Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Back In the Lab

The new year, wrapped in an apron.

As December surrenders to the New Year we finally exhale and settle, for a time, in Oaxaca. A small home with a simple furnishing, our own music and a two gas ring stove. After three days riding the bus from Mercado de Abastos to our street with a few of minor additions in tow, we are just about as set as we need to be.

So let it begin. After four months on the road, I finally have my own stash of chile chipotle, a kilo of cocoa beans, and a tortilla maker to play with amongst the rest. Down two flights of stairs, a great queseria (cheese store) selling daily made chorizo, Oaxacan cheese, tortillas –still warm when i pick them up– and too many other great things for me not to start thinking about exercise.

Over the next six months, I will be trying out the recipes collecting from the 20 or so Mexican cities we have vivited on this trip. So it is that I'll find myself in the Lab, pen and knife poised to amend, correct and consume. But not quite yet.

The first night, very tired, we celebrated our little space by putting together a few things we'd picked up in El Mercado. We had a simple mushroom and jalapeño quesadilla, and a small bowl of salsa roja. The Oaxaca cheese that binds the quesadilla is hard to find anywhere else in the world, so it can be reasonably substituted for a blend of good bocconcini and feta provided they are melted together. Oaxaca cheese, or quesillo (kay-see-yo) is truly one of the wonders of the Mexican kitchen. This semi-soft cheese is made from slightly soured cows milk, curded then stretched and wound into balls. It has a wonderfully unobtrusive flavour, slightly salty yet sweet as it is still very young at it best. The photos below show how it is dealt with: easily pulled apart by the grain of its stringy-curd form. I won't bore you with the recipe, you can see the steps below. The real recipe is the same as all the others: just good things treated well, as they should be.

Wishing you all a safe and peaceful New Year amongst your favourite people.

Trav & Karin

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Noche de Rabanos

Every 23rd of December since at least 1897, Oaxaca has celebrated an unsung edible root vegetable in a typically unique way. The Night of the Radishes heralds the Christmas break, filling Oaxaca's Zócalo with stands displaying scenes carved from oversize red radishes, or whole dioramas of intricately folded “totomoxtle” (dried corn husks). Families, visitors and tourists alike pass dozens of these exhibitions and marvel at the imagination and skill employed to contrive Zapotec dancers or a skeletal bride and groom.

The festival was inaugurated by the Mayor 112 years ago, but its beginnings reach further than that. Vendors selling salted fish and other foods after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve would carve radishes to attract families to their tables. The radishes became more and more elaborate, garnished and prettied with onions, tomatoes and eventually, “flor inmortal” (brightly colored straw flowers). Housewives would search out the most skilfully carved to dress their Christmas Eve tables.

Three days proceeding the event, the knives are drawn as these radishes are pulled from the ground. As the sculpting starts, the radishes are sprayed repeatedly to ensure they look their best come the festival. Most of the carvers are themselves radish farmers, responsible for these huge vegetables which can reach up to six kilos – a little different to your average table radish. At this size, deformity is the norm and skilled carvers see immediately the soul dwelling inside the radish. And along with steady hands, this sculptor's imagination can grant a Christmas wish: a good cash prize accompanied by a village's pride.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Horchata de Coco

A simple little thing to bring you much joy. Though an everyday drink in Mexico, Horchata's roots are at least Spanish, and in all probability Arabic. Whereas the Spanish Horchata is made with tiger nut (actually a tuber and not a nut at all), Mexico employs rice, almonds, vanilla –and on occasion coconut– to make this wonderfully refreshing drink.

Horchata is commonly found at paletarias (or ice-creameries) across Mexico, and those initiated may well skip the ice-cream and go straight for the horchata, such is it's appeal. This recipe is from Campeche, where the gulf of Mexico provides an abundance of coconut that happily augment this delicious drink.

Horchata de Coco

1 fresh coconut, pulp and juice (a small tin of coconut cream may be used in a pinch)
400ml evaporated milk
1 cup long grain rice, soaked for 2 hours in 1 cup boiling water
1 cup sugar
500ml cold water
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
100g ground almonds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Ice, as needed
  1. In a good blender, liquify coconut juice, pulp and the evaporated milk.
  2. Add rice (still in its water), almonds, vanilla, sugar and cinnamon and blend with the cold water for about 2 minutes.
  3. Strain into a jug with ice. The ice will tone down the intense sweetness of the drink, you may need to adjust this to your liking with a little chilled water.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cebollitas Encurtidas Yucatecas

Yucatecan Pickled Onions

2 medium red onions
1 chile habanero
2 small cloves of garlic, sliced in half
teaspoon oregano
6 black peppercorn
1 bay leaf
1 /2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
  1. Slice the onion into 2mm rings, place in a saucepan or bowl and cover with boiling water for one minute. Drain well then reserve.
  2. On a comal, toast the garlic until lightly charred. Remove, and toast the peppercorns and oregano for 30 seconds or so.
  3. Roughly chop the habanero, then mix all ingredients together. Prepare the onions at least an hour before they are required.

