Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Back to school, without the blues.

The view from our Kitchen at the De La Tierra Cooking School.

A quick note as an update, and further to explain an absence of blog posts. We have been very busy this month, organising, writing and testing recipes. Translating, amending said translations, shining shoes and sharpening pencils to go back to school. The school is our own: De La Tierra Escuela de Gastronomia (cooking school), located at an eco-lodge a few minutes north of the centre of Oaxaca.

The hardest work has been done by Karin (whilst suffering tasting all the dishes) designing our website, which you can find here: www.delatierra.com.au

Please have a look, and think of us if you are in the area. You are most welcome. More recipes soon.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Little pig, little pig...

The final product, Cochinita Pibil. I served it on the banana leaf because it reminded me of presenting restaurant food in the 90's, and because it took two hours of walking around Oaxaca last Saturday to track them down.

In the mythology of the Maya, Itzam Na was the name given to the rainmaker, creator of all men. To avert agricultural disasters, offerings would be made to Itzam by digging a pit two feet deep, filling it with hot stones and performing ceremonial cooking. In a "pib", the Mayan earth-oven, the food is wrapped in banana leaves then covered with the broken soil for slow cooking resulting in a flavour and texture that is incomparable.

Cochinita pibil is the traditions most famous dish, indeed it is still commonly prepared in villages in Yucatan today–if in a somewhat more secular fashion. Interestingly, since the pig is an immigrant to the Americas, cochinita pibil was certainly never prepared before the arrival of the Spanish. A more likely substitute would have been turkey, fish or venison, all of which where plentiful in the peninsula. Incidentally, cochinita refers to the diminutive form of the Mexican term for pig, coche (Ko-Chay), therefore "little pig", and pibil to indicate its method of preparation.

In conclusion of the ceremony when the dish was ready, the priest would again speak to the creator of all men, now embodied in the earth. Before disturbing the oven to remove the goods, he would cry, "Open your mouth, Itzam. Lo, it is broken apart". When mine was ready, I said something similar to my nine-litre convection oven. And I didn't feel silly in the slightest.

Paste spices before roasting and blending.

Moments before going in the oven.

Cochinita Pibil | serves 6

1kg pork shoulder, trimmed of any sinew
3 teaspoons salt
juice of 2 lemons, 2 limes and 1 orange, combined
40g Achiote paste
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon oregano
8 peppercorns
3 whole allspice
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 bay leaves
1 inch cinnamon quill, broken up
2 feet banana leaves

  1. 12-24 hours ahead of time, pierce the pork shoulder with a carving fork or paring knife to allow the marinade to penetrate. Combine half of the citrus juice mix with 2 teaspoons of salt, pour into a ziplock bag and add the pork. Squeeze out the air, seal the bag and massage the pork a little to get the juice into the holes. Refrigerate.
  2. 6 hours ahead of time, dry roast the garlic, cumin, allspice and peppercorns for 2 minutes. Add the oregano and roast for a further 30 seconds. Place in a blender with the remainder of the citrus mix, the achiote paste and 1 teapoon of salt. Blend to a fine paste–it will be slightly runny. Pour into the bag with the pork, squeeze the air out again and seal. Work the marinade into the pork again. Refrigerate.
  3. 4 hours ahead of time, Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius (320 Fahrenheit). Line a Dutch oven (a Le Creuset for example) with Banana leaves, empty the pork mixture into the pot, add cinnamon and bay leaves then cover with more banana leaves and place the lid on. Place in the oven, then be patient for 3-3 1/2 hours.*Please see notes on alternatives for this step and others.
  4. 15 minutes ahead of time with (you may care to play Europe's, "The Final Countdown" at this point) remove the pork from the oven and shred with a fork, or pair of tongs and pour the juices over. You will not need a knife. Change the background music and serve with warm tortillas or simply steamed rice, and a side of Yucatecan pickled onions.

*If you don't have have time to get the pork marinated 24 hours in advance, simply cut it into 4-6 equal size pieces like I did. This will increase surface area for the marinade to penetrate, so you can halve all the marination times–ie. 12-6 for citrus, 3 for paste.
*If you don't have banana leaves, just go without. They do impart a wonderful flavour, but it is still a stunning dish in their absence.
*If you don't have a cast iron pot, just use a tray and seal it well with foil, as I did.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Vanilla, Part II

As a follow up to last weeks vanilla post, a simple recipe for the Mexican equivalent to creme caramel. The significant difference lies in the cajeta (ka-het-ta), a Mexican confection of caramelised milk. Traditionally made with a mixture of cow's and goat's milk, it manages a wonderfully complex balance of caramel with the vaguely acidic tones of the milk. It is hugely popular here, as lollipops, ice-cream, or even as a spread for crepes rather like Nutella.

