Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How to Make Tortillas

There are few more potent symbols of Mexico than the corn tortilla. Both socially and gastronomically, it is no less than a cornerstone of indigenous and mestizo culture. It also serves as a class divider (known as the tortilla curtain) as the Spanish-descended upper class have historically consumed Europe's sometime emblem, bread. And like most peasant food, when tortillas are good, they are great.

Over 300 million tortillas are eaten each day in Mexico, and I suppose if you are reading this you may have contributed to that figure. You may also be one of the many who have tried to make your own, only to find the result to be more like an atheist's proof that indeed, God does not exist. Stodgy, raw, tasteless and rubbery are all apt words to describe failed attempts at tortilla production.

The following is by far my most requested recipe, though as you can guess there is not a whole lot to it. That said, there is not a lot to making them awful either, and I have included all the things to look for to ensure you are proud of your little corn cakes. It is one of life's wonderful mysteries how such a small margin in technique can produce such a huge difference in result, a question that has spawned much philosophising. I will spare you my own here, but do heed the following words and you might just see the meaning of life for yourself.

Tortillas | makes 20

Comal, tortilla press, Minsa, mixing bowl. All you need is a little water and a little patience.

The Making
1. Mix two and a half cups of Maseca* with two cups of warm water. Mix well by hand, and make sure you knock all the air out of the dough (it will be quite aerated and wet to begin, so just keep working it). This will take 2 minutes or so. If the masa sticks to your hands, add a little more Maseca and work until it forms a smooth dough.

2. If the dough cracks, it is too dry, add a little water and let sit. Press your thumb into the masa to check the moisture level. The thumb should leave cleanly, without cracking or effecting any untouched areas. Leave the masa sit for 1 hour. This will properly re-hydrate the corn flour so the tortillas wont crack as you cook them.

Too dry, then just right.

The Cooking
1. Make a golf ball sized portion and roll it in your hands until smooth. Place the ball between to sheets of plastic on the tortilla press and flatten gently (note: in Mexico, plastic shopping bags are exclusively used for this task. They are in fact the best thing, as they have a little give in them and wont create folds like silicon paper tends to do). Flip the tortilla over and press gently on the other side.

4. Remove the top plastic layer, place your right hand on the left side of the tortilla and pick it up. Remove the remaining plastic and with your palm facing upwards, lower the tortilla onto the comal. The hand motion required is to move your arm away from your body whilst swivelling your hand from palm up, to vertical, to knuckle up. Simply put, it looks like a backhand stroke in tai chi.

Laying it down and puffing it up: a clay comal is best, but here I am using a carbon steel pizza tray as it's much easier to come across. Carbon steel won't sick or warp, and has fairly even heat conduction. It also handles tomato and chilli roasting very well.

5. Cook the tortilla for 30 seconds on the first side then flip it over. Let cook for one and a half minutes on the second side, then flip again. All going to plan, you should see the tortilla puff up now, and this is the mark of a well made tortilla. Cook a further 30 seconds before removing to a cloth or towel. Keep the tortillas wrapped so as to not dry out. They may require reheating before serving.

*A quick note on the raw product, I don't think there is any huge difference between Minsa or Maseca -the two major brands of exported tortilla flour- but many people think Maseca to be a little tastier (nothing compares to fresh masa for taste or texture, but it is quite impossible to find outside Mexico). What I can say is that the instructions on both products are overly simple, misleading and disappointing. Just get a few tortillas right, get a feel for the heat of the comal or pan, and more importantly the feel of the masa.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Paletas de Coco

A summery treat for readers living south of the equator, where the mercury is rising and the sun taking longer to set. Of course, a ripe coconut is key so be careful when choosing. If you can get your hands on a peeled (meaning white and entirely edible, not just de-husked and looking like a chimp's cranium) coconut, you will know its fresh by checking if its dried out or slimy. If either of these symptoms can be diagnosed, move on. If you can only find the hairy monkey's head style coconut, be sure to shake it and see it has a lot of juice inside. This will show it is properly mature, sweet and tasty.

