Using kitchen tongs and a small utility knife, the chef gingerly plucks fuchsia-hued fruits from one of the garden's prickly-pear cactus and puts them in a big plastic bucket. The rest of us watch from up the hill as we fill smaller buckets with bell and chili peppers, chives, and cilantro. Our harvest is part of chef Chris Pedersen's garden tour, which will be followed by a cooking demonstration and lunch at Tucson's Westward Look Resort.
The Westward Look Resort is just one of several Arizona resorts and cooking schools (listed below) that offer courses in Southwest cuisine. Classes can delve into everything from indigenous desert ingredients and grocery-shopping tips to the regional influences of Mexican, Spanish, Anglo, and Native American cultures. Some classes are demonstrations, while others are hands-on experiences. You can participate for a few hours, a half-day, or even make a weekend out of culinary learning. And yes, you'll get to do plenty of tasting.
Our program at Westward Look started out in the resort's Chef's Garden, where Pedersen explained how he helped plan the various beds. After getting details on everything from organic pest control to composting, our group of 15 is helping gather fresh herbs and vegetables to carry up to the hotel terrace for the cooking demonstration.
At a table set up with utensils and ingredients, Pedersen shows us how to use a kitchen blowtorch to burn the spines off the prickly-pear fruit, which he then boils into a syrup for salad dressing. After that, he dices the chili and bell peppers into a spicy gazpacho, as we follow along on recipe cards.
The reward for our garden work and attentive listening is a three-course lunch of the dishes we've just learned to make, served in the resort's Gold Room restaurant. We feast on shrimp-and-lobster gazpacho, an entrée salad dressed with prickly pear-jalapeño vinaigrette, and cinnamon-Kahlúa flan.
During the three-hour experience, our group joked together and bonded over our tasks. As we part, with full stomachs and recipe cards in hand, we all vow to plant new gardens and cook fabulous dishes for our families at home.
Five of Arizona's best cooking programs
Class sizes are limited and can fill quickly, so call ahead for reservations.
Bisbee Cooking School
Helen Saul came to the old mining town of Bisbee by way of Berkeley, California, where pioneering restaurant Chez Panisse was her neighborhood meeting spot. Saul emphasizes Southwestern and regional Mexican cuisine, with occasional forays into Cajun, Creole, Italian, and Spanish foods. Most of her weekly classes are held in a refurbished miner's cabin, where participants gather around a long communal dining table for hands-on chopping, mixing, and sautéing to create a three- or four-course meal matched with beer or wine.
WHEN: Year-round; classes on haute Creole cuisine Feb 7, and creative vegetarian Feb 21.
COST: $40 (includes dinner and wine).
CONTACT: www.geocities.com/bisbeecookingschool or (520) 432-3882.
Rio Rico Resort
Executive chef Warren Weekes offers a weekend's worth of what he terms "extreme cuisine." On Saturdays he leads a five-hour culinary tour south of the border, touring a Mexican grocery and stopping for traditional meals at two restaurants. Sundays, Weekes teaches a four-hour hands-on cooking class that moves from the resort's garden to its commercial kitchen. Participants are outfitted with hats, aprons, knives, and cutting boards, then tackle everything from regional Mexican cuisine to mole sauces to dessert.
WHEN: Sat and Sun Oct-Nov and Jan-May; some tours and classes in summer.
COST: Culinary tour, $60; cooking class and tastings, $30. Lodging packages available.
CONTACT: (800) 288-4746.
Les Gourmettes Cooking School
"Dearie, you should start your own cooking school," Julia Child told Phoenix resident Barbara Fenzl when they met more than 20 years ago. Fenzl took the advice to heart, studying at London's Le Cordon Bleu, then launching a school at her home in 1983. Host of the 13-week PBS cooking series Savor the Southwest, Fenzl offers 1 1/2-hour, Southwest-inspired cooking demonstrations followed by meals with wine three or four times a week. Quite often Fenzl brings in guest celebrity chefs such as Rick Bayless and Jacques Pépin.
COST: $55-$70 (includes meal).
CONTACT: (602) 240-6767.
Westin Kierland Resort & Spa
Each month, chef Douglas Rodriguez gathers a small group in Deseo, the resort's sleek signature restaurant, for two hours of Latin-inspired cooking demonstrations. Participants get in the mood with a cocktail, such as a mojito or sangria, as Rodriguez follows the culinary trail of the Spanish in the New World. The chef, who has penned cookbooks including Latin Flavors on the Grill, demonstrates appetizers such as ceviche, grilled entrées, and desserts such as flan or tres leches. Wines from Argentina, California, Chile, and Spain are paired with the food.
WHEN: The third Saturday of each month Jan-Oct.
COST: $48-$68. Lodging packages available.
CONTACT: (480) 624-1030.
Westward Look Resort
Recipes emphasize fresh, regional ingredients, such as chicken tortilla soup and double corn-chili muffins.
WHEN: Year-round. Garden tours every Saturday at 10 a.m.; on the fourth Saturday of each month, they are followed by cooking demonstrations and lunch.
COST: Garden tours, free; cooking demonstration and lunch, $28. Lodging packages available.
CONTACT: www.westwardlook.com or (800) 722-2500.