Above: Chef Mashon Swenor's enthusiasm enlivens each class.
YOU CAN CALL Mashon Swenor a ham. He won’t mind. Over six feet tall, covered with tattoos, and wearing a black chef coat, Swenor plays a lot of roles. He’s chef, teacher, and host; charming, irreverent, informal, sassy, and, FYI, a little potty-mouthed. Picture Anthony Bourdain, Muhammad Ali, and the Fonz blended to a smooth consistency. Sprinkle in a dozen guests who have “pre-lubed,” as he says, with a glass or two of wine, and the stage is set for three deliciously diverting hours of the Mashon Swenor Show. Technically billed as a cooking class, it’s more like a party he throws several times a month at Sanctuary on the River, in Ruidoso.
“Are you guys hungry?” he asks the dozen or so young, hip locals squeezed into tiers of close-set chairs that rise in front of him. “Yes!” they gamely respond. “Good!” he says, “because I can’t wait to put something in your mouth!” He gets the giggles and guffaws he sought from this friendly crowd and launches into a preview of the night’s menu.
Standing at a stainless-steel prep table near a busy, six-burner Wolf range, he announces a lusciously layered tostada as a first course that he swears will prove “unbelievable.” “If I don’t get at least three marriage proposals tonight, I’m doing something wrong,” he says. The guests eat it up as he moves on to the entrée and, like a true New Mexican, describes a key ingredient with a piquant detail. “I have to warn you: the green chile is effing fire,” he says. “But the red? C’est magnifique.”
He can cater a class to students’ desires, but typically his recipes lean toward the kind of complicated, multifaceted dishes you’d get in a nice restaurant. Some require so many ingredients and steps that most people won’t make them at home. He knows that. His classes deliver good times first, learning second, theater always. If you pick up a few tips on searing a whole beef tenderloin or finishing a delicate beurre blanc, he’s happy. But if you just enjoy a great meal, drink a little wine, and laugh at his jokes, great. Chances are you’ll do a little of both, because Swenor is an exceptionally talented chef who delivers infectious, irreverent fun.
Swenor grew up in Ruidoso, where his dad served as chief of police and where he discovered a love of cooking in the culinary program at Ruidoso High. After cooking in restaurants through his college years at UNM, he deejayed at 94 Rock and spent 13 years running a marketing firm. He moved back home in 2014 to care for his dad and took a job as executive sous-chef at the Alto Lakes Golf and Country Club. He spends his free time riding a vintage motorcycle, hanging out with his friends (mostly tattoo artists and other creative types), seeking out live music, and sipping craft beers.
Moonlighting at Sanctuary on the River fires up the feedback loop that chefs often miss. “It’s like the best feeling in the world when you serve something to somebody and you see the look on their face and they’re just blown away by what you put on the plate,” he says. Swenor never cooks at home, partly because his place came with an electric stove, but also because why bother if there’s no audience?
Swenor gets to work while narrating the recipe for his blue corn tostada dough, which intriguingly includes nutmeg. He forms a golf-ball-size hunk of the purple masa, rolls it out, and slips it into a shallow pan of oil. His assistant fries the rest of the disks as Swenor moves on. “We want to be New Mexico–centric, but we want to mix it up, too,” he says, explaining why he blends Korean hot pepper paste into refried black beans, simmers the chicken with the flavors of Mexican mole, and scents the red chile with cinnamon and cardamom.
Soon, the tostadas land in front of us, stacked high, garnished with an Asian quick pickle, and dolloped with avocado crema. One bite and I realize Swenor’s breezy braggadocio is well deserved. Since when is shredded chicken the highlight of a New Mexican dish? These flavor-infused filaments exude layers of spice and nuance that I’ve never tasted before. In that one bite, the tostada, beans, chicken, and toppings deliver a tsunami of sweet, sour, salty, crunchy, soft, savory, and creamy. The experience so beguiles me that I briefly reconsider my recent marriage.