This simple recipe delves into some kitchen science that is quite interesting, dealing with proteins and and sugars. The protein aspect is the very real possibility of curdling the milk by introducing the coconut juice too early. Curdling occurs when proteins in the milk bind to each other, coagulating and squeezing out the water. Both a catalyst and heat are required to start this process, and the specific acids in coconut juice do the trick very well. So unless you want to make coconut flavoured cheese curd, don't add the juice until after you have boiled the mixture and let it cool.

The second part of the science here is as follows. Sugar inhibits freezing due to the nature of its cellular structure, hence why if you have ever frozen a sweetened drink the sweet syrup is the first to melt as you drink it, leaving behind a bland and perforated block of ice in the shape of the can or bottle you froze it in. I mention this because the recipe is quite sweet, and if you would like to reduce the amount called for go ahead by all means, but be aware you may achieve a rock hard result. In addition, our palettes do not perceive sweetness well from a low temperature range, which is why a sorbet or ice-cream mix can taste insanely sweet at room temperature yet only mild to sweet when served frozen. So, if you do reduce the sugar, make sure it is still a little sweeter tasting than you like it. Enjoy.

Paletas de Coco

1 whole coconut, peeled and at room temperature
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature*
110g raw sugar
1 inch cinnamon quill
1/2 teaspoon good vanilla

  1. Cut the top from the coconut and drain the juice. Place the flat side down and carefully half the nut. Grate one half and cut the other half into eight even pieces.
  2. Place the milk and coconut pieces into a blender jug and puree until smooth. This may take a minute or two, depending on how ripe the coconut.
  3. Pour the mixture into a non-reactive saucepan with the grated coconut and remaining ingredients (barring the coconut juice), then heat gently. Simmer the mixture for around 15-20 minutes or until the grated coconut is quite tender. Remove from the heat and take out the cinnamon quill.
  4. When cool, add the coconut juice and mix well. Pour into icy pop moulds and freeze for 6-8 hours before serving.
*Coconut has a lot of natural fats, which when cold are solid like butter and don't blend easily. The mix will blend quicker and smoother if at room temperature.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

With a little bit of luck...

The Sonora Market, Mexico City.

I have always supposed soap to be quite a good thing, of large practical consequence but of little spiritual measure. As it turns out, this is simply not the case. The former assumption is patently clear, but the latter is more a question a symbol, and how it can inhabit a peculiar place in our daily lives. Take the rather heavily scented objects you see below. The blue bar promises to boost the trade of your business, the other offers no less than to triple your luck (the variety of said luck was promised to be general). In the daily life of a resident of Mexico City, these symbols can be worth collecting.

Scented and pressed palm oil blocks to wash the blues away.

Syrups and honeys that produce love, reduce hauntings, or even get that rich client to call.

These are the kind of items you will find at Mexico City's Mercado Sonora. Amongst caged birds, glazed pottery and cheap toys resides a huge outlet of commodified luck. Sachets of love powders, aerosols of atomised spells, luck soaps and success perfumes are just a peek into what goes on here at Sonora. Bunches of medicinal herbs and seeds occupy a large proportion of the market, as do statues of Santa Muerte and scented candles.

The function of most of these items is quite within the realms of reasonable demands: to help your grades at school, calm a jealous boyfriend or help you meet your debt payments. Though these are far from the biggest problems people face here. The current state of affairs in Mexico spell hard times, at least for those on the lower rungs of society. The economy has shrunk by 7% in the past year, and poverty rose for the first time since the mid nineties. Tourism crumbled after the H1N1 virus (which is now known to have originated north of the border) was renamed the Mexican swine flu, and the drug wars claimed yet more lives.

Supernatural powders to rid you of jealousy, begin a friendship or help you with your studies.

As such, it isn't too much to ask for a little help and many do. So nearing the eve of our return to Australia, we thought we would do the same. The preparation and use of the herbs are somewhat beyond both our needs and the facilities in our Mexico City B&B, so we opted for the soap as advised. In their little boxes adorned with promises of more secret herbs and spices than you can poke a Colonel at, they looked quite promising.