Cafe de Olla

Spiced Coffee

4 cups water
2/3 a cup coarsely ground dark roast coffee
1 inch cinnamon quill
raw sugar, to taste
1/2 inch strip of orange zest (optional)
  1. Bring the water to the boil, add orange and cinnamon and simmer two for two minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat, add the coffee and stir thoroughly.
  3. Leave sit for five minutes, add sugar to taste, strain and serve.
NB. The strip of orange zest is easily prepared with a vegetable peeler. It's addition to coffee I have never seen outside of Chiapas, but it is wonderful all the same.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Note from the Road

Taking advantage of Mexico’s relative proximity to Karin’s childhood home in Lima, we are currently on a short break amongst the mountains and sand dunes of Peru. As such, we’ve had a little time to consider the blog, its usefulness and how we can work to improve it.

So, as some of you may be aware the De La Tierra blog is a testing ground for recipes, stories and images with which we aim to compose a Mexican cookbook. In the hope of putting together the best book we can, we thought we would put a quick word out in the hope of getting a little feedback on the job thus far. Here is the short list of things on our wish list.

If you have had a shot at putting together any of the recipes, we would love to hear you thoughts on the results. Should you have fond memories a Mexican dish and would like the recipe, please submit a request. I have quite a number of them on the hard-drive that need testing. Additionally, if you have a recipe you would like to share, we would love to hear from you. All contributions will be duly acknowledged and highly appreciated.

We have changed our format to allow anyone to leave a comment below each post. If you prefer you can also send us an email directly at

We hope you are enjoying the content, and that you won't be shy to help us make a beautiful book about the country and food I have loved for many years.

Gracias y Saludos,

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Shepard's Taco

The red street taco of Mexico city is at once ridiculously tasty, a carnivorous spectacle and a convergence of cultures. When the Spaniards arrived in the New World in the 1600's, they found an incredible variety of ingredients to embrace and share with Europe (chocolate, chile, tomato, vanilla to name but a few), and brought with them something that would be amorously consumed by Mexicans to this day: the pig.

This simple recipe of pork, chile, achiote and a pinch or two of other things really is the flavour Distrito Federal, and in more than one way. Take pre and post Columbian flavours, let them mingle into something fantastic, then fire-roast on a huge spit in the style of the city's Lebanese immigrants. In fact, the spit was originally packed with lamb, hence the name Tacos al Pastor, or The Shepard's Taco.

So here it is in all its glory, a recipe for a real Mexican's taco. If you're lacking in the necessary equipment to spit-roast 60kg of pork, this method and a BBQ will do a pretty good job.

Tacos al Pastor

Ingredients | Serves 5
600g boneless pork loin, flattened into thin steaks
1 chile Guajillo
2 cloves garlic
juice of 1 orange
20g achiote paste
half teaspoon ground oregano
tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 small white onion
150g fresh pineapple
chopped coriander
40 small corn tortillas (or whatever sort you can lay your hands on)

To make the marinade, split the chile Guajillo lengthways and soak for a few minutes in warm water. In a blender, place a third of the pineapple, half the onion, garlic, achiote, orange juice, vinegar, salt, oregano and the softened chile. Blend until you achieve a smooth paste.

Combine the pork with the marinade in a large bowl and work the meat a little to coat evenly. Leave to marinate a few hours, or even overnight.

Slice the pineapple into rounds and chill.

To Serve
Prepare your garnish first: chop coriander and finely dice the remaining onion. Keep separate and reserve.

On a very hot BBQ, grill the pineapple rounds until slightly charred, reserve. Grill the pork steaks until cooked through, place on a chopping board and cut into small rough pieces. Chop pineapple into the same size pieces.

Assemble from the plate upwards: tortilla, pork, pineapple, onion, coriander and salsa of your choice. Find recipes here for x'nipek, salsa roja or salsa de aguacate. A customary squeeze of lime brightens it up a touch too.

Usually we would eat around eight of these in a sitting so either make a whole heap, or choose your friends carefully...

Post: Mexican recipes

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tres Salsas Buenas

Salsas and pickled onions: how to set a Mexican table.

