Dinner Party - Burlington Free Press, April 30th, 2010.

Written by Melissa Pasanen. Photography by Alison Redich.

Guests and hosts raise Dos Equis and margaritas to the delicious Mexican food prepared by hosts Jim Waite and his partner, chef Courtney Contos (center) in their Essex Junction home. Guests from left: Nancy Carlson, Jon Champlin, Beth Deslaurier and Dave Carlson, all of Colchester

The smoky smell of the woodstove mingled with the smoky scent of dried chili peppers in the Essex Junction home of Courtney Contos and Jim Waite on a recent cool Saturday afternoonn.

Wrapped in a bright flowered apron emblazoned with a portrait of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Contos juggled a stove full of pots in preparation for a Mexican-themed dinner party the couple was hosting that evening.

Ceramic pots of black beans and a brick-red chili pepper sauce were among thedishes sitting on the eight-burner Wolf stove. The stove was a family heirloom, Contos explained, which she and Waite had driven back to Vermont from her native Chicago. 

The dinner party had its roots in another family heirloom of sorts.

Family and tradition

Contos, 35, a professional chef, grew up in a restaurant family in Chicago. Although her father was best known for his French restaurant, Chez Paul, he also owned a Mexican restaurant, Meson del Lago, for a decade starting in the early 1970s.

“My dad just loved Mexico,” Contos said. “He loved the food and the culture. He even owned a Mexico City night club for while. We’d go to Mexico two or three times a year. He got the furnishings and everything for the restaurant in Mexico,” she said, “including these plates,” pointing to the oval white plates decorated with a fanciful blue bird on thedining room table.

“We spent a ton of time at the restaurant,” Contos said as she deep-fried raw rice in oil, a technique that makes the fluffiest steamed rice. “If you wanted to see my dad, you had to go to one of the restaurants. We celebrated so many family occasions there. All our birthdays were there — with pinatas.”

“There was a taco bar with an attendant to explain everything,” she said, noting that this was before Mexican food was familiar to many Americans. “And there were mariachis every night of the week. I think that’s why I find comfort in mariachi music. I remember it, and it was always so much fun.”

When Contos was 17, she said, “I moved to Mexico for 10 months to a town called Zihuatanejo where some friends of our family owned a restaurant. I loved the restaurant business more than school, and I was very independent. It was a little place perched on a cliff with a cook and a bartender, and I was the hostess and server. We were near Ixtapa, and it was mostly tourists. The mariachis would come through and we would dance.”

“The food at the restaurant was good,” Contos said as she used scissors to snip some of the lightly smoke-scented, dried but supple dark red guajillo chili peppers and added thickrings of onion and whole garlic cloves to some oil warming on the stove. “But what I remember most is every Sunday morning after church in the main square they served up a whole lamb that had cooked underground overnight in banana leaves. It was served simply, just shredded in corn tortillas with nopales (cactus pads) and a squeeze of lime juice. It was so good.”

Contos came home to finish high school before studying restaurant management and earning a culinary arts degree. “At first I thought I was going to have a restaurant and carry on the family tradition,” she said. But she knew firsthand how demanding that life was and, after a stint working at Charlie Trotter’s, she taught at a cooking school in Chicago and developed a private chef and catering business before moving to Vermont to work for three and a half years as the executive chef of Cook Academy at the Inn at Essex (now The Essex).

The teacher becomes the student

She had been so busy working in recent years, Contos said, that she hadn’t had time to go back to Mexico until early this spring when she took a trip to San Miguel de Allende with her best friend, also a chef. They decided to take some cooking classes at one school recommended by Gourmet magazine, but Contos also found another one on the Internet.

“As a cooking teacher, I really enjoy going there and learning,” Contos said. The first school sounded promising, but “a little too stiff and fancy. I really wanted to get into someone’skitchen,” she continued. “Mexican recipes are very region-specific, even family-specific. It’s not like Bechamel with a formula you can learn. The food is so different everywhere you go. You might have a mole (sauce) one way in one town, but just across the way in a different town, it might be completely different.”