Unfortunately, we had to put them outside our room after taking the photos of the unwrapped specimens as they seemed to be inspiring some fairly serious headaches. Only minutes later as the pain started to leave and the clouds parted, I could barely believe it. I was getting luckier already.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sopa Tlalpeño

Calle Real de Guadalupe, San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Living at an altitude of 2100 m (6890 ft), I suppose one should learn to make a very good broth. San Cristóbal de las Casas sits precisely at this height, and though close to the equator, the city still suffers incredibly cold nights (which surprises many tourists, resulting in a booming trade for scarves and sweaters). Some years ago I very briefly lived in San Cris, but the decidedly spartan surroundings I rented precluded any great broth production, since I was equipped with little more than a saucepan and a flame.

Moreover, a ten minute walk and a five minute wait would get me a huge portion of any one of the amazing soups from El Caldero. They boast a simple menu of eight caldos and little else, the secrets of which I have tried to procure since the first bowl. When we returned the other day, the Señora clearly remembered me and my efforts to wrench the truth out of her. She also continued to avoid any commitment to exactitude, knowledge of specific chilies, or any prolonged conversation on the topic.

I don't mean to sound so ambitious or obnoxious. The truth is that I like talking to her, and I guess she is quite flattered with my near half-decade of persistence. Anyway, at a rate of one ingredient divulged per bowl I've eaten there, I have figured out four and a half soups and have my own versions of the rest. The two we had the other day were the Caldo Chilango–a variation on Sopa Azteca–and Caldo Tlalpeño: a broth with shredded chicken, vegetables, chayote, lime and chipotle.

The Caldo Tlalpeño can be composed in a number of ways, some with a spicy broth and many with chick peas as a main component. The simplicity of El Caldero's Tlapeño appeals to me, because it needs no more than a well made stock and good vegetables to be incredibly satisfying. Incidentally, the name Tlalpeño denotes the soup's geographical origin of Tlapan, the largest borough of the Federal District of Mexico City. The word Tlapan comes from the Aztec tongue of Náhuatl and means "on the land". Here, I offer my own humble recipe of the good Señora's life-giving soup.

Caldo Tlalpeño with Caldo Chilango in the supporting role.

Caldo Tlalpeño | serves 4

1600ml Caldo de Pollo
1 choko, peeled and cut into a large dice
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 2cm rounds
1 large potato, quartered
1 cup green beans, cut into 2cm lengths
2 zucchini, cut into a large dice

To serve
250g cooked chicken breast, shredded
2 ripe avocados
2 limes, halved
A few sprigs of coriander, chopped
4 chile chipotle (of the dried variety)
Oil to shallow fry
  1. In a large pot, bring the chicken stock to a simmer and add carrot, potato, choko and season well. Cover and simmer and simmer until the potatoes begin to soften.
  2. Add the beans and zucchini, and continue cooking until the beans are quite soft.
  3. In a shallow fry pan, heat the oil to a moderate temperature then fry the chilies very briefly. They will need no more than 5 seconds on each side, the aim being to crisp them without darkening the skin.
  4. When the vegetables are tender, add the shredded chicken to the broth and check seasoning.
  5. Serve the soup into 4 large bowls with one chile chipotle in each, accompanied by a plate of avocado, the cut limes and chopped coriander.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tlahui Appeal

As some may know, in the past month Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico have been devastated by floods and landslides caused by the heaviest rainfall in recorded history. The convergence of both Hurricane Karl and Tropical Depression Matthew have caused incredible damage to regions of some of the poorest regions in Mexico.

Early morning on Tuesday the 28th of September, the mountain village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec suffered a huge landslide that covered much of the mountainside in mud and rubble, killing 11 and leaving many more homeless.

The aftermath is perhaps more devastating. With thousands forced to leave their homes fearing further landslides and many subsistence crops washed away, Tlahui is still in the grips of a major humanitarian crisis. Some suggets that one of Tlahui's main obstacles to rebuilding will be the Government's ineffective response to the situation, which is likely to be slow in coming and unsustainable.

