Thursday, February 18, 2010

Obama's Favorite Soup

Sometimes folkloric, often apocryphal and always colourful, there is a story behind every recipe and how it came into being. I make it a point to collect these tales as side dishes to the dish itself, to render the recipe more than it is in the moment it's prepared or eaten.

Somewhat of an oddity then, that a dish as famous and ubiquitous as Sopa Azteca leaves me completely clueless as to its true origin. Some attribute the dish to Tlaxacala, not too far out of Mexico City, while others take it's lack of confirmed history to indicate that Sopa Azteca is a pretty recent invention.

The most frequently mentioned bit of information you are likely to find in an internet search, is that Sopa Azteca is Obama's favorite Mexican first course. We can speculate from this that it nourishes the body sufficiently to sink some pretty nice three pointers, but we can't know for sure. What we can know is that this is a sublime dish. The rich broth, smoky Pasilla chile, tender chicken, crisp tortillas and smooth avocado all help to explain it's prominence on Mexican menus the world over.

Sopa Azteca |
serves 4

The Soup
vegetable oil for shallow frying
2 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1/2 small white onion, sliced
4 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
3 cups caldo de pollo

The Garnish
3 corn tortillas, cut into strips
6 dried pasilla chiles, stemmed, seeded then pressed flat
200g shredded chicken thigh*
80g queso fresco, diced (or a young cow's milk feta)
1 large ripe avocado,Diced
2 limes, halved
chopped coriander
Onion, finely diced
  1. Fill a wide-base pan with enough oil to create a depth of around 1cm, and heat on a medium flame. The oil is hot enough when the corner of a tortilla strip sizzles when introduced. At this point, add half the tortilla strips to the oil and gently fry until crisp and lightly golden. Remove and drain on paper towel, then repeat the process with the remaining tortilla.
  2. In the same oil, fry the chile Pasilla briefly until it changes colour and puffs up. Be sure not to fry any longer than required: 5 seconds on each side will do, much more make the chile bitter.
  3. Reduce the heat slightly, then add the onion and garlic and fry gently for 4-5 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent. Remove, let cool slightly then place in the blender with the chopped tomatoes and process to a smooth paste.
  4. Take a small amount of the oil from the pan (about 2 tablespoons), and heat it in a medium size pot. When hot, add the pureed tomato paste and fry, stirring all the while. When the paste has has reduced to half, add the chicken stock and bring to the boil. Season and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. To serve, fill each bowl with the prepared garnishes of tortilla, chicken, chile Pasilla, queso fresco and avocado. Prepare a plate of lime, chopped coriander and finely diced onion for the table. Pour equal portions of soup into each bowl and serve immediately.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chile Relleno

As the taxi sped through laneways so empty and inconsequential they suggested an imminent kidnapping, I tried with hopelessly inadequate Spanish to conduct my routine interview with our driver. This was three years ago, my first trip to Mexico, and the dialogue was–to my understanding–as follows (note: this translation only partly captures my linguistic ineptitude).

Australian:"Excuse me sir, what good eat here?"
Driver:"Say again?"
A:"Umm, to eat? What good eat? In Puebla."
D:"Hmmm, well. Mole poblano, tacos al pastor...have you tried a stuffed chile?"
A:"Yes. Oh, Yes."(standard confused answer, waiting for a word I might recognise)
D:"You've tried it?"
A:"What?"(now very confused, since the only words I know being used in reference to ones I don't)
D:"Stuffed chile. Do you like it?"
A:"What this is?"
D:"A chile pepper. Stuffed with meat and spices. You've tried it?"
A:"Ah yes." Long pause. "Who is..?"

And on it went like a high schooler's version of a Monty Python sketch, until I found out what I was to try, or gave up and looked in the guide book for bad advice.

So years and miles away from that dire moment in Puebla, I'm in a position to save you the effort, confusion and air miles. This is a great recipe, a composite of three that I have collected from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Puebla. In fact, it is the very chile relleno that we teach at our cooking school, which I am shamelessly plugging here.

All of the ingredients are very common, outside of the chile Poblano itself which can happily be substituted for a green capsicum (pepper), or better yet a banana chile. The Poblano has a lightly acidic, almost piney taste without any heat, which roasts to a slightly sweet clean taste. The Banana chile would just add a little kick, which would work well since the stuffing employs only sweet and aromatic spice.

Sometimes my recipes come with a few tips. All tips pertaining to this recipe have already gone to my taxi driver. Him know what good eat here.

Chile Relleno | serves 4

The Chile
4 chile Poblano
300g ground pork
1 inch cinnamon quill
3 whole allspice
1 clove garlic
2 bay leaves
1/2 onion, finely diced
Water to cover
1 level teaspoon of salt
1 tomato, diced
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup chopped raisins
1/4 cup chopped parsley

The Sauce
2 tomatos
1/2 a small white onion
1/2 clove garlic
1 cup chicken stock
Pinch of thyme
3 black peppercorns

The Batter
3 eggs, seperated
Flour for dusting
  1. To prepare the chile for peeling and stuffing, place directly over a flame and quickly char the skin. Place in a bowl, cover, then place in the fridge.
  2. Place the pork mince, spices, onion and salt then cover with water. Heat gently and then simmer for 40 minutes, topping up the water if need be. Remove and strain, keeping the stock.
  3. Remove the cinnamon, bay and allspice, then return the pork to the pan with the chopped almonds and fry on a high heat for five minutes until the pork starts to colour. Add the tomato, raisins and stock and continue to cook until the stock has reduced to only just enough to keep the mix moist. Add parsley and remove from the heat.
  4. In a blender, puré all the ingredients from the sauce component of the recipe. Strain into a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes.
  5. Take the chiles from the fridge, remove the burnt skin and rinse to remove any flecks then dry with paper towelling. Remove the stem from the chile and clean out the seeds and membrane. Gently fill them with the pork mixture, forcing the mix down to expel any air.
  6. To Prepare the batter, whip the egg whites to a medium peak, add salt then 1 yolk at a time whisking all the while.
  7. To ensure the egg batter sticks, lightly flour the chiles then gently dip them into the egg mixture, then on into a frypan with small amount of oil. Seal both sides of the chile (they are much easier to turn if you keep the chiles quite flat when stuffing them) then pour the sauce over them and keep them on a gentle heat for half an hour.
  8. Serve with a little chopped coriander, salsa of your choice and crumbled fresh cheese. We had queso fresco available, but in a pinch feta is a fair substitute.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mexican Graffiti and Stencil Art

Enjoy a selection of photos taken on our travels. This photo post looks at the prolific and accomplished graffiti found on walls everywhere across Mexico. Ranging from complex stencil art to quirky sketches and cartoons - visual candy abounds.