Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Arroz a la Mexicana

Arroz a la Mexicana

The red tomato coloured rice pilaf is an interesting dish for a couple of reasons. On the one hand it's very common and builds on techniques I have covered elsewhere; for example the purée of  tomatoes, onions and garlic that forms the basis of the rajas recipe I covered a good while back. Yet it also adds some techniques and ingredients which are unusual and I haven't discussed before.

The rice is, at it's most basic, a pilaf with a blended puree of tomato, garlic and onion forming the basis of the stock. As far as quantities for each cup of medium grain rice a single plum tomato, a clove of garlic and about 1/4 of a medium onion along with a splash of water to allow the blender turn make up the purée. I also like to add about an inch of azafran to the dish for both colour and taste.

Browning the rice
This is the unusual part of the procedure. The rice must first be browned in some vegetable oil. This is not the gentle sweating that is the starting point for a risotto, the rice is fried under medium high heat until toasted and golden brown. This is a very counter intuitive procedure to anyone more familiar with European cooking, but stick with it.

Once the rice is golden brown the purée is introduced and the frying continues for another couple of minutes until the tomato has cooked out a bit. 

This ingredient has been the cause of quite a bit of confusion for me! Every time I had this rice in a restaurant, there was something savoury in it I couldn't identify. I would as a friend:
    "There is something unusual in this, what is is", the answer always was
    "Ohh Safron?"
    "Yes azafran"
    "Are you sure? It doen't taste like saffron"

This went on for some time and I made rice a number of times, but was never entirely happy and could never match the taste of what I had been served.

Finally in the supermarket I spotted it! Azafran.

It is the root of the safflower plant, resembling ginger root but smaller with a yellow skin. Like saffron proper it is a very effective dye (preparing it will make your fingers look like an 80 a day smoker's, and it will stain everything it touches), but it doesn't have saffron's medicinal taste, it's somehow both lemony and meaty.

Finishing the rice.
Once the purée has cooked out slightly the liquid can be added. I find that for each cup of rice about two cups of liquid are about right, but allow for any liquid you added to the blender in the beginning, so in this case I used just shy of two cups of light chicken stock (or water).

At this point the pan is covered and the rice left to cook undisturbed over a low heat. It should take about 15 minutes to cook.

About 5 minutes from the end of the cooking time some peas can be added for colour. You may have noticed that I didn't add any chile. I don't think the rice should have chile in it if it being used as an accompanying dish. If you are going to add chile it's best to add some thin rounds of serrano along with the peas - adding the chile to the tomato purée dulls the red colour and if the chile was added before the peas the it's colour will have muddied by the time the dish is cooked.

After the 15 minutes have elapsed turn off the heat and leave the rice covered for a further 10 minutes to finish cooking. If you find you have too much or too little water you can do whatever manipulations are necessary at this point.

Garnish with some corriander and eat.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Agua de Tamarindo

I have never been a huge lover of tamarind. Back in Ireland I always seemed to have a block of prepared tamarind in the fridge with the intention of making Pad Thai but somehow it never seemed to end up being used. The idea then of Aqua De Tamarindo never appealed to me, I always imagined it as being quite astringent and unpleasant and if you look back at the first post I made on various Aguas Frescas I left out Agua de Tamarindo.

I was wrong. It's actually very good, and refreshing.

It's possible to buy a box of oversized teabags which make tamarind cooler very quickly and without mess or fuss, but I also wanted to try using actual tamarinds which are also available in all the shops. If you have never seen a tamarind in the flesh before (and I hadn't) they look like giant brown peanuts. Making the drink simply requires breaking the pulp out of the shell, and soaking the pulp in some warm water for 20 minutes or so. Not a huge amount of tamarind is necessary, and 10 medium sized pods will easily give a couple of litres of finished drink.

After the pods have softened in the water you need to break up the pulp in the water and release the seeds. This is a bit unpleasant, it is I imagine exactly what you would have to do if your pet swallowed something valuable. But once the pulp has been mushed into the soaking water the resulting slurry can be sieved into a blender to extract the seeds, veins, skins and any stray bits of pod. After blending the mixture should then be decanted into a jug, again through a sieve, and diluted and sugar or sweeter added to taste.