The following cajeta recipe comes from Rick Bayless, the custard component is my own. Though not exactly difficult, cajeta is time consuming and some prefer to avoid the process and simply place a tin of condensed milk (unopened) into a pot of boiling water to simmer for two hours. When cooled, you will find a smooth caramel inside only lacking a dash of good vanilla. Even to my standards it not too bad, though maybe a little sweet.

Flan de Cajeta | Serves 8

The Caramel
500ml goat's milk
500ml cow's milk
1 cup sugar (raw is best)
1/4 teaspoon of baking powder, dissolved in a tablespoon of water
1 Vanilla bean
6 Dariole moulds
  1. Place milk, sugar and vanilla on a medium heat in large heavy based pot. When the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and add the baking soda. Make sure your pot is big enough for the small eruption the baking powder will cause.
  2. Return to the heat and simmer gently until the mixture darkens in colour. This takes about an hour of fairly frequent stirring, so it's good opportunity to begin the custard stage of the flan (see below).
  3. As the sauce darkens it will thicken. Stirring in this stage is vital as caramels burn easily. You must continue until the cajeta is thick enough to form semi-solid balls if dropped into cold water. At this point, add the seeds from the vanilla bean to the mixture then pour a small amount into each of your dariole moulds. When cooled, place the remainder in a jar and refrigerate.
The Custard
900ml milk
1/2 cup castor sugar
1 vanilla bean
5 eggs
6 egg yolks
a pinch of salt
  1. Preheat your oven to 170 degrees Celsius.
  2. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod in to saucepan, add the milk and salt and warm for 10 mins, letting the vanilla permeate. Let cool.
  3. Whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add the cooled milk mixture and then strain into a jug. Pour the mixture into the cajeta lined dariole moulds and place them into a baking tray. Fill the tray to just below the level of the darioles with warm water, cover with foil and place in the oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until the custard has set. Remove, cool to room temperature and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New World Ingredients: Part I

The first in a series of articles on ingredients native to Mexico.

Standing on the lush rolling hills of Gutierrez Zamora, Mexico, I was given cause to consider when I had first become acquainted with vanilla. Profoundly, I realised that I could draw direct line from it’s saintly aroma, to the life that I lead today. You see, my invitation to start cooking didn’t appear in a newspaper, as an ad in a window or from a well-meaning friend. Like many of us, it came from my mother many years before and if it had a perfume, it was certainly vanilla. The scent of cakes, custards and ice-cream that she sent through the house excited me so that I would lose my thoughts for anything else. As the convection oven hummed it’s promises and I licked spoons and bowls clean, my friendship with the little black pod was forged forever.

Vanilla is surely the most romantic and seductive of the spices. With an incredible flavour profile that’s deep, mellow, woody, spicy and smooth, it’s like the Isaac Hayes of flavour. Yet these are only the basic flavour notes, different varieties and points of origin grant yet more subtleties, rendering vanilla an endlessly busy collaborator. Though it’s classic role is in desserts, it also adds complexity and surprise to savoury dishes, beverages and perfumes.

The vanilla vine was first cultivated in the Veracruz region of Mexico by the Tontonaca people in around 1000 CE. The Tontonacan mythology that remains embedded in vanilla’s biography tells of the first plant rising from the blood spilled of forbidden love. The story goes that the Princess Tzacopanziza had angered her father by falling in love with the mortal Xzakanoxga, making off into the forest with him. When caught by the King’s priests, the couple found out the hard way that immortality had been revoked when they were beheaded. A vine (the Princess) grew from their final resting place, which cloaked itself around the trunk of a host tree (her lover).

That vine, is in fact a vanilla orchid, and the only orchid which produces anything of agricultural interest. As noted, the vine requires a host to raise itself off the ground and can grow up to 20m high in the wild if left unmolested. The orchid’s pale green flower produces a 5-10” fruit – a pod– that looks somewhat like a large, perfectly formed green bean, which explains the misnomer. This unassuming little miracle is the source of all the wonder, but only after a long process which brings it to life.

When green, the pod has no strong smell, though the flower is said to be sweetly fragrant. The pod’s volatile oils and compounds require not only maturation, but gentle drying before flavour develops. Traditionally, the drying process involves a combination of hot water and gentle sun-drying. At night the pods will be placed in blankets in airtight boxes to “sweat” or ferment, a key procedure in obtaining key flavour compounds. The pods are then stored to further develop their distinctive taste, darkening and shrinking as they do. When the moisture content has reached 20-30%, the pods will have lost up to four fifths of their original weight. This means 3-5kgs of fresh pods will yield 1kg of prepared product. The whole production chapter can take up to 8 months, and impatient global demand has resulted in practices which involve oven-drying and other techniques which produce a lower quality pod. The difference is easy to spot: good vanilla pods are slightly sticky, highly malleable and wonderfully aromatic.