Some are stepping in to fill the void. Amongst them is Puente, an organisation in Oaxaca that promotes sustainable food sovereignty and health in the State. Karin and I have both worked with Puente in our time in Oaxaca and are lucky to know some of their staff. The following is lifted from an email sent out today from Puente:
"Four members of our team went to Tlahui last Friday and delivered goods to five of the six temporary shelters that have been set up around the town, housing over 2,000 people.
Amongst the goods that were delivered were; tarpaulins, water and food disinfecting drops, nappies, toilet paper, raincoats, shovels and pickaxes, and foodstuff including ground corn, canned foods, biscuits and powdered milk.
Safety permitting, the team plans to deliver water purification systems and more food in the coming days, the items that the are needed most urgently.
Indeed, apart from the landslide, the heavy rains have destroyed harvests and rivers have swept away acres of agricultural land, meaning that it is likely that the citizens of Tlahui and the surrounding areas will need support with food shortages for the coming months, at least. They are also concerned that a proper geological study needs to be conducted to determine whether it will be safe to return to their homes.
Puente will be coordinating with the local population and partner organizations in the area, to develop a strategy to address these issues as well as to harmonise the general recovery process in the coming months"
Perhaps some of you may follow this blog because you've been to Oaxaca, or perhaps you have Mexican heritage or friends. And every time I post a recipe I'm encouraging you to go out and spend some amount of money on chilies, chocolate or corn husks to make yourself something wonderful to eat. This time I ask you to please consider donating a few of those dollars to help others to eat, and rebuild their lives after this tragedy.

To donate, click here. The link will take you to Puente's existent donations page, where you can safely give the quantity of your choice. Just specify in the comments field that the money is for the Tlahui Appeal. Thanks to everyone in advance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

¡Hot Tamales!

Three and a half years ago I spent my very first day in Mexico sweating, eating tamales and then sweating again–from both the heat and the salsa roja. I was in La Paz, Baja California with my brother and a friend, and we had not the slightest clue what was going on. Everyone was ten inches shorter than we'd expected, the language I thought I had a handle on was suddenly as useful as sanskrit, and none of the food looked anything like it's gringo representations. (Though the most startling element was the style of marketing endemic in Mexico, whereby a monstrous speaker is employed to pulverise the customer's auditory canal with reggaeton while they choose a new pair of socks, a child's toy or crockery set. As any traveller to Mexico knows, the key is firing up the speaker at eight in the morning, then running it ragged until the music is quite distorted. There was one stationed about 20 feet from our hotel room.)

Amongst all this new food the only thing that seemed familiar was tamales, which as far as I knew were something or other wrapped in a corn husk. So when I saw something or other wrapped in a corn husk, I bought four of the things and never looked back.

Of course, they are not all wrapped in corn husks. Many are steamed in banana leaves and a small few are baked without a casing. The diversity of fillings is more striking, and can vary from beans and chiles to mole poblano, salsa verde with pulled pork or just herbs and cheese. Then there are sweet tamales, like those coffee and cinnamon scented delights in Chiapas, or the buttered rice-masa with raisins here in Oaxaca. And beyond the joy of eating them, they are quite fun to make.

I've tried my hand at them a few times, with varying degrees of success. This last batch was the one where it all came together. The filling is key, but the all important point is the masa and how you treat it. The following tamales were filled with pulled pork and mole poblano, the second type salsa pepian and black beans. There is nothing extraordinary about these sauces, any of the mole recipes from this blog will make a good filling as long as they are well seasoned.