Like Agua de Jamica it's best when not too concentrated and not overly sweet. Think light and refreshing rather then viscous and overly cloying. I also discovered Tamarind Margarita while in a restaurant lately.....definitely something to add to the list!

Monday, 24 October 2011


There are a couple of approaches to this pork dish. The meat can first be simmered barely covered with water for a couple of hours until very tender and then, after the water is boiled off, the meat is fried in it's own rendered fat until crispy. There are also recipes where the meat is poached in lard, and finally there are some where the meat is firstly braised until cooked and then the final crisping is done in the oven.

The last two methods don't appeal to me much, I find the idea of turning on the oven for something that has already been slow cooked wasteful, and while poaching the meat in lard sounds succulent, it's also messy and in all likelihood pretty unhealthy.

Ignoring the various ways of getting there, the destination for me is a succulent and slightly crispy pork dish that is scented with bay and orange. The orange is what makes the dish distinctive for me, though it seems to be omitted in quite a few recipes. It's also the combination of both crispy and tender that makes the dish really great.

The dish takes some time, though there is very little actual preparation time. The dish bubbles away unattended for the vast majority of the cooking time and requires little attention accept during the final frying.

About a pound and a half of pork, ideally shoulder, cut into one inch or larger cubes is placed in a singe layer in a large saucepan or casserole. Water is added to cover, along with a heaped tablespoon of lard, half of a tennis ball sized onion thinly sliced, four cloves of garlic, half of an orange cut into four pieces, a couple of bay leaves, oregano, salt and pepper.

The meat is brought to a boil and then then kept at a low simmer, covered, for a couple of hours.

When ready to finish the dish the cover is removed and the heat is increased. Pretty soon the available water will evaporate and the sound will change from one of liquid bubbling to frying. The meat is then fried in the lard and it's own rendered fat until the desired crispiness is achieved. Personally I like some texture but dislike the meat being too dry and find ten minutes or so to be sufficient. I also like to break the chunks of pork into smaller pieces.

Carnitas are generally used as a taco filling, accompanied by corriander and onion and some salsa the quantity above is sufficient to provide enough meat for a meal of tacos for three to four people. I have seen carnitas described as a menace to public health, and it's amazing the way the meat can soak up all of the rendered fat and added lard. Perhaps they are best enjoyed as an occasional treat rather then the cornerstone of a diet!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Camarones En Achiote

Chintextle de Oaxaca

There appear to be a couple of versions of this Oaxacan paste, the version I made from the Roberto Santibanez book is a paste of pumpkin seed and dried chile, however looking on-line there are also versions of the sauce which include dried shimp as part of the paste.

The procedure is simple and consists of the following blended together (in a food processor as the paste is too thick to be made in a blender):

3/4 of a cup of toasted pumpkin seeds  
About 10 toasted dried chiles 
A tablespoons of cider vinegar and another of rice wine vinegar
Enough olive oil to form the paste

I tried this a number of times using both pasilla and guajillo chiles and also using chiles which had been soaked in water after toasting. The recipe in the book calls for Passilla de Oaxaca chiles which are hotter and smokier than regular passila chiles, but which I have never been able to find in the shops. The paste is quite thick and I think requires more than the tablespoon of oil that Santibanez suggests to achieve the right consistency.

The paste works well with chicken and is also a good addition to the tortilla for a quesadilla, though it benefits from a days resting for the flavours to mellow.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Pescado Adobado.

Guajillo Adobo

I have been dipping into Roberto Santibanez's book Truly Mexican over the past while. The layout of the book is very logical and while he doesn't cover the same breath of the cuisine as either Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless, when it comes to understanding the sauces that for the basis for much of Mexican cooking he provides a very clear and helpful foundation.

Reading the book one has that "aha" moment that one had when first reading about the French "mother sauces", there is a sense of a lot of the confusion being stripped away and the sauces being divided into clear and obvious families and the reader is then empowered to improvise with confidence.