After Contos found the Marilau Mexican Ancestry Cooking School, she said, “I called to find out what she would be offering when we were there. One of the classes was salsas, and I said, ‘We’d probably be interested in something a bit more advanced since we’re both chefs.’ And she went on for 10 minutes explaining how salsas are the foundation to Mexican food like the mother sauces are to French food. ‘It’s not just chop, chop, chop pico de gallo,’ she said.”

The pipian sauce Contos was making as she spoke is one of the salsas she learned at Marilau, as was the other guajillo-based sauce she’d already prepared. Both started the same way with snipped strips of seeded, dried peppers added to softened onion and garlic and then simmered with some fresh chicken stock ladled from yet another pot. The first sauce was spiced with a little cinnamon and pureed to smoothness in the blender, then strained. The second one, also pureed and strained, lacked the cinnamon and was thickened with ground toasted sesame seeds, almonds and pumpkin seeds. 

During their salsa class, Contos said, “We learned the salsa rules:

“No. 1: Don’t mix fresh and dried chiles in one salsa. Ever.

“No. 2: Don’t serve more than one salsa on a plate.

“No. 3: With fresh salsas, you only use one kind of chile.

“No. 4: But you can mix different kinds of dried chiles.

“And, No. 5: Always strain salsas made with dried chiles because you would never want to eat the skin.”

n fact, Contos said, one of the things she learned is that the strainer is one of the most important tools in a Mexican kitchen. “That and a blender,” she said. “I’ve used mine already five times making this meal.”

As a chef, Contos said, she loves learning about and cooking many different global cuisines, but “This,” she said, gesturing to the array of terra cotta and enameled pots on the stove, “is really close to my heart.”

Let the party begin

Shortly after Contos peeled the brown husks off of a bowlful of tart, green tomatillos to reveal what looked like small unripe tomatoes and used the blender again to puree them with some cilantro stems, onion and garlic for her soup course, guests started to arrive.

Mariachi music floated through the house, and the first batch of margaritas was mixed up in a giant Mason jar from the juice of a dozen fresh-squeezed limes, tequila, agave nectar and orange liqueur while Contos finished up the appetizers. The bite-size cornmeal shells called sopecitos were filled with black beans (flavored with “Mexican oregano I smuggled back,” she confided) and soft shreds of slow-cooked pork shoulder with a tomato and dried chipotle chile sauce, topped with cilantro and crumbled queso fresco (actually Italian ricotta salata masquerading as queso fresco).

Guests Beth Deslaurier and Jon Champlin and Dave and Nancy Carlson, all from Colchester, sipped on margaritas and nibbled on the sopecitos as their hostess dropped tiny flying saucer-shaped cornmeal dumplings into the boiling soup.

The friends are all regular guests at Contos and Waite’s frequent dinner parties. Champlin and Deslaurier were most recently at the Greek Easter feast and Champlin also came to the St. Patrick’s Day celebration replete with corned beef and Contos’s mother’s unparalleled soda bread recipe. “We’re so lucky,” Deslaurier said.

Everyone spooned their way happily through the soup and moved on to the main course of poached Misty Knoll chicken thighs blanketed with the deeply flavorful nut and seed-thickened pipian sauce topped with a scattering of queso fresco; freshly griddled tortillas; black beans and a mound of green rice into which a puree of poblano peppers, garlic, cilantro stems and onions had been mixed.

It seemed impossible, but the guests also managed to make their way through the intriguing and rich dessert, an upside-down chocolate flan cake in which the layers reverse themselves as they bake.

Toasting their hosts, everyone raised a glass and agreed that it felt almost like they were in Mexico.

“Well, as much as you can in Vermont,” said Dave Carlson with a broad grin. 

Contact Melissa Pasanen at mpasanen@aol.com.