Tamales Relleno de
Mole Poblano y Puerco

Makes 12-16

300g pork shoulder
1 small white onion, halved
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup Mole Poblano
1kg prepared masa de tamal*
200g manteca or lard (or vegetable shortening if preferred)
2 teaspoons salt
16 corn husks
  1. Trim any sinew from the pork and place in a small saucepan with the onion, garlic and salt then cover with water. Bring to the boil then simmer for around two hours until falling apart. Let cool in its own stock.
  2. Unwrap the corn husks and cover with hot water for 30 minutes to soften.
  3. Place the masa in a large bowl (or bowl of a mixer) and add the lard. Beat by hand or on a medium speed for a few minutes until well aerated. Continue beating while adding the salt and some of the stock from the pork to loosen the masa until it is like a thick porridge. The amount of stock required will depend on the initial masa, but 50-100ml usually suffices. Reserve the masa.
  4. Remove the pork from it's stock then shred by hand. Mix with the mole poblano and reserve.
  5. Remove the corn husks from the water and shake dry. Trim off any un-desirable parts, then tear-off 20 long strips of the husk (these are used to tie the tamales closed).
  6. With a spatula, spread about half a cup of the masa inside the husk covering from left to right, then from the base to about halfway up the husk. Spoon in an appropriate amount of the pork mixture to the centre of the masa. Now carefully fold the husk over from left to right then fold the pointed end over so that the tamale is well closed. Use the strip of husk to tie the tamale closed. Repeat until the mixture is used up.
  7. Place in a steamer and add boiling water. Steam the tamales for around 45 minutes, then test by un-peeling one of the husks. If it comes away clean from the dumpling, its ready. If you need to top up the water at any point, be sure to use boiling water so as to ensure the tamales do not cool down mid-cook.
  8. Let sit for at least ten minutes before serving.

*If you are making masa from dehydrated corn flour, using the pork stock in place of water will improve the flavour considerably. In this case, reduce the additional salt to a single teaspoon.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Kakaw, Chocolate, the good stuff.

Tomes have been written on chocolate's history, culinary influence and botanical origins. After years cooking, selling and reading about the stuff, I could do little more than a disservice if I tried to condense even a portion of all there is about chocolate here. But there are a few things worth mentioning, and you'll see how I make my own at home.

Anyone subjected to advertising in the last 20 years will have an inkling that chocolate has some sort of relationship with a civilisation of the Americas, one which certainly boasted some very attractive and athletic physiques, and shared a fondness for consuming chocolate bars wrapped in foil and coloured paper. And though advertising–especially when engaging its anthropological prowess– usually gets everything 100% right, there are a few notions astray here.

Our nameless civilisation suffering portrayal was most likely supposed to be Aztecs, who are too often credited with chocolate's initial usage. Due to the fact that the Aztecs had a formidable nation intact when the Spanish arrived, they authored much of Mesoamerica's pre-colonial history simply by being the ones to tell the story. Thus, they managed to attribute quite a few achievements attained by other cultures to themselves. The Aztecs had in fact left their homeland in the north only 4oo years earlier and had ruled Mexico for less than 100 years, thousands of years after chocolate had migrated from it's home in the Amazon basin.

In fact, the Maya were fundamental in cultivating and exploiting the wonderful properties of this fruit. The Popol Wuj (the Mayan book of creation) contains a number of references to chocolate in the form in which it was used in Mesoamerica at the time, as a sacred drink and as currency. It was in fact the Maya who had first shown the Spaniards the bean they knew as kakaw, the name which is the etymological root for our own word today. Further linguistic studies have shown the word kakaw to be Mixe-Zoquean in origin–a group indigenous to the north of Oaxaca–suggesting that if they donated the word they most likely donated the substance it describes.

And so it comes full circle, since Oaxaca is renowned for the quality of it hot chocolate to this day. The city boasts hundreds of molinos from which you can purchase freshly milled chocolate nibs, or as I do, take your own mix for them to grind. Its quite a fragrant process to say the least, and since I got the scoop on the secret ingredients from my sweet abuelitas in Guatemala, it's very much worth making my own.

Cocoa beans, AKA Theobroma Cacao, feremented, dried and ready for toasting.

I start by buying very good beans. To be honest, I find the best way to choose them by looking at the other products being sold and assuming the quality is consistent (i.e. you can easily tell if a chile ancho is plump and shiny, vanilla pod moist or pecans well formed, whereas cocoa looks fairly similar. Unless of course, it looks shabby). Now I have my chocolate lady, that's it. There will be no other.