I suspect I’m not the only one, especially because Sanctuary on the River draws a steady flow of the soon-to-be-betrothed during Ruidoso’s busy destination-wedding season. Owner Debbie Nix had intended to turn her light, airy A-frame building into a retreat for her life-coaching clients but quickly realized that its setting within the trees along the Ruidoso River made an ideal wedding venue. Last September and October, she hosted three ceremonies a weekend. The “bride tribes,” as Nix calls them, love to pamper themselves with on-site spa services and a beauty salon, then relax and socialize with a cooking class.
The week after I was there, Swenor was also expecting a party of eight ladies. On vacation and in the mood to party, they tend to make a prime audience for his shtick. “You would think that at some point, a pole would come down and I take off my clothes. It’s crazy!” he jokes about their pre-wedding exuberance.
Snapping back to reality, I notice that Swenor has moved on to the main course, a take on surf and turf made with local beef and ruby trout. For the turf half, he roasts a poblano pepper and stuffs it with seared cubes of beef tenderloin and cilantro rice. Then he flash-fries strips of trout fillet, perches them on top of the stuffed pepper, and garnishes it with a tempura-battered artichoke heart. He swirls and slathers parts of the plate with a silky beurre blanc, bright-orange saffron cream sauce, and the aforementioned red and green chile.
I dig in. The trout’s crispy cornmeal coating shatters over a sweet, mild fillet. Lean, tender cubes of beef deliver the creamy, tangy beurre blanc. The green chile, as promised, clears my sinuses. Then the red chile sauce, made with a blend of pasilla, guajillo, cascabel, and New Mexico red chile pods and accented with coriander, cardamom, and cinnamon, mesmerizes me with waves of fragrant spices, more complex than hot. It is, as advertised, magnifique.
“That was the best red sauce ever!” gushes one guest, just as photographer Douglas Merriam, who’s been taking pictures of each course in a makeshift studio around the corner, stops by my table with his own half-eaten plate. He gives me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
The whole dish came together in such a blur that I didn’t really catch much of the technique. But the bliss of the food and the camaraderie of my classmates, slightly tipsy and thoroughly stuffed, means I don’t really care. I know I’m leaving with copies of the recipes, and I consider spending a long weekend trying them at home.
Meanwhile, I’m gabbing in a corner with Nix, who has been watching with a smile of genuine amusement. She doesn’t flinch at his double entendres or his occasional four-letter words. She’s watching the guests have a blast and chuckling along with them. “I’d like to tell you this was more elaborate than usual, but it wasn’t,” she says. “It’s always like this.” Later, I’m not sure if she was talking about the entrée or the narration.
I feel myself starting to slip into a food coma as Swenor begins his final act, a hot sopaipilla stuffed with gelato and topped with melted cinnamon chocolate, homemade caramel, and fresh whipped cream.
Leaning over the stove, he shows us how he spoons hot fat over an inflating triangle of sopaipilla, helping it to cook more quickly and evenly. Then he turns to stir the caramel. “This thing is gonna touch you all the way down to your toes!” he brags. I’m stuffed to the gills, but I know I won’t be able to resist dessert. If this show must go on, then so must I.
This makes one divine appetizer for chef Mashon Swenor’s cooking class at Ruidoso’s Sanctuary on the River—or a main course for your family. The techniques you’ll learn for each step will transfer to other recipes, so give it a try.
Blue Corn Tostada Mash-Up
If you have time, try to make the chicken mole the day before so the flavors can settle in overnight. If you want to simplify this dish, you can use store-bought tostadas, but you’ll miss out on the texture, flavor, and hot crunch of a homemade tostada. Crema Mexicana is a saltier, tangier version of crème fraîche. Look for it in a plastic bottle in the refrigerated section of your grocery store or specialty food store.
