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Ensenada Insider

When Alice Waters wantsto learn about Baja cooking, she visits Billy Cross

April 28, 1999|LAURIE OCHOA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ENSENADA — After 35 years of visiting, traveling and often living in Mexico, Billy Cross has come up with one reason to revel in his outsider status: chilaquiles.

Maybe if he'd grown up in a Mexican family, he'd have more of a reason for his stand on the dish, which is basically nothing more than eggs cooked with tortillas and salsa. Still, in Mexico, they're an object of contention. In some families the tortillas must be crisp, never limp. Others argue that chilaquiles should be soft and comforting. As it is, Cross can only rely on his sensibility as a cook.

"It's the same way with American cooking," he says. "Someone might say, 'That's the only way to make that dish, and I don't care if they make it different in the next state; our way is the right way.' That's how regional recipes survive.

"At the same time," Cross goes on, "I love being able to come in as an outsider and say, 'Oh, this is the way they do it here, and this is the way they do it there.' I choose my own way by being open to all the variations out there." Of course, that's another way regional recipes survive--by being adopted by outsiders and shared with the world.

Cross explains his chilaquiles philosophy (he prefers soft to crisp) as he roasts tomatoes and chiles at the stove of his open kitchen for the salsa that will top the chilaquiles. With a view of the Pacific through the windows of his dining room, he is leading a Mexican cooking class in his home. It's one of the first classes of his recently formed International Cooking Expeditions de Mexico, designed to give Ensenada visitors more than the usual beer bars and trinket shops. His weekend tours include drives through the Guadalupe Valley, Mexico's emerging wine region; wine tastings; tours of the abundant fish and vegetable markets of Ensenada; and, naturally, cooking classes.

As it turns out, however, the students in this particular class include San Francisco restaurateur Patricia Unterman, not to mention cookbook author Marion Cunningham and Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters. Even professionals will play student if there's good food around. Plus, Cross approaches his role less as all-knowing instructor than as great host, showing off the insider places of an area he knows well and sharing his best recipes when guests come to his house for brunch. He's had some practice at this: Cross founded Napa Valley's Great Chefs of France Cooking School with the late Michael James and ran a cooking school in Puerto Vallarta.

This is the third day of Cross' tour. On the first night, after a drive through the Guadalupe Valley, everyone met at Cross' home for a welcome dinner. Among the guests was James' sister Catherine Smith.Cross made mole manchamanteles, brick red with a wonderfully complex flavor, and he served it with yellow beans cooked in broth. For dessert he presented a sweet corn pudding cake.

The next day Cross led everyone through the fresh fish sellers near Ensenada's pelican-populated docks, as well as local taco stands, artisan shops, a tortilla shop and a vegetable and spice market with hot churros carts in front sending out sweet cinnamony aromas.

The nutty aroma of roasted chiles fills Cross' home on the last day of his tour. As Cross and Guillermo Aguilar, a painter friend and cook, prepare the salsa and rinse Swiss chard leaves--some shot through with bright yellow ribs, others with red--the class munches on freshly made chips and guacamole and sips on ponche de Granada, a tequila-based punch flavored with pomegranate juice that only gets better with age or a nonalcoholic pomegranate agua fresca.

But when it's time to assemble the tamales, Cross gets everyone involved. Even the 4-year-old in the group helps spread the masa, rich with butter and creme frai^che, on chard leaves, with Cunningham and Waters giving gentle guidance. "It's like putting butter on bread," Cunningham tells the little girl.

Cross gets his helpers to cut the chard stems into thin matchsticks, then he briefly sautes them in butter and uses them to fill the tamales. As class members fold their tamales into little packages, Cross tells the apprehensive not to worry about the tiny holes and tears that might appear on the leaves. "We can always cover them up with the salsa," he says.

With the tamales cooked, everyone sits down to eat . . . and to plot the next meal. It's not on the itinerary, but Waters, Unterman and Cunningham have put a deposit on several lobsters with the thought of thanking Cross for his hospitality with dinner. Waters decides that a lobster salad would be perfect after Cross' big, wonderful meal.

Everyone piles into cars, then caravans to the lobster warehouse to pick up the live seafood and then to one of Ensenada's huge supermarkets, there to behold the sight of Waters sorting through an unpromising pyramid of avocados and magically finding 10 perfectly ripe fruit. She does a similar trick with the radishes, lettuce and a few bunches of cilantro and other herbs.

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