SFO Peruvian Cooking Classes with Chef Nico Vera

We recently had the pleasure of hosting chef Nico in our Food Sake Tokyo cooking classes. After he returned to San Francisco, a Peruvian friend of ours, Janice Espa, took a cooking class with him. We are pleased to share this with you.

The following post is by guest blogger Janice Espa of San Francisco.

Nico cebiche

Chef Nico Vera

Chef Nico Vera, founder of Pisco Trail, is a culinary ambassador of Peru based in San Francisco.

Nico shares his family’s stories and recreates the dishes he learned by watching his mother cook. He also develops Pisco-based cocktails to match, and gets inspiration from other cuisines to create his own version with Peruvian ingredients.

By fate, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Nico, and see his work first hand. The story is brief and meant to be. While searching the internet for Pisco cocktail recipes in English, beyond the ubiquitous pisco sour, I came across Pisco Trail and struck gold. That same week, I received an email from Nico regarding one of my posts on Food Sake Tokyo. His search for kaiseki led him to me, Yukari, and Shinji Sakamoto. Since then, Chef Vera has toured Tsukiji market with Food Sake Tokyo, and is one of the lucky first to do a cooking class with Shinji Sakamoto.

Now, Nico Vera has created his own take of Peruvian kaiseki (kaiseki criollo). This newly acquired knowledge, together with years of cooking, teaching, and meticulous recipe testing, are what Nico shares in his San Francisco cooking classes.

Nico teaching

Chef Nico demonstrating

At 18 Reasons, a community cooking school in the Mission district, Nico keeps things simple and approachable. Instead of tackling too many things at once, he chooses one or two dishes and shows students how to make a few iterations of each. In the past, he’s taught arroz con mariscos, a rice and seafood dish that could be considered a Peruvian paella, showcased street food snacks, and has held dinners ranging from criollo (creole) to chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) cuisine.

For those new to cooking, or new to making Peruvian food at home, the experience based on Nico Vera’s instruction is not one bit intimidating. The chef makes a point to stop by all cooking stations (seven in total, for a maximum of fourteen students) as he answers questions and makes remarks.

During his ceviche masterclass, we were introduced to tiradito Nikkei and ceviche clasico. We also made an additional helping of leche de tigre (which translates to tiger’s milk), the juices from the lime mix sitting with the fish. Extra leche de tigre can be prepared and added to a dish, or be served in a glass on its own. It’s said to have livening effects. Personally, I don’t think it’s a hangover cure, it’s just delicious. I use a spoon to soak cancha, crispy corn kernels, and devour.

plating our bowls

Ceviche

Ceviche was a dish the Inca’s mastered, no doubt. As Nico detailed, the original dish involved fish cured with tumbo fruit and naranja agria (sour orange). Later, with the arrival of the Spaniards, onions and limes were introduced. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get the right, sour, limes to make optimal ceviche at home.

Tiradito emerged several hundred years later with the arrival of the Japanese. If ceviche is already a simple dish, tiradito keeps things even crisper: fish sliced thinly rather than cubed, and onions omitted. In the Nikkei version (Japanese-Peruvian) ginger, sesame seeds, and sometimes sweet sauces are added.

Nico Vera reminded us of Nobu. He taught us a simple, yet stunning tiradito Nikkei.

our tiradito

Tiradito

Today, there are hundreds of creative ways to serve both dishes. My absolute favorite is tiradito in aji amarillo. It combines the juices of a traditional ceviche, the stellar Peruvian chili ‘aji amarillo’ and the simplicity of the sashimi-style cut.

The most valuable tips we received while learning to make ceviche were on the importance of the lime and the chili, and how to find local substitutes. For example, using habanero and jalapeno peppers in California instead of the traditional rocoto and aji limo of Peru, yet making sure to always use limes, and not to confuse that with lemons.

Nico is placid and soft spoken, he evokes a sense of romanticism when he shares the history of the dishes he presents, and the traditions behind the way Peruvians enjoy certain foods. Because of his background as a mathematician, Nico is methodical and structured. This is clear during his class. He goes step by step, does a brief demo of the dishes, while students read through the recipes. His recipes have been perfected and kept simple.

As a Peruvian, and a home cook, I’ve found recreating Nico’s recipes a breeze. I also appreciate that they’re designed in a way that doesn’t involve cooking quantities to feed the entire neighborhood.

Shared table end of class

Chef Nico Vera

For recipes of traditional ceviche, tiradito Nikkei, and more, check out Pisco Trail.

If you’re in the Bay Area or a planning a visit, keep an eye out for Pisco Trail’s calendar at 18 reasons. Chef Nico might be holding an event then, and it will be worth your time.

Pisco Trail

Peruvian Cuisine and Pisco Mixology

http://www.piscotrail.com/

 

18 Reasons

https://18reasons.org/

3674 18th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

 

Janice Espa photo

Janice Espa

Janice Espa is a Spanish-Peruvian food enthusiast; an avid traveller and inquisitive taster who explores culture through cuisine.  Janice lives in San Francisco where she writes and styles food. Her days are spent visiting grower’s markets, checking out restaurants, and shopping at specialty stores to discover goods from every corner of the world.

Feel free to email suggestions and travel tips, or to contact Janice for her own recommendations, whether you’re visiting Peru, trekking South America or doing a road trip along the east coast of Australia.

 

Making Tofu with Sonoko Sakai in San Francisco

Guest post by my friend, Janice Espa, on a tofu class she took recently.