- 6 blue corn tostadas (recipe follows)
- 2 cups chicken mole (recipe follows)
- 3 cups Korean black bean refrito (recipe follows)
- 1 1/2 cups quick-pickled vegetables (recipe follows)
- 3/4 cup crema Mexicana, divided Avocado crema (recipe follows)
- Assembly Put one tostada on each plate. Top with a -inch layer of refrito. Add about cup shredded chicken. Top with quick-pickled vegetables and dollops of the two cremas.
Blue Corn Tostadas
- 1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal
- 2 cups boiling water
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 pound lard (or vegetable shortening)
- In a medium bowl, stir together the all-purpose flour, nutmeg, and white pepper.
- In a large bowl, pour the boiling water over the cornmeal and stir to mix. Allow the cornmeal to rest and cool for 5 minutes.
- In a large, wide saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the lard or shortening.
- Use well-floured hands to work the flour mixture into the cornmeal. Once the flour is fully incorporated, remove the dough to a well-floured work surface. The dough will be sticky, but knead for 2 minutes and add flour to your hands if needed.
- Form 8 balls and either roll them out with a pin or use a tortilla press to create 6-inch rounds.
- Fry one round in hot oil until crispy, then transfer to paper towels to soak up excess oil. Repeat for the remaining balls.
When you hear the Spanish word mole, you probably think of chocolate, Swenor says, but mole comes from the Nahuatl word for “sauce,” and that’s how he interprets it here, with some of the same flavors but without the thickness of the chile or the richness of the chocolate. This full recipe makes more than enough for six tostadas, but resist the urge to cook a smaller amount. You will want leftovers.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 pounds chicken thighs, bone-in, skinless
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon ground cardamom
- 1 ounce cinnamon bark
- 1 tablespoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon red chile flakes
- 1 dozen sprigs fresh oregano
- 6–8 cups chicken stock
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a thick-bottomed 6-quart pot over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. Salt and pepper thighs generously and sear 5–7 minutes per side, until they are nicely browned.
- Add garlic, herbs, and spices and toss to combine.
- Add enough chicken stock to barely cover, about 4–6 cups. Lower heat to medium and cover. Cook 2–3 hours, stirring occasionally. Add stock as necessary to keep the chicken moist.
- When the meat is tender and falling off the bone, remove it from the pot, along with the cinnamon bark, oregano stems, and bay leaves. Leave the remaining chicken stock in the pot and simmer, uncovered, until it is reduced to a thick sauce.
- Allow the meat to cool, then remove the chicken bones and cartilage. Use your hands or two forks to shred it.
Korean Black Bean Refrito
Look for the Korean ingredients used here in jars or tubs at an Asian grocery store.
- 2 (15-ounce) cans cooked black beans, drained
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons Korean hot pepper paste (gochujang)
- 2 tablespoons Korean black bean paste (chunjang)
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the black beans and chicken stock. Bring the stock just to a simmer.
- Using a masher or fork, mash the black beans, but don’t blend them completely. Leave some of the beans for texture.
- Add Korean pepper and bean pastes and black pepper and mix. You will not need salt, as these pastes are fermented and cured with salt.
- Add more pepper and bean paste to taste. The goal is for the dominant flavor to come from these umami-sublime pastes.
Go-to Quick Pickle
Use this formula to pickle any combination of julienned jalapeño, carrot, daikon, jicama, fennel, or red radish. Cut the vegetables as thinly as possible to speed up the pickling process.
Makes 1 cup
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 cups rice wine vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 1/2 cups julienned vegetables
- In a medium bowl, whisk sugar into vinegar until completely dissolved. Add julienned vegetables, making sure they are covered completely with the liquid.
- Refrigerate 2–4 hours.
Makes 6 servings
- 2–3 large avocados
- 1 1/2 tablespoons crema Mexicana
- 1 lime, juiced
- Salt to taste
- In the pitcher of a blender, combine the avocado flesh, crema, and lime juice. Blend until smooth. Add salt to taste.