Mexican food is a sauce based cuisine, as indeed most cuisines are. But in most cuisines, you will find the sauce serves as the medium in which the meat or vegetables are cooked, or a moisture and flavour addition that the dish would be incomplete without. Mexican salsas (of which there are more than in French cuisine) are seemingly a little more democratic. Any eatery worth its salt will give you at least two or three choices of accompaniment with your taco or quesadilla.

A common misconception about Mexican food is that it's hot. With the dish itself this is generally not the case, though of course there are exceptions. Salsas however, do bring the spice and sometimes to alarming degrees. From mild coriander-fresh salsas to punishing Habanero purees, there is something for all but the most heat shy.

As an act of prudence, I thought it might be wise to give a few basic salsa recipes below in order to suggest them as companions in future recipe posts. All are pretty basic on ingredients and method, versatile and quick to make. The heat ratings are based on the chiles I have used before, and will vary with whatever is available to you.

Charring is a common technique in salsa preparation.
X'nipek | 2 star heat rating

200g brown onion
250g Roma tomato
1 Habanero* chile, seeds removed
Juice of 2-3 limes
Half bunch of coriander
  1. Dice the onion and tomato fairly finely and place in a mixing bowl.
  2. Wearing gloves, split the Habanero down the middle and remove the stem and seeds with a paring knife. Dice finely and add to the bowl.
  3. Roughly chop the coriander and combine.
  4. Add lime juice and salt to taste. Mix well, and leave sit for at least 20 mins.
* This is a ubiquitous salsa in Mexico, in the Yucatan you will find it made with Habanero and elsewhere with Jalapeño, seeds still removed. A great salsa for tacos, quesadillas or corn chips.

A good blender or liquadora is indispensable in the Mexican kitchen.

Salsa Roja | 1 star heat rating

6 Roma tomato
1/2 an onion
4 small chipotle chile
1 clove garlic
1 cup water
  1. Peel the garlic and split the chile to remove the seed.
  2. Using a comal or skillet, roast all ingredients barring the coriander until nicely charred. The tomatoes should be roasted though and the onion soft and translucent.
  3. Add the coriander and blend half at a time. Remember to take the centre piece out of your blender lid and use a tea-towel to cover as hot liquids explode!
  4. Combine in a bowl and add salt.
Salsa roja is a simple sauce that is sometimes used as a base for others (ie. Mole Poblano). It's also great as a nearly no-heat option if you're catering for the wary or unaccustomed.

The finished product!

Salsa Habanero | 4 star heat rating

4 Habanero chile
1 white onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic (toasted on a comal)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoons salt
  1. Remove stems from Habanero chiles and place all ingredients in a stainless steel saucepan.
  2. Bring to the boil and simmer for around 20-25 minutes or until the carrot is soft though (containing the throat burning vapors with a lid is a great idea).
  3. Let cool a little then blend until you have a smooth sauce (as in the above recipe, remember to take the centre piece out of your blender lid and use a tea towel to cover as hot liquids explode).
This sauce is fiery hot and more for braver chilephiles. It will also keep well, so bottle or jar it and refrigerate to keep for a few months. If you want the lovely floral flavour of the habenero without all that heat, cut the chiles in half and pour boiling water over them. Steep for 2 mins then drain. Repeat, then use as specified above.

Post: Mexican recipes, Mexican Salsas

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Day of the Dead

"Only in Mexico is death an occasion for laughter. On the Day of the Dead, when their spirits come back to us, the road from Heaven must be made easy, not slippery with tears..."
The Consul – Under the Volcano

A certain fatalism pervades the Mexican way of life that means dancing with, or at the very least sharing a drink with death. To paraphrase Octavio Paz from his famous tract on Mexican character The Labyrinth of Solitude, death does not pass the lips in New York, London or Paris, but in Mexico it is spoken, sung, flirted with and caressed. On November 2nd, Mexico revels in this relationship with death, celebrating with the souls of the departed who have returned for this yearly reunion.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Frijoles Revueltos

Refried Black Beans

1 cup black beans
6 cups water (approx)
2 Avocado leaves
2 tablespoons Manteca or Vegetable oil
salt, to taste
  1. Check beans for foreign particles, rinse then cover with hot water.
  2. Bring to the boil, add avocado leaves, cover and then simmer for around three hours or until the beans are tender.
  3. Add salt, remove the avocado leaves then puree to a smooth paste. Add more water if necessary.
  4. Heat the Manteca or oil in a wide based pan until smoking. Carefully add the bean paste and fry for 5 minutes or so before stirring. Cook to the desired consistency and check seasoning.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Day of the Bread

There is something besides the relentless revelry, marigolds and brass bands in Oaxaca's Day of the Dead*. As families pass from house to house, visiting altars and friends they are nearly always greeted with spiced hot chocolate** and Pan de Muertos –Bread of the Dead– fresh from the market. In a festival dominated by the togetherness that is typically Mexican, sharing good food is of course crucial.

