Any woman who has worn pointed high heels knows that fashion and good sense are often strangers, in our eating habits. though, the two are beginning to get along.
We are coming to admire peasant foods, which are more likely to be healthful foods. Beans and rice, cornmeal and pasta -- those inexpensive staples of poor societies, now recognized as the basis of a healthful diet -- are being invited to the best parties and on the menus of the best restaurants. From coast to coast -- from St. Estephe restaurant in Los Angeles to Arizona 206 in New York -- the foods of the Southwest in particular, of the Indians, Spaniards and Mexicans, are high fashion.
It all comes together in Taos, N.M., now an elegant summer and winter vacationland that remains a center of traditional Southwestern culture.
Las Palomas de Taos connects it even more directly, being a conference and retreat center for teaching the arts and culture of the Southwest. One of those arts is cooking.
The setting alone is an education, for Las Palomas was the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan, patron of the arts, who lured D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe to Taos. Thomas Wolfe and Aldous Huxley visited this 22-room adobe house with its viga ceilings and pueblo fireplaces. O'Keeffe painted its cottonwood trees. And the windows in the bathrooms still bear the bright splashy colors painted by D.H. Lawrence himself. A portion of "Easy Rider" was filmed there when Dennis Hopper bought the house several years after Luhan died.
Then came Kitty and George Otero, looking to establish a retreat for educators. Their goal was a multi-cultural setting where George Otero, then director of the international relations school at the University of Denver, could teach about a culture in its context.
So they bought the rambling historic house and cleaned it up, keeping everything that they could, including Luhan's drapes. And Kitty, who had been a nurse, started putting to use the lessons of George's grandmother -- cooking lessons. She found a traditional cook from the Taos Pueblo, Laurencita Lujan, to help her. Three years ago cooking classes were added to the educational mix.
Art and Culture programs this year will run three weekends in the summer (July 11-13, Aug. 15-17, Sept. 5-7, $165 including room and board), and one full week (Sept. 26-Oct. 1, price not yet set). The programs include discussions of Spanish and Indian history of the area and demonstrations of arts including music, dance, santo carving, potterymaking, weaving and bread baking. There is a visit to Taos Pueblo and a cooking session and feast at an Indian home. Each program is unique and shaped by the 10 to 20 people who attend. A student can even arrange to focus entirely on food for the weekend, participating in preparing the buffet meals, which are set in the dining room that once held Luhan's legendary soirees.
It being Southwestern cooking, the emphasis is on corn. Corn flour, tamales, tortillas, dried corn, posole. Corn and more corn. "Not only is it crucial, it is basic," says Otero of corn in northern New Mexico. She teaches when to use corn tortillas and when to use flour, when to use red chilies and when to use green. Lessons include enchiladas and chimichangas, biscochitos and Indian tacos. Some of the cooking is done in an outdoor oven.
And while Laurencita Lujan teaches the traditional cooking she has always done (boiling the meat for chili Indian style, then adding the spices, for instance) Otero adds modernizations. "Any dairy product is considered contemporary," she gives as an example. Dairy products are luxuries in this Southwestern culture. She, however, tops enchiladas with sour cream. Even more revisionist are her crepas con pollo, for which she wraps a filling of chicken, almonds, raisins and smoked chilies in crepes rather than tortillas. It is a contemporary dish, but one of the favorites at Las Palomas.
Breakfast is more traditional, a fact the public discovers during the times -- including Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays -- that the Oteros open Las Palomas as a bed & breakfast, an informal and sociable place to stay for people who are not seeking privacy but enjoy semi-communal living. Breakfast is likely to include huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, red chili and eggs or what is known around there as a breakfast burrito, a dish that shows up on menus everywhere around Taos. What's a breakfast burrito? Otero's breakfast lesson No. 1: A breakfast burrito is "a tortilla with whatever you have left over."
Las Palomas de Taos can be contacted by writing P.O. Box 3400, Taos, N.M. 87571, or calling (505) 758-9456. Tabletalk
To be fashionable in California, it is said, you are supposed to wear black leather and eat golden caviar. Personally, I'd rather wear gold leather and eat black caviar. defrr A thoughtful little restaurant named Nonna Gioia, in Sperryville, Va., plans ahead when it comes to handling small children. Its high chair tray is set with a napkin, a straw and two cellophane packets of saltines, then covered with plastic wrap to keep it ready to instantly entertain the next toddler customer. defrr Ribs are getting to be as big a deal as chili. The news on the rib front is the American Rib Classic with four regional preliminaries starting in May, then Kansas City finals on Labor Day weekend, with a $25,000 prize. The catch? It costs each restaurant $1,500 to enter. Other catches are that only 50 entries are allowed in each region, and the ribs are going to be judged not only on their taste, but on the attractiveness of display area and personal appearance as well. I'd bet that the best rib places wouldn't consider sinking that much money into a contest. As for attractiveness of display area, I don't trust a sparerib that comes from anywhere I could take my grandmother.
LAS PALOMAS CREPAS CON POLLO (6 to 8 servings)
FOR THE CREPES:
5 large eggs
1 1/4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons melted butter plus extra for greasing pan
FOR THE SALSA DE CHILE CHIPOTLE:
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons oil
2 cloves garlic, mashed or pressed
16-ounce can tomato sauce
2-pound can solid pack tomatoes, chopped
1 chopped chili chipotle, or more if desired
FOR THE FILLING:
2 cups chopped cooked chicken
2 tablespoons minced onion
Green chili salsa (canned or jar) to moisten
2 tablespoons chopped raisins
2 tablespoons blanched chopped almonds
1 pint sour cream
Grated cheese for sprinkling
To make crepes: Beat eggs, add milk and combine with flour and salt. Add butter and mix. Pour about 1/4 cupful into a 7-inch buttered skillet. Tip and turn so that the batter runs in a thin layer over the bottom. Pour back any excess. When brown on bottom, turn and brown lightly on other side. Continue until all batter is used.
For the chili sauce: Wilt the chopped onion in oil and add garlic, tomato sauce, tomatoes and chilies and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
For the filling: Combine chicken, minced onion, green chili salsa, raisins, and almonds and mix well. Put 1 tablespoonful in each pancake. Roll, and place seam side down in a greased shallow baking dish. Pour chipotle sauce over all and spoon sour cream over sauce. Sprinkle with cheese and bake at 325 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.