My toasted and peeled beans, weighed out with their particulars.

I roast the beans on a comal before shelling them, weighing them and taking them to the molino. My mix gets a kilo and a half of sugar to a kilo of cocoa. This is regarded as bitter-sweet in Mexico as most chocolate runs at a mix of two and a half to one. Add 50g almonds and 20g cinnamon quill and run it through the coarse molino, mix the sugar in and then run it through the second molino on a finer setting, and there you have it. It is hot and runny from the friction of the granite plates, so it's poured into a bag, taken home, mixed with the secret ingredients and pressed out into a tray. Just before setting, I run a paring knife through the mix to portion it and let it cool completely.

Willy Wonka's first job at the molino in Oaxaca. This is the chocolate with nuts and spices added, about to be mixed with sugar.

If you want to try it, please book a class with us. If you want to know more about chocolate, check out The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, or wait for our book to come out...


Monday, August 16, 2010

Dark Chocolate Semifreddo

Last month when I didn't post, I was writing new menus for the De La Tierra Cooking School. I played around a little, as one must, to keep it interesting for me whilst accommodating the seasons. One of the new courses is a Chorizo and Chocolate workshop, where in a few short hours we roast beans, grind cocoa, toast chiles and eat very, very well.

Another course boils down to a market tour where we buy whatever we might find in season on the day (yellow-foot mushrooms, baby peaches, wild greens amongst others at the moment) and plan a menu together from scratch. This got me thinking about fail-safe desserts that would carry local seasonal flavours well, while showing off the high quality of Oaxaca's dairy produce.

Enter the Semifreddo (AKA. frozen parfait, AKA no-churn ice-cream) flavoured with my handmade chocolate, studded with roasted crushed cocoa nibs, and served with vanilla bean cajeta. It's quite a thing, and on the night of its testing we had the added kick of a toasted hojaldra for crunch.

This is a very easy and satisfying recipe–you basically make a chocolate anglaise, then fold in an Italian meringue–so don't be fooled by the amount of steps. And really you can make it with any good quality chocolate. In the event that you use couverture chocolate (tempered European-style), grind up some roasted almonds and add them to the cream mix. The hint of texture and nuttiness is most welcome.

Semifreddo de Chocolate Oaxaqueño | Serves 6

160g Mexican hot chocolate (or 54%-70% dark chocolate), chopped
5 eggs, separated
250ml cream
70g sugar
1" cinnamon quill
1/2 vanilla pod
a good pinch of sea salt
20g crushed cocoa nibs (or shaved chocolate if nibs are unavailable)

Stage 1: Chocolate Anglaise
  1. In a small non-reactive sauce pan, heat the cream gently with the cinnamon quill and the seeds of the vanilla pod. At the point of boiling, remove from the heat and reserve.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks, sea salt and 20g of the sugar together in a stainless steel bowl until pale and well aerated. Strain the cream in to the egg mixture, combine then return to the heat in a clean saucepan.
  3. Cook on a low heat stirring all the while until the eggs are cooked (ribbon stage or 80 degrees Celsius , 180 Fahrenheit). Add the chocolate and stir until melted. Leave to cool.

Stage 2: Italian Meringue (start when the anglaise mix is at room temperature)
  1. Place the remaining 50g sugar in a small saucepan with 3oml water. Bring to the boil insuring all the sugar has melted. Remove from the heat but keep warm.
  2. In a large stainless steel bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until at a medium peak. At this point, slowly introduce the hot syrup and continue to whisk until shiny and firm.
  3. Remove the whisk, and using a spoon gently fold in the chocolate anglaise and crushed cocoa nibs.
  4. Pour into a prepared mould (I threw one together from a loaf tin and some baking paper) then place in the freezer. Overnight is best, but a shallow dish will render a firm semifreddo in 4-6 hours. Serve as you see fit.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Los Danzantes

A few shots from a high-end slow food place in Oaxaca. On previous visits mescal and wine from the house label–though we didn't indulge on the day–had proved quite a find, as had the slow braised duck tacos and tlayudas de camarones.

