sfcooking0233a holiday feast
at home with the santa fe school of cooking

By Anya Sebastian. recipes by Susan & Nicole Curtis, photos by Sergio Salvador

It all started with a mid-life crisis. The kids had gone off to college and Susan Curtis, a commercial real estate appraiser, was ready for a change. “But I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” she recalls. “I just knew I needed to go in a different direction.” After a great deal of agonizing and soul-searching and getting nowhere, Curtis finally sought guidance from a career counselor, who came up with three completely different options:  become a ski instructor, a ranch hand, or start a cooking school.

As it happens, Curtis grew up on a cattle ranch in Idaho, surrounded by cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, abundant fruit trees and a huge vegetable garden. “My mother and grandmother would always cook,” she remembers, “so home cooking was very much part of my life. And although I had never even thought about starting a cooking school, the idea really appealed to me.”

She took her time and did her homework, visiting cooking schools from San Francisco to New Orleans. It was the mid 1980s and, after spending two days consulting with the founder of the New Orleans School of Cooking, Curtis knew what she wanted to do. Living in Santa Fe and believing that most of her customers would probably be tourists, she realized that she was perfectly placed to offer regional cooking classes.

But, with her commercial background, Curtis still had more work to do, analyzing statistics and trends, studying marketing techniques, checking out products for the retail store and coming up with a business plan. “I have a very patient husband,” she says with a smile. Finally she felt ready and the Santa Fe School of Cooking officially opened in the Plaza Mercado on December 21st 1989.

“We thought Christmas would be a busy time,” says Curtis a little ruefully, “but, of course, no-one knew we were there.” She had also invited the finest chefs in town to come and give classes or demonstrations and not one of them had responded. “So we opened a cooking school with no chef!”

The first couple of months were challenging, with anything they could put together, being offered to the public at no charge. But it wasn’t long before the chefs started to come around and they were soon offering to do cooking classes at the school, as a way of promoting their restaurants. By the time the school celebrated its official grand opening some six months later, there were back-to- back demonstrations by chefs from restaurants that included Coyote Café, La Casa Sena and Celebrations.

“We realized that it wasn’t enough to know food  –  you had to be an entertainer as well!” says Curtis’s daughter, Nicole, who had taken a semester off from college, where she was studying for an MBA, to help get the business off the ground. “So we brought in Pancho Epstein, who knew restaurants and food and was also a great showman. And things really took off from there.”

Susan and her daughter (now married with children of her own) run the cooking school together. There’s a core team of seven chefs, including Rocky Durham, the Culinary Director, who gave his first class at the school 14 years ago. “Our mission has never changed,” he says. “It’s always been to celebrate local food, local farmers and the best of everything New Mexican. We even use New Mexico wines, beers and soft drinks.”

In addition to the cooking classes, which can accommodate 16 to 40 people, there are also restaurant walking tours. Started by Nicole as an experiment, these have proved so popular, that they now take place once or twice a week. A group of no more than 16 people, led by Rocky Durham, is taken to meet the chefs at three or four different restaurants in town, and try out specially prepared samples of their food. There are three different routes and tours take place in the afternoon, during officially ‘closed’ business hours.  Among the participating restaurants are: La Boca, Il Piatto, Restaurant Martin and Santacafe. As anticipated, tourists arrived from the get-go and about 90% of customers are from somewhere else, including visitors from overseas.

In an effort to pep up the slow season early in the year, Nicole had another brainwave; why not offer a culinary ‘boot camp’, a special three-day cooking intensive? The first one, held in February, 2010, attracted 14 people (the maximum is 16) and the second one, in November, was sold out. “It includes a modified restaurant tour,” explains Nicole, “and on the last day, everyone in the group gets to plan and prepare a Southwestern meal, which is judged by the chefs they met the day before.”

Judging by the popularity of its classes and demonstrations and the amount of repeat business it attracts, Santa Fe School of Cooking has hit on a winning formula. It’s been in business for 21 years and, in spite of the recession, is enjoying its best year ever. All of which just goes to show that a mid-life crisis isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

Serves 8

4 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved if large
5-6 pieces bacon
Splash or two of good sherry
3 T. butter
2 t. chopped fresh thyme
2 t. chopped fresh sage

Blanch the Brussels sprouts in saucepan of boiling salted water for two minutes for crisp tender, or about 6-8 minutes if you prefer your sprouts cooked softer.  Drain.

In separate pan, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and place on paper towel.  Crumble the bacon and set aside. Drain most of the bacon fat, return the pan to the heat and deglaze with a splash or two of sherry. Add the butter and swirl the pan to melt, add the Brussels sprouts and toss well. Sprinkle with thyme and sage  and continue sautéing until the sprouts begin to brown at the edges.  Salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Holiday Salad

Serves 8-10

This salad could change based on what you have in your fridge or your preferences, for example you could substitute feta for blue cheese – although the blue is delicious in this salad.

