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Mexican Home Cooking, Casa Carmelita

A Degree in Mole, Tamales, and Chiles en Nogada
After five days of cooking classes--learning from Estela Salas Silva and Jon Jarvis how to make typical Poblano dishes including sopa de tortilla, crema de chile Poblano soup, tamales, tinga, sopes, pipian verde and pipian roja, mole Poblano, chipotles en conserva, ensalada de nopalitos, and more--the payoff includes a diploma, a loose-leaf folder of recipes, and a deeper knowledge of central Mexican cuisine, culture, and history.

A Good First Morning's Work in the Kitchen
During the five days of a Mexican Home Cooking course, you spend about three hours in the morning learning to cook four to seven dishes, which you later consume at lunch and dinner. The fruits of each lesson are laid out for photo ops, and this is what we made on our first day in the Casa Carmelita kitchen under the guidance of Estela Salas Silva and her husband, Jon Jarvis: sopa de hongo (mushroom soup), ensalada de nopalitos (nopal salad), tortas de papas con espinaca and/or camarón (potato pancakes with spinach and/or shrimp), salsa roja en molcajete (red sauce made with a stone mortar and pestle), pato almendrada (almond duck or eggplant/mushroom), and, for dessert, bueñelos.

The Best Homemade Chiles en Nogada
On day four of our Mexican Home Cooking classes we made this traditional Pueblan dish, typically prepared to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on September 16. Legend has it that nuns in Puebla cooked them for the emperor Agustín de Iturbide when he visited their central Mexican city. The battered chiles (green) are stuffed, in this recipe, with a picadillo of fruits (apples, peaches, pears), ground beef, onion, garlic, chopped almonds, cloves, and raisins, topped with a walnut sauce (white), and garnished with pomegranate seeds (red), so that all three colors of the Mexican flag are represented.

The Apex of Home Cooking in Central Mexico
Casa Carmelita, the site of Estela Salas Silva and Jon Jarvis's Mexican Home Cooking school, serves up to six guests at a time in three accommodations: the detached Casita, the two-room Stone Suite, and the Blue Room (in the main house, pictured here). The homey property, the epitome of "rustic luxury," sits in the countryside a short drive from Tlaxcala (in turn, about 45 minutes from Puebla) on a rise overlooking the Laguna de Acuitlapilco, a lake that attracts dozens of species of waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds. After the morning cooking classes and lunch, Jon can arrange afternoon trips into Tlaxcala and Puebla and to the historic archaeological sites of Cacaxtla, Xochitecatl, and Cholula, as well as shopping junkets for crafts and the region's famous Talavera ceramics. In the evenings, Estela's brother, Rene, makes a killer margarita!

Mole Olé!
Until our final day of Mexican Home Cooking classes, Mexican moles were, to me, sauces of daunting and mysterious complexity. The mole Poblano we made is indeed complex--the recipe fills two pages in our take-home binder. But the path to the ultimate end of rich, dark, spicy, slightly sweet, nutty sauce--a path of chopping and roasting and slicing and frying and grinding and blending and simmering and stirring--is no longer intimidating, thanks to Estela's clear, calm, methodical, and humor-laced instruction. This mole is great with chicken or turkey or pork. But because our fellow student was vegetarian, we learned meat-free alternatives for every dish we cooked, as well. Try it with squash and rice and tortillas.

Handcrafted Rustic Luxury in Central Mexico
Everything about Casa Carmelita is handcrafted, from the traditional Pueblan cuisine we learned in the Mexican Home Cooking classes taught by Estela Salas Silva to the stone, tile, and stucco walls and rooms designed and managed by Estela's husband, Jon Jarvis. Our "Casita" featured a dome, with judiciously placed glass blocks, above the bed, romantic lighting, a wood-burning fireplace, and a private patio with a morning view of the sun rising from behind snow-capped Popocatépetl, Mexico's most active volcano. Around 4:30 every afternoon, huge flocks of white egrets flew overhead in a daily migration to Laguna de Acuitlapilco, down the hill from the Casa.

Santa Maria Acuitlapilco, Tlaxcala, Mexico
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