I started with a black bean soup with corn dumplings and aged cheese, Karin with the apple and mustard cress salad. The soup was quick simple yet spectacular, the little floating nuggets of masa quite reminiscent of gnocci. An earthy sour-dough with chunks of mushrooms throughout was set down and soon devoured.

Having full faith in Los Danzantes ability to work wonders with the duck, I had a seared breast on pumpkin-seed pilaf with mole chichilo. Karin had organic local turkey with mole amarillo and neither plate disappointed.

It was the start of a long month in which we visited a mushroom festival, moved house, lost a laptop to a glass of lemonade and had some great friends come and visit. Oh, and we made a fairly outrageous semifreddo with my home-made Oaxacan chocolate. Hence there are a few good posts coming up, to compensate for our absence. See you all soon.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

And now, for something completely different...

This is the Mexican black truffle. A fungal spore known here as cuitlacoche, known in the States as corn smut (or ustilago maydis to your agriculturist), known to the Aztecs as "sleeping excrement"*. It's as remarkable in flavour as in appearence, musty and sweet, toothsome, and possesing the singular quality of the umami chain of amino acids. Though it now fetches high prices both here and abroad, featuring seasonally on high-end restaurant menus, it is common to hear stories of times when there was little more to eat and pounds of cuitlacoche would be consumed day after day.

It has long been a major blight upon the corn industry in the States, where decades of work have gone into working towards eradication. During that research, it was discovered that ustilago maydis serves as a model organism for research due to its yeast-like proliferation. In addition, because the cellular structure of fungus shares properties with human cells this research led to a discovery of synthesis-dependant strand annealing. In common English, this is to say that cuitlacoche revealed the process of DNA repair. How bout that?

I use mine for hunger repair. Sauteed with a little butter and shallots, salt and chicken stock for around 10 minutes, stuffed in a tortilla with quesillo and epasote. As my Chef used to say, "get the best ingredients you can, then do as little as you can to them."

Stay tuned for a visit to the mushroom festival in Cuajimaloyas at the end of the month. Happy eating.

* A term reserved for young politicians in Australia.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mole Negro de Teotitlan

A simple tlayuda with mole negro, quesillo and shallots.

The thing I didn't get about the black mole, was how it became so black. I simply figured, as one might, that the chile and chocolate aspects of the dish took care of that somehow, but looking over the ingredients I realised it was unlikely. A very small amount of chocolate with a lot of chiles, but they were mostly red to deep red. So, then?

Of course I had another clue, and it lay in my Y chromosome. As male apprentice chef, I learnt in very tangible ways what my mother had demonstrated for many years: men are less than naturally adept at multitasking. And since the occupation as a chef pretty much boils down to multitasking, time and taste, it was a skill I sorely needed to acquire.

There were a few casualties along the way, and a few extra-large meals I slipped to the kitchenhands charged with dealing with my victims. So therein lies the solution to how to get things black, simply by doing exactly what I had been trying not to do since I picked up a wooden spoon: burn the hell of of it.

Obviously there is quite a technique to it, but it's the fire that you are looking for. Some recipes call for burnt tortillas, but this one from Teotitlan de Valle incinerates the seeds from the chiles, and blackens the chiles themselves. The sharpness, balance, complexity and texture of this mole negro make it clear why it is regarded as the king of moles. Oh, you might want to burn the chile seeds in a well ventilated area, outside is best. Provecho.

