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.