Pan de Muertos is akin to Christmas pudding or Pumpkin pie. If you so desire, you can lay your hands on it whenever you wish, but it won't taste the same till you are sharing it with the right people. One of the right people donated this very recipe, and if it's true to what we tried, your'e in for a treat. At present we have no access to an oven, so please think of us when you feast.

On a technical note: this anise and orange blossom flavored sweet bread is a little like a light Mexican brioche, involving a good amount of folded-in butter that gives a wonderfully lingering, delicate taste. You must knead the dough a little before introducing the butter, as the gluten proteins must link, giving the bread structure and allowing it to rise. Add it too early and the proteins will slide rather than link, and you'll have a more biblical style bread that will live up to its name, perhaps a little too much.

Pan de Muertos
600g of plain flour
40g sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
25g dry yeast
1/3 cup of milk
1 teaspoon anise seeds
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
3 whole eggs
4 yolks
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
200g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Mix all dry ingredients together on a clean bench and make a well in the centre.

Warm the milk, condensed milk and orange blossom together to blood temperature, pour into the well and add eggs. Work the mixture together until smooth, throw a little extra flour on the bench and knead for 2-3 minutes.

Flatten the dough out on the bench, add the butter and fold over to enclose. Working slowly, begin kneading the dough until the butter has been evenly distributed. Place into a bowl, cover with cling film and leave in a warm place to double in size.

Remove from the bowl and knock back to original size. Form into a cobb style loaf and place onto a greased and floured baking tray. Brush with a little milk and sprinkle with a few more anise seeds. Preheat oven to 180C (350F), leave loaf to double in size again and then bake for 40-50 mins. Serve with hot chocolate, friends and family.

*This is not a zombie flick. Day of the Dead festivities and preparations will be covered in the following post, or for a little background, read more

**Mexican hot chocolate can be prepared with Ibarra tablets from Essential Ingredient or Fireworks foods, or for a little fun with a mortar and pestle try the following:

50g cocoa nibs
100g castor sugar
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
700ml milk (or water, or a mixture of the two)

Lightly toast the cocoa nibs in a dry pan till warm. Crush in a mortar and pestle with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Add milk and warm in a non-reactive saucepan, whisking gently until the sugar has dissolved. Add more sugar if desired, serve hot and slightly aerated.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Caldo de Pollo

Chicken Broth

2kg chicken carcass
2 small white onion, halved
4 clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
12 sprigs thyme (optional)
  1. In a large pot, cover the chicken carcass with water and wash thoroughly.
  2. Pour the water off and refill the pot with cold water, covering the bones.
  3. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Skim off any fat or impurities, add onion, garlic and aromatics.
  4. Simmer for two hours, skimming and topping up if need be.
  5. Strain, leave to cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
NB. Caldo de Pollo freezes well. Freezing in smaller portions of ziplock bags or ice-cube trays tends to make it easy to de-frost only the amount you need.

Frijoles de la Olla

Beans from the Pot

2 cups black or pinto beans
10 cups water (approx)
1 small white onion, diced
1 tablespoon manteca (pork lard)
2 sprigs epazote (with black beans only)
salt, to taste
  1. Check beans for foreign particles, rinse then cover with hot water.
  2. Bring to the boil, add manteca and onion, cover and then simmer for around three hours or until the beans are tender.
  3. Add salt and epazote, simmer a further half an hour.
NB* For black bean paste, simply blend while still warm then fry the puree in a small amount of oil, and reduce to desired consistency. Optional is the Yucatecan process of passing them through a fine sieve, tedious but worth it.

Arroz a la Mexicana

Mexican style rice

1 cup long-grain rice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 small white onion, finely diced
2 tomatoes, finely diced
2 1/2 cups caldo de pollo (chicken stock)
2 springs of thyme
1 bay leaf
salt, to taste
  1. Soak the rice in for an hour or more, beginning the process with hot water. Drain and rinse, then leave in the strainer to drain a little longer.
  2. In a wide based pan, heat the oil and fry the rice gently for about 5 minutes. Add garlic, thyme, bay, tomato, onion and a good pinch of salt. Continue frying the mixture for a further 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. Add the stock, stir, then bring to the boil. Check the seasoning (it should be a touch salty) and turn the heat down to a minimum and cover then pan. Do not stir the rice until it is ready.
  4. After about 10 mins when the liquid has been absorbed, take the pan off the heat and let sit for a further 20 minutes. Fluff up gently with a fork before serving.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pollo Asado con Salsa de Aguacate

The ubiquitous Pollo Asado spots in Mexico are little less than a fixation for me. When I see the little chicken sign smiling at me, happy with his fate, I would near jump off a moving bus to sit down and give last rites with a few tortillas and spicy salsa.