Reyna Medoza of Teotitlan de Valle toasting chile guajillos.

| makes 4 portions

6 chiles guajillos
3 chile mulatos
125g roma tomato
40g tomatillos
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
15g walnuts
1 inches cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
25g sesame seeds
6 almonds
1 pimienta gorda
1/2 teaspoons thyme
1 bay leaves
20g raisins
2 cloves
2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoon manteca
30g sugar
30g mexican chocolate
1 avocado leaf
20g dried bread
750ml Caldo de Pollo
salt, as needed
  1. After wiping the chiles clean, split, de-seed and toast all together on a comal, burning them slowly until somewhat blackened (though you should not see smoke). Place in a metal bowl and cover with chicken stock to soften. Leave sit for 10 minutes.
  2. With very good ventilation, toast the chile seeds until very hot then set them on fire until completely charred. Add to the chiles.
  3. At the same time on a comal, toast the tomato, tomatillo, garlic, and onion. When the tomatoes are soft all the way through, remove from the heat. Quickly toast sesame seeds till golden, then add the nuts and spices and heat for a further minute before adding to the chile mix.
  4. Fry the bread in manteca until lightly golden and crunchy. Add to the chiles.
  5. Place the mix in a blender with enough liquid to blend until very fine. Pass the mixture through a fine strainer, reserve.
  6. Take the manteca and heat it in a frying pan. Carefully add the paste, fry for 2-3 minutes until very fragrant. Add the salt, chocolate sugar and avocado leaves. Fry for 10 minutes then add the remaining stock. Simmer for half an hour, stirring frequently. Serve.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chilaquiles Rojas

As a breakfast, chilaquiles are famed as a reliable hangover cure and reputedly the hotter the better. Loosely described as a quick simmered tortilla casserole, they can involve a number of peripheral ingredients such as chicken, chorizo or egg, but always have fried tortilla chips and a spiced sauce in which to bathe them.

By definition they should always have at least chiles and herbs since the word chilaquiles comes to us from the Aztec tongue of Nahuatl, meaning, chiles and herbs. It would be hard to be more specific in naming the current array of sauces in which the tortilla chips are bathed in. In the north they are dressed in a white sauce, Mexico City boasts a hefty amount of epazote with a red tomato sauce, Oaxaca tends toward the green tomatillo variety and Veracruz does a lurid orange coloured version, born of green tomato and red chile.

At any rate, it's pretty hard to get a bad plate of chilaquiles. They remind me of french toast; made with yesterdays starchy staple, fried and soaked in flavour or vice versa. I might add that although debates rage about whether they must be made with stale tortillas or not, I believe it has much more to do with the integrity of the tortilla itself (the Maseca or dehydrated corn based ones tend to fall apart). The ones I used to make the following had good integrity, more than I can say for the PRI Gubernatorial candidate whose "vote for me" message adorns the packaging.

Chilaquiles Rojas | serves 4

500g day-old tortillas, cut into triangles
1 cup vegetable oil, for frying
6 tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1 medium white onion
4-6 chipotle chiles in adobo
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
1/2 cup chopped parsley
100g queso fresco or similar
finely sliced onion, to serve
  1. In a deep pan, heat the oil to around 180 degrees Celsius (or until an introduced tortilla strip fries rapidly). Add about a fifth of the cut tortillas and cook till crisp, repeat with the other 4 batches. Drain well.
  2. Place the tomatoes in a small sauce pan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Drain the water out, then puree the tomato, onion, garlic, chipotle, bay and oregano together.
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a wide saucepan, and carefully add the pureed mixture. Add some salt, then fry for 5-8 minutes or until the colour of the sauce starts to darken.
  4. Add the corn chips (you will need quite a large pan to stir the sauce through thoroughly) and mix gently, trying not to break up the chips too much.
  5. When the chips are slightly softened they are ready to serve, topped with parsley, cheese and onion. A fried egg on the side makes quite the breakfast.
Trav Harvey is a chef and cooking instructor at the De La Tierra Cooking School. This is his first Mexican Food Blog.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mexican Market

This photo post is a small selection of images I have collected from the many marketplaces we have visited in Mexico. Wonderfully chaotic and colourful, a trip to the market in Mexico is an assault on all the senses. Pushed along by crowds, called to by vendors and lost among a maze of produce stacked high and low. Now part of Trav's weekly routine is a trip down to the Central de Abastos Market, and with his return is always the promise of some new fruit, snack or ingredient.