2 lbs. beets, roasted or steamed, peeled, and cut into wedges
1 lb. broccoli, lightly steamed  (retaining a bright green color), drained and cut in pieces
1 lb. clean lettuce mix
1 lb. steamed green beans, drained
5 oz. toasted pepitas
6 oz. blue cheese
Seeds from 1 pomegranate

Salad Dressing
Whisk the items in right column until mixed.  Add ½ cup olive oil and mix well.  Arrange salad on plate and drizzle dressing over the top.

1 T. sherry vinegar
1 T. lemon juice
½ t. sugar
¼ t. ground pepper
11/2 t. Dijon mustard

Roasted Squash w/ Potatoes, Caramelized Onions & Garlic

Serves 6-8

This is a decidedly more festive version of mashed potatoes that can all be prepared ahead and assembled, then reheated at the last minute – perfect for holiday entertaining.
1 lb. winter squash (butternut, acorn or Hubbard), cut in half lengthwise & seeded
1 lb. sweet potatoes cut in half
¾ lb. potatoes (white, red rose or Yukon gold), peeled and halved
3 small red or yellow onions peeled & quartered
10-12 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ C. olive oil
2 oz. butter
1 ½ C. cream or half-and-half (vegetable or chicken broth for low fat version)
2 T. balsamic or sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper

Place the squash and sweet potatoes on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan, brush with some of the oil, season with salt and pepper and roast at 375˚until they are soft (about 45 minutes to 1 hour). Remove and cool.

Oil and season the garlic and the onion wedges.  Toss the onions with the vinegar and place both on a foil lined pan and roast at 375˚for 20-23 minutes until the garlic is golden and soft and the onions are showing color.

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until cooked through, drain and pass through a ricer, food mill or mash manually.

Scoop the flesh from the squash and sweet potatoes and puree in a food processor along with the roasted garlic and ½ c. of the cream or broth.

Heat the remaining cream or broth in a saucepan along with the butter. Add the squash and garlic puree and gently heat while stirring.  Add the mashed potatoes and stir in.

Coarsely chop the onions and add them to the mixture.  Taste for seasonings, adjust and serve.

Marj’s Apple Pudding with Jamaican Rum Sauce

Serves 8

This recipe came from Susan’s mother-in-law, it resembles steamed puddings of the  past but requires far less attention and fuss, and can be served either warm or room temperature. It must be served with the delicious rum sauce – and a dollop of cream or vanilla ice cream, while not necessary, would certainly not be out of place.

1 C. Sugar
¼ C. butter
1 Egg
1 C. flour
¼ t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 t. nutmeg
1 t. cinnamon
½ C. chopped pecans
2 ½ C. diced, tart apples
1 t. vanilla
2 T. hot water

Butter 9 x 9 pan and set aside. Cream the sugar and butter together and then beat in the egg.  Sift the flour, salt, soda, and spices together and add to the creamed mixture.
Stir in the pecans, apples, vanilla and hot water.  Pour into the buttered pan and bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes.  

Serve with warm rum sauce, cream or ice cream optional.        

Rum Sauce

1 C. sugar
½ C. butter
½ C. cream
1 t. vanilla
Rum to taste—1-2 T.

Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan, whisk or stir over medium heat until dissolved and blended. Can be prepared ahead and reheated at serving time.

Beef Tenderloin

Serves 8

This is the only part of the meal that must be prepared just prior to serving – but all it requires is a timer and a good hot oven. If you follow the directions it’s practically foolproof. You can always use a meat thermometer if you’re more comfortable, if so check the meat after 20 minutes and remove when the meat registers an internal temperature of 120ºF. Keep in mind that carryover heat will continue to cook the meat as it rests, raising the temperature by 10 to 15 degrees.

Let the meat rest in a warm place for at least 15 minutes (longer is fine) before slicing it. The rest equalizes the temperature and gives the meat fibers time to reabsorb the internal juices. Without an ample rest, the juices will rush out when you slice, and your meat will be dry.

1 4lb. trimmed beef tenderloin
4 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 T. coarsely ground black pepper
¾ C. Worcestershire sauce
1-½ C. soy sauce
1 C. beef bouillon

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.  After washing the tenderloin, pat dry. Rub with a mixture of the garlic and black pepper, coating the tenderloin.

Combine the Worcestershire sauce with the soy sauce and place in a large roasting pan.  Place the tenderloin in pan and marinate for 2 hours at room temperature. After two hours remove the beef and discard the marinade.

Place the beef in a roasting pan and pour the beef bouillon around the beef and put in oven.  Cook for exactly 22 minutes for rare, and 25 minutes for medium.

Remove the meat from the oven, and cover tightly with aluminum foil for 20 minutes.  Pour the remaining broth into a small saucepan and keep warm.

Remove strings if the meat is tied, slice and platter, pouring the warm broth over the meat. Serve immediately.

Susan Curtis opened the Santa Fe School of Cooking in the Plaza Mercado on December 21st 1989. Thanks to her and chef Rocky Durham for sharing these recipes with our readers and preparing the food for our photographs.

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