In the heart of the vanilla growing region of Veracruz, the little town of Gutierrez Zamora has a secret little den that serves up something pretty close to the following recipe. Slightly spicy, smokey and crisp, this is really good. It simply cannot be overstated.

Pollo Asado
1 organic free range chicken
juice of 1 orange
juice of 2 limes
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon mild chile powder
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
half a teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cummin
1 and a half teapoons salt

Combine all ingredients into a marinade. Let sit whilst you prepare your chicken for cooking.

To prepare the bird, remove the backbone with kitchen shears (or ask your butcher to do it for you), flatten the chicken out by placing it on a board breast up and cracking the breast bone by pressing down firmly.

Place the chicken in the marinade for at least half an hour, turning frequently.

To cook: if you have a good gas or coal BBQ (like a Weber), place the chicken skin side up over a slow heat. Baste with the marinade every so often. This should take around 40 minutes to cook through.

The second option is to sear the skin side of the bird in a skillet, turn over and then place in to the oven at 190 degrees Celsius.The skin will stick to the pan until it has sealed properly, so don't rush it. Your patience will be rewarded. Importantly, this process will cook somewhat quicker than the uni-directional heat method. Baste frequently as per the barbeque process.

Serve with sliced cucumber, radish and lime. A nice simple salsa recipe follows.

Salsa de Aguacate
2 large ripe avocados
50g brown onion
1 chile Jalapeno
juice of 2 limes
water as needed

Remove the seeds from the chile, then roughly chop with the onion. Place all ingredients together in a blender then blend until smooth. The sauce should have a nice pouring consistency and a slight tang.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mexican Signage and Typography

Enjoy a selection of photos taken on our travels. This photo post looks at the typography and signage found across the shop fronts and eateries around Mexico. Spectacularly colourful, painstakingly hand rendered and a tribute to non-computer generated design.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Matter of Taste: Notes for Cooks

It’s no secret that Chefs don’t suffer fools gladly. Weeding them out before they get into your kitchen and ruin service can be difficult, but there are ways. Many years ago, I had a phone interview that consisted of a single question, “How long does it take to boil an egg?” I replied that it depended on how big it was, and was told to come in the next day for a trial.

You see, an egg is not an egg. It may well be a quail or emu egg. And though this example may refer to size and cooking times, most variations occur in the sphere of taste. To be good cooks we must realise that all ingredients have their own qualities that are dependent on origin, seasonality and variety. Though we may rely on most recipes as clear maps to a culinary destination, we must appreciate that sometimes the terrain changes.

The case in point may be the recipes on this blog, composed with Mexican ingredients but to be made with whatever is available to you. Are my tomatoes sweeter? My lime juice more astringent? How do we now how to alter the quantities to get the dish to taste right? Really, we must think whilst tasting, and trust our own sense of where to guide the dish to get it to taste right. But what is taste, and in what manner can we think about it?

We developed taste as an independent sense when animals moved from the sea to land, losing gills and gaining follicles. As the sea conveys all chemicals through the same medium of water, there was no need to have a separate “distant chemical sense” of smell, and an “immediate chemical sense”, taste. Now land dwellers, we use smell to sense our surroundings and interpret flavour and taste as a final checkpoint before letting substances enter our bodies.

Taste, as a noun, is a function of the nervous system which indicates the presence of one or more of five sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Umami translates from Japanese roughly as “savoriness”, and comes from the amino acid glutamate, a naturally occurring relative to MSG. Umami is the result of proteins breaking down by cooking or aging. Parmesan, aged beef and fish sauce all contain good amounts of glutamate, and as such tend to be “more-ish”, probably the defining characteristic of umami.

Perhaps you have heard of a tongue map, a diagram which supposedly demonstrates how this organ perceives different tastes in different areas. Even as a kid with a crumpled apron and a floor to mop, I remember being taught the idea that we taste salt here, sweet here, sour here etc. Happily this myth has been debunked: we taste all sensations with all parts of the tongue. This came as a relief to me, as I recall thinking I wouldn’t be very good at this job. I seemed to be able to taste salt or lemon wherever I placed it on my tongue. I had decided my apparatus faulty but really the idea was flawed, an enduring and contagious idea that lived far too long, born of
a simple mistranslation of a German text.