Tall Pines Surf and Turf
By Mashon Swenor, Sanctuary on the River
- 4 beef tenderloin steaks, 6-8 ounces each
- 4 boneless trout filets, cut into strips about 1-inch wide
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 2 cups cornmeal
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 4 poblano peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
- 4 cups cooked long grain white rice
- Juice of 2 limes
- ½ cup minced cilantro
- ½ cup Beurre Blanc (recipe follows)
- 1 cup Red Chile (recipe follows)
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the beef
- Rub the tenderloins with a thin film of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then sear them on both sides on a hot grill or in a cast iron pan over high heat.
- Transfer to the oven and cook until they reach about 130 degrees for rare, 140 degrees for medium rare or 155 degrees or medium.
For the trout
- Heat oil in a Dutch oven or counter-top deep fryer.
- Dredge trout strips in heavy cream, then in cornmeal, tossing to coat completely.
- Fry until golden, sprinkle with salt, and drain on paper towels.
- Chop the tenderloins into cubes. In a large bowl, toss with the rice, lime juice and cilantro.
- Cut a slit in each poblano and stuff with the beef and rice mixture.
- On a dinner plate, pour enough red chile to cover the bottom and look attractive. Set the poblano in the red chile. Arrange the trout strips on top of the pepper. Garnish with a sprig of cilantro.
Makes 1 ½ cups
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup white-wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper, or to taste
- 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces and chilled
- Boil wine, vinegar, and shallot in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat until liquid is syrupy and reduced to 2 to 3 tablespoons, about 5 minutes.
- Add cream, salt, and white pepper and boil 1 minute.
- Reduce heat to moderately low and add a few tablespoons butter, whisking constantly. Add remaining butter a few pieces at a time, whisking constantly and adding new pieces before previous ones have completely liquefied (the sauce should maintain consistency of Hollandaise), lifting pan from heat occasionally to cool mixture.
- Remove from heat, then season to taste with salt and white pepper. Pour sauce through a medium-mesh sieve and serve immediately.
Makes 2 quarts
- 1 pound dried whole New Mexico red chile pods, stemmed
- 4 ounces dried whole Cascabel chile pods, stemmed
- 6 whole dried pasilla chile pods, stemmed
- 8 cups beef stock
- 2 large white onions, peeled and cut into large sections
- 8 cloves whole garlic, peeled
- 1 bunch fresh oregano
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon cardamom pods
- 1 tablespoon coriander seed
- Salt to taste
- In a stock pot over medium-high heat, combine everything except cilantro and bring to a simmer.
- Cook 30-45 minutes or until all the pods, onions, and garlic are soft and malleable. You want fully reconstituted and juicy chiles!
- Working in batches, ladle solids and liquid no more than halfway up the side of your high speed blender, add fresh cilantro, cover the top with a towel, and blend until silky smooth, about 2 minutes.
- Add more stock if mix is too thick. Salt to taste.
Quick Honey Gelato
Find a good honey. Local honey. Don’t be cheap and the end result will curl your toes! Serve stuffed in a hot sopaipilla, drizzled with melted chocolate, salted caramel and powdered sugar.
Makes 2 quarts
- 1 quart heavy cream
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 2 14-ounce cans condensed milk
- 1 ¾ pint size jar of Chama Bee Honey, (I used Wildflower, but there isn’t a bad one, so go crazy!)
- In a large mixing bowl combine the cream, sugar and vanilla. Beat on low, then increase speed and continue until you have whipped cream with soft peaks.
- Into another bowl, pour the condensed milk and fold in the whipped cream. Fold in honey to taste.
- At this point the mixture should be very sweet. Don’t panic.
- Put the mixture into a freezer-safe container and cover with plastic wrap, pressing onto the surface.
- Freeze at least 6 hours or overnight.
Mashon Swenor’s cooking classes at Sanctuary on the River cost $45 a person. Private classes are also available (575-630-1111, sanctuaryontheriver.com).