Another predictable feature of good vanilla is that it not be cheap. Cost addition factors include significant moisture loss, long production periods and the big one, the need for hand pollination. Vanilla Planafolia is a troubled loner in nature, it can’t self-pollinate and the only insect with the know how is a native Mexican bee (not the one from The Simpsons) that evolved alongside the plant. This means that in most parts of the vanilla growing world, from Madagascar, to Fiji, to Indonesia, delicate pollination is tediously carried out by a worker who might be more skilled in Jenga or pick-up-sticks. This task, in combination with the fact the flower only lives for a tenuous one to two hours, gives a sound basis for its relatively high cost, second only to saffron in the spice world.

Still, we employ it in abundance. We use it for so many applications these days that it’s synonymous with conventionality, though this ungenerous equation has more to do with imitation essence than the real thing. Its spread across the culinary spectrum can be traced back to the apothecary (a kind of pre-pharmaceutical era pharmacist) of Queen Elizabeth I who suggested its use as a general flavouring agent and nerve tonic. Up until this time, vanilla was only used to enrich other New World ingredients such as chocolate and tobacco.

Nowadays, I use vanilla in desserts almost as commonly as I might use salt in savoury dishes. Vanilla’s way of mellowing yet heightening chocolate, adding bouquet to cream, or deepening the flavour of stone fruits makes it the first answer to most sugary inquiries. Should a pastry or dough seem eggy or floury on its own, vanilla imparts a congruous link between the obtuse flavours. Between this talent and it’s versatility, vanilla is extremely employable across many applications; this explains why Coke is the largest purchaser of vanilla in the world today, while fashion houses like Armani or Prada boast fragrances with vanilla as a base.

Yet where we most expect to see real vanilla we may well be disappointed. Industry insiders report that the tiny black dots in gourmet vanilla ice-cream are in fact exhausted bean specks, ground up pods that have already had full flavour extraction (vanilla essence or it’s imitation are used in conjunction to add the products heralded flavour). To me, this rather like serving a bone pulled from a beef stock, if marginally easier to swallow.

Sadly, outside of Veracruz it is hard to find fresh vanilla in Mexico today: as always, a sought after product will find it’s highest price. Never the less, good quality extracts are common and used in hot chocolate, pastries and the ever-present flan, a version of a crème caramel with Spanish roots. Still this simple and enchanting gift of nature travels most everywhere else. From the Napa Valley to Istanbul, from Tetsuya’s kitchen to your own local delicatessen. And herein lies the irony of the King’s command: it would seem the poor Princess Tzacopanziza has, in her own way, resumed her immortality.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Essential Equipment for the Mexican Cook (and what to use as a substitute)


A comal is either a thin metal or unglazed ceramic tray, used to cook tortillas or toast ingredients like chiles, tomatoes etc. A flat cast iron pan is a suitable replacement.


This is the Mexican mortar and pestle used frequently to make sauces, guacamole and the like. Molcajetes tend not to have a very smooth surface and require a little preparation, but are well worth it. Very handy for freshly grinding spices and creating wonderfully textured sauces.


The cazuela is a slow coking pot used for birria, cochinita pibil and braises in general. Traditionally they are a glazed clay or terracotta, but heavy based casseroles that apply good even heat can be used. A French oven like Le Creuset is a good substitute.

Tortilla Press
If you are going to make your own tortillas, there are two options: by hand or by press. Many varieties are available, and the heavy duty square presses are the best, though the easiest to find are the cast aluminium. Sheets of plastic cut from plastic bags are used to ensure the tortilla is easily removed. As the plastic is flexible, it tends to work even better than silicon paper.

Tamale Steamer
A purpose made tamale steamer is wonderful, but a good old vegetable steamer will do the job as well. Anything that you can fashion to keep the tamales elevated (above a decent amount of simmering water) will work just fine. A perforated tray that fits inside your favourite pot is suitable, just put a few ramekins or other heat resistant items in to prop up the tray.

The blender is a pretty standard piece of equipment in most kitchen, though rarely would it see this much use. From sauces to pastes, moles to fruit juice, the liquadora rarely gets a rest. Such is the case that most Mexican cookbooks recommend having two jugs, just as a baker might have two mixing bowls. The only substitute for the blender is a knife, a molcajete and a lot of hard work.

This is the first in a series on the basics of Mexican cooking.