Though it can be hard to describe what we taste, why we taste is more empirically known. Taste provides us with signals that guide us through our omnivores dilemma of what to eat (read Michael Pollan), and we have evolved these senses as the food we eat has evolved. Taste informs us that we might have a bitter toxin in our mouth, if the fruit we eat is sweet and ripe, or that the salt we require for health and hydration is present. In fact, it is fair to say that your tongue is your on-board nutritional guide, one which has served us much better than food industry fads for nutrients, or back-of-label information we usually can’t understand.

And so if we can only sense five different tastes, how is it we seem to have an un-ending experience of new tastes? The process of “tasting”, now as a verb, is complex and involves all five senses to a degree. When we interpret flavour, we are using chemical receptors in taste and smell first, then bundling that information with sight, touch and hearing to create an opinion of what we are eating. There are so many variables in each of these senses, coupled with our psychological impressions of what is being eaten.

But if the inclusion of all the senses seems a little remote from the everyday reality, well, it’s not at all. There is no need to picture scenes of haute cuisine protruding rudely upward from the plate, accompanied by a baroque quartet and a manicure between courses.

Really, its much simpler: taste and smell give us our chemical readings translated as flavour. With touch we perceive texture and temperature, as well as mouthfeel and sensations such as the fizz of a carbonated drink, or the burn of a chile. Visual and aural join to inform us to a smaller degree. The final filter is our mind, where all these messages culminate granting our psychological reading has a huge bearing. Our minds influence is the reason food always tastes better when we are hungry, why foods we have had before are more agreeable, and why
no-one cooks a roast quite like mum.

With this many combinations, tasting is a truly limitless subjective experience. If we all take a bite of the same thing, it will elicit a very different response in each of us. Describing how you personally taste something is much like the parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant (the first man felt the trunk, the other a leg, the last an ear. None could agree it had been the same animal). When our tastes are only calibrated by our own experience, we never really know what it is anyone else is sensing.

If that’s the case, what’s the point in trying to master flavour at all? Speaking for myself, when I cook something just the way I like it, knowing how to get it there has its own rewards. But when cooking for others, there are a number of things that work by and large, for everyone. Essentially we want balance and response from these tastes, we want to pair the right ingredients in the right proportions to excite the appetite, engage in the push and pull of flavours and have a happy ending.

In upcoming articles we will talk about the tongue pyrotechnics of chile, why cloves are good for a toothache and why toothpaste and orange juice can’t get along. And on a more practical note, we’ll look at ways we can delight the palate by manipulating tastes, and how to get that balance of flavours by using a few little tricks of the trade.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Guacamole de Yucatán

Native to Central and South America, the avocado is a tree bearing large berries which are indeed, the avocados themselves. In Mayan legend, avocado has long been credited with bestowing fertility, and it is said that young beautiful maidens were locked up at the height of the avocado season. While this relative to Bay Laurel or common bay leaf, cinnamon and sassafras may not enjoy quite the same reputation today, a well made Guacamole can raise the heart rate yet.

The start of October means that in Australia at least, avocados should be in season, very good and cheap.

The following recipe we owe to the Mayan cooking tradition, and its slight alteration in method from your usual style makes all the difference. The sweet creamy flesh of the avocado is cut buy the acidic shallots and lime, and the whole mix punctuated by slightly charred skins of the toasted ingredients with just a little kick from the chile. Leave the chile seeds in if you care for a bit more spice.

3 large, ripe avocado
2 Roma tomato
6 shallots (US: scallions)
1 medium clove garlic, peeled
1 chile Jalapeno, halved, seeds and membrane removed
1 lime
coriander (US: cilantro)

Juice the lime into a good sized mixing bowl. Add a nice big pinch or two of salt.

Place tomatoes, garlic, chile and shallots on a comal or skillet (cast iron works best) and toast on a medium heat for 5-10 minutes, turning when they have blackened a little. The result should look a little like the photo of the charred toasted tomatoes in the Mole Poblano recipe, and the garlic should be soft through. When ready, remove to chopping board.

Each ingredient gets a slightly different treatment: crush the garlic clove under the side of your knife, then mince it finely. Cut the whole tomatoes into a rough medium dice. Chop the shallots and dice the chile. Place all ingredients into the bowl with the lime juice and mix thoroughly.

Halve the avocados, remove its seed and scoop out the flesh. After a rough dice add to the other ingredients and mix immediately.

Chop your coriander and add to the mix. Check seasoning and see if it needs any more salt. Serve with anything crisp, enjoy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Portraits from Mexico

I thought I would upload a few photos I have taken since we have arrived. Below is a small series of portraits of people at work. Over the coming weeks I will post a few more on various themes so you can get a little more insight into our trip.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mole Poblano

This week something a little more useful: the justly famous chile and chocolate mole of Puebla. National dishes often have back stories and folklore that cement them into the public consciousness, often they are certainly apocryphal but serve to give character regardless.

