City Bites

CITY BITES LIVE: Highlights from our Mexican cooking class; Umami is up next

Chef Francisco Alejandri grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico. His mission is to prove his native cuisine goes beyond tacos and nachos

Last week, as part of Ottawa Magazine’s City Bites Live series, I hosted a special evening at Urban Element designed to introduce an enthusiastic group of home cooks, from armchair to serious, to the pleasures of genuine Mexican soul food. Expectations soared when Chef Francisco Alejandri  started the class by saying: “I am 100 percent sure you will never see food like this in a restaurant.”

Alejandri is the owner of what can only be described as a gourmet Mexican food stall, Agave y Aguacate, tucked away in Toronto’s Kensington Market. During the three-hour class, he introduced us to six simple, but spectacular Mexican dishes featuring beautiful fresh tomatoes, tomatillos, and cilantro from Castlegarth Restaurant’s farm in White Lake, Ontario. Alejandri was the guest chef at Castlegarth the night before — he and the owner, Matthew Brearley, happen to be good friends from their Stratford Chefs School days. (Here’s a secret: we can expect to see Alejandri assisting Brearley at Gold Medal Plates in Ottawa this year).

As our evening unfolded, small courses were served along with wine and beer and everyone joined in with questions for the chef. Slowly you could feel the energy in the room intensifying as everyone fed off the quiet passion of the chef. The food was indescribably fragrant and delicious. The evening was truly memorable and inspiring. For those of you who couldn’t be there, here’s the Coles Notes version of what you missed:

Ten Inspiring Ideas About Mexican Cooking

1. Mexican cuisine is no more about sizzling fajitas, cheesy nachos, and salt-rimmed margaritas than pineapple chicken balls are a reflection of authentic Chinese cooking.

2. Mexican cuisine is perhaps one of the world’s earliest fusion cuisines. It was and remains a cuisine based on the staples of corn, beans, and chilies. With the arrival of Spanish in the 1500s, new meats, nuts, spices, fruits, and cheese were integrated into indigenous cooking. Over the course of the last 500 years or so, Mexican gastronomy has drawn from French, African, and even Asian influences.

3. In 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine was named on the representative list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

4. Avocados were known by the Aztecs as “the fertility fruit.” The word “avocado” comes from the Spanish aguacate, which comes from the word for testicle.

5.  Part of the reason Mexican cuisine is gaining in popularity lately is that many dishes are naturally gluten-free.

6. Mole means thick sauce and guacamole means thick avocado sauce. The key to great guacamole is in the paste that you start with before adding avocado. Many people make the mistake of using jalapeño peppers, but it should be serrano.

7. Francisco’s trick for making homemade tortilla chips is to spray the hot chips with saltwater solution. The water quickly evaporates leaving the salt clinging evenly to the chips. Much more effective than sprinkling with salt afterwards.

8. According to Francisco, tomatillos contain naturally complex flavours ranging from peanut butter to gooseberries to green apple.

9. The secret to delicious and perfectly balanced dishes is to taste, taste, taste as you cook.

10. In the kitchen, there is no substitute for patience, passion, and really good quality olive oil.

What? You missed out on City Bites Live?

There are still spaces left for my next class at urban element on October 24, 6-9 pm. This class, dedicated to UMAMI begins with a tasting session and discussion about the top umami-rich foods including a sensory evaluation of pure leaf green tea led by tea sommelier Daniel Tremblay of Cha Yi Tea House in Gatineau. Once everyone is salivating, Executive Chef Steve Wall, of Luxe (formerly of Town), will take over to demonstrate how to build umami flavour into your cooking at home.

What is Umami?

The so-called “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, umami is thought to be the trigger for the sensation of deliciousness. One hundred years ago, a Japanese physics professor pinpointed glutamate as one of the substances found in supremely savory foods like Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, mushrooms and fish-based sauces like Worcestershire.

What’s on the menu?

Chef Wall will prepare savoury parmesean custard with mushrooms; pad thai two ways; rare beef with veal jus and Tater Tots; and a dessert Caprese made with fior di’ latte gelato, oven-dried tomatoes, and aged balsamic vinegar

How to register?

Cost is $125 per person. You can register online at or by sending an email to: