. It was yummy!
Cocktails before dining
By this time cocktail hour was upon us and Gary joined the group along with Keith Heitke. While we were shopping and cooking Keith led Gary and a small group of others on the Merida House and Garden walking tour of restored homes. Keith also sells real estate in Merida and the tour is arranged by David and Keith through the Merida English Library (MEL). The table was set as we enjoyed our cocktails and conversation. And the dishes we spent all day preparing were cooking in the kitchen. Dining is an elegant affair at Los Dos, with china, silver, linen and all the finery necessary for a proper candle-lit dinner. We shared stories, cooking, travel and more with our new friends from other parts of the world. It was a memorable day and lovely evening, highly recommended.
Los Dos' beautiful mural-walled dining room
About the chef
Los Dos Chef David Sterling was born in Oklahoma City, OK and describes himself as being "weaned on chili". Sterling grew up in the Southwestern culinary environment and so is intimately familiar with everything from chicken fried steak and sausage gravy, to all types of enchiladas plus an assortment of other Tex-Mex dishes. David has studied a range of cuisines since he was a teenager but after traveling to Mexico in 1972, for the first of many visits, he decided to focus primarily on Mexican cooking. He credits one of his best friends, a teacher of Mexican cooking in Canada, for sparking that passion.
Sterling holds a Master of Fine Arts in design from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He honed his Spanish skills studying art and languages as an undergrad. Formerly from New York City, he lived there for 25 years before moving to Mérida in 2003 to open Los Dos. This was his opportunity to create the Yucateco-style kitchen of his dreams, featuring colorful Mexican tiles and top-notch modern appliances. Sterling spends his hours at Los Dos researching, experimenting and preparing traditional "Cocina Yucateca" dishes. As chef and founder of Los Dos cooking school he also offers classes to the local population and serves as planning consultant to regional restaurants. In addition, Sterling is proprietor of the Los Dos line of gourmet Mexican food products.
David offers private classes for one to three people, and standard classes for four to ten people. All classes are taught at Los Dos (click here for info and prices). In a private class you can request a specific dish, for instance, making tamales, or any number of other mainstream Mexican dishes. David is open to requests and full of ideas.