After years in the film industry, traveling the world, and becoming more and more passionate about food, Sonoko Sakai decided to follow her culinary path, learn traditional Japanese techniques, and start teaching.  She established the Common Grains initiative to teach people about the cultural roots of Japanese cuisine.

Sonoko Sakai Sensei

Sonoko Sakai Sensei

Today, Sonoko runs workshops all around the US – yet her Los Angeles base is where she’s found most of the time teaching lessons on onigiri, soba, umeboshi pickling, cooking with rice in all of its forms, cooking with shio koji, and tofu-making.

I had the opportunity to catch one of Sonoko’s master classes while she was up in San Francisco for a series of events. My appreciation for tofu has been incremental.  It was always present as a ‘bonus’ item: from soups in Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian cuisine) to many South East Asian stir fries and noodle dishes, but it wasn’t until I visited Kyoto that I became aware of tofu as the star, and not a side dish.  Since then, I’ve become picky about the flavor I find in particular commercial tofu brands. Thus, upon coming across Sonoko’s workshop, I was eager to learn hands-on, and understand the tips and tricks behind sweet, smooth, homemade tofu.

Bean to Water Ratio Chart

Bean to Water Ratio Chart

For the workshop, Sonoko introduced herself and described the two types of tofu we’d be making on the day, she briefly discussed the process start to finish, and immediately got everyone on their feet. In a nutshell, making tofu goes like this:

  1. GRIND
  2. COOK
  3. STRAIN
  4. PRESS

In depth, however, the process is specific, measured, and rewarding.

Tofu starts with good soybeans – which Sonoko recommended purchasing online from a non-GMO organic seller. They must be soaked in water for at least eight hours, then blended until creamy, a soybean slurry. This slurry is simmered with additional water, and cooked for about ten minutes. With a colander, the by-products are separated, the okara is reserved for later use, and the milk is transferred back to another pot. Coagulant, previously diluted in water, is added to the hot soy milk and slowly, but surely, curds begin to form.

Ladling the curdled milk into prepared boxes

Ladling the curdled milk into prepared boxes

By paying close attention, choosing the right type and amount of coagulant, and stirring the soy milk closely, tofu is made.   During the workshop, some groups chose to use nigari (magnesium chloride), others gypsum (calcium sulfate). It was great to be able to compare both results and taste the differences.  We also learned that fresh soy milk, comparable to light cow’s milk, is best for firm tofu, while thicker, rested soy milk, equivalent to whole milk, yields better results for silken tofu.

I preferred the nigari, hands down. It is in fact sweeter.  Now, when I’m at the supermarket browsing through brands of organic tofu, I pay closer attention to the label.

Earlier that morning, we had prepared the boxes for the tofu by lining small aluminum trays with holes punched through them, two pieces of cotton cloth lined on top. Traditional wooden Japanese zaru boxes have holes in them, plastic ones are also available, or a colander may also be used. The do-it-yourself (DIY) version is simple to make if you don’t have the necessary tools or can’t access a tofu making kit.

Tofu: pressed and ready for tasting

Tofu: pressed and ready for tasting

For silken tofu, the coagulant is mixed directly into thick soy milk. It is placed into a small container and steamed in a pot with boiling water, just like making chawanmushi, a savory Japanese egg custard.

Steamed cups of silken tofu

Steamed cups of silken tofu

From beginning to end Sonoko made sure we not only understood what was happening to the soon-to-be tofu, but also that the residue resulting from different steps of the process be put to good use.

This was my favorite part of the lesson:

From the whey, we made a most flavorful miso soup.

From the lees (okara), we made croquettes.

From the chilled soy milk, silken tofu topped with sweetened ginger syrup.

Okara and vegetable croquettes

Okara and vegetable croquettes

With the momen or pressed tofu, we served hiyayakko: cold tofu with soy sauce, freshly ground ginger, and scallions. We also made shirae-ae (a tofu and sesame paste) to coat green beans and cherry tomatoes, and serve as a salad.

Pressed tofu, cut into squares for hiyayakko

Pressed tofu, cut into squares for hiyayakko

The rules that apply to great tofu are the same as everything else in healthy, seasonal Japanese cuisine: organic and well-sourced grains followed by personal preference on which coagulant to use.

A fun, eye-opening experience, delicious in every step of the way. I’m ready to start sourcing my utensils to tackle some tofu making at home, and will be raving about the sweetness of the simplest miso soup elevated by the whey of soybeans.

Tools and ingredients

Tools and ingredients

The $160 tofu class was held at the San Francisco Cooking School.

https://www.sfcooking.com/hands-on-cooking-classes

For more on the tofu-making workshop and a recipe request, feel free to contact Janice.

To learn about the Common Grains initiative and Sonoko’s upcoming events, please visit:

Common Grains – http://commongrains.com/about-us/

Sonoko’s blog – http://www.cooktellsastory.com/

Janice Espa photo

Janice Espa

Janice Espa is a Spanish-Peruvian food enthusiast; an avid traveller and inquisitive taster who explores culture through cuisine.  Janice lives in San Francisco where she writes and styles food. Her days are spent visiting grower’s markets, checking out restaurants, and shopping at specialty stores to discover goods from every corner of the world.

Feel free to email suggestions and travel tips, or to contact Janice for her own recommendations, whether you’re visiting Peru, trekking South America or doing a road trip along the east coast of Australia.

Email:  janicespa at gmail.com