But first, for newcomers to Mexican food, what is a mole? Mole (pronounced mo-lay) is basically a sauce which can be loosely described as complex in flavour and thick in consistency (as apposed to a salsa, a sauce whose consistency is watery, un-thickened). The word mole means "concoction" more or less, as in our familiar friend guacamole, and is etymologically rooted in the Nahuatl word "mulli" or "milli". This word gives rise to our first legend of the origin of Mole Poblano: that our Nuhuatl speaking Moctezuma served mole to Cortez and his soldiers, thinking Cortez was the returned God Quetzalcoatl.

The second story similarly features a religious theme: an angel appeared to 16th century nuns of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla as they roasted, ground and chopped an array of ingredients to create a meal for the impending arrival of the Archbishop. They served the chocolate sauce with turkey (another ingredient native to Mexico) and a national dish was born.

Other legends include cranky priests, chance gusts of wind and other factors that fail to explain the considered complexity of this sauce. Indeed, what this dish should achieve in its balance is an earthy bitterness from the chocolate and burnt tortillas, sweetness from the chiles and banana, a savoury base from onions and garlic and finish with just a suggestion of heat from the chile. The consistency of the sauce is ultimately quite thick and luxurious, with the strongly-flavoured ingredients becoming delicate and nuanced.

Though Mole poblano can often contain up to 35 ingredients, this domestically achievable version – one which retains the key flavours of the true Mole – is based a recipe from Alonso Hernández, Chef at the Meson Sacristia in Puebla.


1 Mulato chile
2 Pasilla chiles
2 Ancho chiles*

3 Roma tomato, halved
Half a white onion, peeled and quartered
1 clove of garlic, peeled

Half piece Ibarra (or mexican drinking chocolate), chopped
Quarter of a cup of demarara sugar
2 corn tortillas
3 cups water
1 banana (very ripe)
Half a teaspoon of salt

Vegetable oil, to shallow fry
Toasted sesame seeds, to serve


Split the dried chiles and remove the seeds and stem from each. Open and flatten the chiles, then gently fry them for around 5-8 seconds on each side, much in the same manner as you would fry a pappadum. This heat activates important flavour compounds that are lost in the dried chile. While the oil is still hot, peel and halve the banana lengthways and fry until golden brown. Reserve.

On a comal or skillet dry-roast the tomato, onion and garlic until soft. A slightly charred skin is desired. Place the toasted ingredients in a pot with the chiles and two cups of water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the chiles have softened (around 10 mins). Puree the pots contents in a blender, a little at a time, then strain the mixture through a sieve and reserve.

Place the tortillas directly over the flame and turn them frequently until they are completely charred. Blow out the likely burning tortilla (quick prayer to the rain gods to break the drought) and blend with 1 cup of water and the fried banana. Pass through a sieve and reserve.

Take a small amount of the vegetable oil and heat in a medium sized clay pot if you have it, otherwise stainless steel is fine. Introduce the tomato based sauce slowly and fry until boiling. Add the banana sauce and stir. Lower the heat and add chocolate, sugar and salt. Reduce for 25 mins, stirring to make sure it doesn't stick until the sauce has thickened and darkened considerably.

Mole Poblano is commonly served over poached chicken, but goes wonderfully with the sweetness of most any bird; turkey is a classic, and duck really brings something else to it. Garnish with sesame seeds, serve with a side of longrain rice and a stack of warm tortillas.

Notes on the recipe:
Those wanting to avoid too much sugar might try a second really ripe banana. Those lacking corn tortillas might try dark roasting some good bread if need be. Those lacking all three types of chile might try using two types but the same quantity, 5 in total. You cannot, however, use any other type of chile.

*Good dried chile can be hard to find in Australia, but you needn't look further than the lovely Marycarmen at Fireworks foods in Sydney. She has a great mail order service, and what her site lacks in modernity is made up for in great range, prices and service (her mobile phone number is listed on the site). Try her here

Another location worth trying might be The Essential Ingredient

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Week in Three Meals

Investigative culinarianism comes at a cost, sometimes to the detriment of health but more often than not it's chalked in dollar terms. In calculating our budget for Mexico, I realised that we could save AU$285 (that's around 560 tacos, no light matter) by braving a 20 hour trip that kept us in Fiji for a stopover en route to LA. Bleary-eyed in Nadi, we spent hours looking at huge packets of Twisties and all manner of things concocted from coconut, dreaming of our budget accommodation we'd booked at Los Angeles airport.

