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.