We emerged from LAX customs at 3pm local time, happily took a free shuttle to our cheap bed, and found ourselves located in a nutritional desert. An effort to find food that vaguely resembled the results of natural selection, I embarked on a frustrated three mile walk that came to naught. At the end of my reserves, I surrendered to a neon sign perched atop a deep-fryer, and left clutching a predictable Styrofoam container, a four piece "meal" from Pollo Loco. In an age of naming eateries after key ingredients, the people behind crazy chicken have shamed us all for creativity.

What can I say? Chances are I was looking at the remains of some poor bird who had lived a terrible and brief life in a feedlot, sustained on antibiotics until its death and injected with flavour solution afterwards. My own solution was similarly appalling: at three miles and half a world of flying behind me, my ethical and nutritional standards came to dust, and this dirty bird had my name on it. Four pieces of chicken thigh, a side of pinto beans, rice, a little stack of tortillas and sauces, and you can see why this awful food is endemic and threatening, with a total cost US$7.71 . And since the Pollo Loco nutritional guide informs me that this meal contains at least 860 calories (about 110 per dollar, taxes included), it was more than enough to make it to Guadalajara.

And so fourteen hours later, there we were. Jalisco's state capital has a reputation as the most Mexican of cities, the balanced and blended Mestizo and Spanish cultures reflected in architecture, people and of course food. Birria de chivo is Jalsico's most famous and ubiquitous dish, a spiced goat stew that can be prepared many ways but always features Chile de arbol and requires hours of gentle heat. The resulting feast is fall-apart, tender and moist, subtle in its balance of earthy notes, spice and goat, with delicate aromas and a clean finish (I know, it sounds more like a goat chardonnay). Birria is then served with chopped coriander, diced onion, tortillas, lime and a platter of house specialty salsa. We had it twice, the first plate an entirely forgettable concoction from the Mercardo Libertad, the second a sublime and accomplished example of tradition and quality at Birria las Nueve Esquinas, really the place to try this amazing dish.

On to the coast. That I have traveled thousands of kilometers to learn about, and eat local food is a somewhat confused point, of this I am well aware. Cooking local produce anywhere however, is an unconflicted joy (akin to being proficient on your own instrument, then getting the chance to play around on a new and exotic one just to see what sounds you can make). So to this end I was delighted to find a fish market at the little town of San Paucho, on the Jaliscan coast, selling Huachinango only hours from the catch. These small red fish are more or less Red Snapper and really wonderful when so fresh. I treated them in no extraordinary way, letting the freshness and quality speak louder than my interference. Scaled, scored on each side and trimmed down to fit in the pan, I salted them lightly then cooked each side through, crisping the skin only slightly. I then used the pan to make a quick salsa, as follows:

a good slug olive oil
quarter red onion, diced fine
small clove of garlic, finely sliced
2 small ripe roma tomato, diced
half a Jalepeno chile, seeds removed and diced
juice of 1 lime

Soften the onion in the pan with the oil, letting the flavours of the fish permeate. Add chile and garlic, saute gently. Add tomato, then cook a little further. Add a squeeze of lime and spoon over fish, serve with good bread or tortillas to mop up. Pretty good with a crisp sweet beer and a slight rosy sunburn. Provecho.

Sure it's simple, but the key to this salsa is tomato with a pronounced flavour of... tomato. Please, "Just Say No" to Woolworths, Safeway, and other such threats to our farming communities and our quality of food. Check your local Farmers Market when the real ones are in season. Better still, grow your own.

I'd better wrap it up, off to a tortilla factory...more next week.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mexican Food Adventure

To ponder Italian food without tomato or peppers, Thai in the absence of chilli, desserts awaiting vanilla or a world without chocolate, is to render impossible some of the globes greatest dishes and rob us of life’s purest delights.

De La Tierra aims to be a travel blog exploring Mexican food through these ingredients. We will be traveling to Mexico to meet with the people who cultivate, harvest, and prepare them. Through our travels we will be looking for a re-connection with the process of true food production and hope this blog will be of some interest to not only lovers of Mexican food, but also to the ever increasing numbers of people who want to know where their food comes from and about the people who grow it.

Travis is a Spanish-speaking chef with more than 12 years experience cooking in 6 countries and a lifetime of Latin-American fascination. As my credentials do not extend into the culinary realm, by even the most tenuous thread, it will be his job to provide a more informed angle on the subject. With a background in design, I will offer up visual delicacies and an alternate impression of the journey - be it through a lens less food focused.

For a designer Mexico could not be a more intriguing country. While this blog is about Mexican food it will be virtually impossible for me not share with you discoveries of a more visual kind. Inline with the theme of the blog I will try to keep the emphasis on the earth and the food it provides.

The first place we will be visiting is Mexico's second-largest city Guadalajara. We aim to post often and are glad to have you on board for the ride.