The sauces are split into:
  • Salsas - the tomato and tomatillo cooked and uncooked sauces and garnishes which I have covered quite a bit already. 
  • Guacamoles - there are a couple of very interesting ones which I will return to sometime later, there is a seafood guacamole and one with chicharron which definitely look worth a try.
  • Adobos - simple purees of different chiles. 
  • Moles and Pipanes  - the more complicated nut thickened sauces,
I have covered a lot of salsas already and also a couple of guacamoles but I have been anxious to move on to cover more substantial meat dishes and to tackle some of the adobos and pastes and to master some mole recipes. There are a couple of reasons I haven't thus far. Living alone means that I don't generally buy large cuts of meat, and also I try to restrict myself to chicken and fish as much as possible, beef and pork would generally be a one time a week treat for me, so preparing dishes based on larger cuts demands more forward planning than I am used to. But I'll struggle on, for science!


An adobo, at it's simplest, is a paste made from toasted then soaked dried chiles, blended with a small amount of water, garlic, a splash of vinegar, salt, possibly some sugar and whatever spices seem appropriate.

There is nothing in the technique that we have not seen already in the cooked salsas. The dried chiles are toasted on a compal until fragrant but not burnt, they are soaked in water until soft, and the seeded and de-veined flesh of the chile is blended with the other ingredients.

There is a certain amount of disagreement as to whether the soaking liquid should be used in the paste. Santibanez thinks not, that using clean water gives better taste. I have tried both ways, and while I am not sure I can tell the difference, I suspect on principle he is right and you should discard the soaking liquid.

The paste is blended until absolutely smooth, a couple of minutes at least, and should also be passed through a sieve after blending to ensure the paste is a silky as possible without any remaining skins or stray seeds.

The adobo can then be used as a marinade or else mixed with an equal amount of water or stock it can be used as a braising liquid.

Guajillo Adobo

The guajillo chile is a long dried chile, similar in shape to a passila but with a slightly redder colour. While the dried chiles are a reddish brown the adobo paste made from them is a beautiful red colour.

The adobo is quite delicate and can be used as a marinade for fish without overpowering it.

To make the paste toast about 10 or 12 guajillo chiles on a comal, as they toast their colour lightens slightly, but as always you must be careful not to scorch them. I generally just drop the whole chile on the comal and turn it frequently and use a spatula to press down on it, however you can also cut the chile and de-vein it before toasting it. (In fact this is probably a much cleaner and easier method, and it is nothing but force of habit the makes me take the other approach). Once the chiles are toasted soak them in water for 20 minutes or so until soft.The blend them along with about 3/4 cup of water (more if necessary), a couple of cloves of garlic, a splash of cider vinegar, a scant teaspoon of salt and sugar and a pinch of cumin.

You are aiming for a smooth paste thicker than pouring consistency so the abobo will have to be blended for much longer than a salsa would and should be passed through a sieve to ensure it is perfectly smooth.

It can then be spread on meat or fish as a marinade prior to frying or grilling, or it can be added to browned chicken or pork along with an equal quantity of water or stock to create a stewing liquid. Versatile stuff!

Pastel De Tres Leches

It's a complete mystery to me why Tres Leches cake is not as popular everywhere as it is in Mexico. It's not particularly difficult and requires no unusual techniques or ingredients, and the resulting cake is light and moist and really gorgeous. It is basically a sponge cake soaked in a combination of three different kinds of milk; evaporated milk, condensed milk and either cream or, as here, whole milk.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail, for one when it comes to baking I have little expertise to offer, I just follow the recipe the same as everybody else and secondly the recipe below is taken from an episode of Good Eats and you can get all the information you require from the episode here rather than second hand from me.

Clearly a recipe that contains a can of condensed milk and a can of evaporated milk is not a very traditional one and no doubt the recipe owes quite a bit to Nestle or whatever company first put the instructions on the side of a can, however the end result is quite elegant, and we are certainly not entering into the realm of cooking where every recipe calls for a can of Campbell's Mushroom Soup. While not traditional, it is popular. Mexican pastry cooking is very very impressive and any cake that can hold it's place here is worth your attention.

The common variations seem to be to add a fruit purée, usually mango, to the cake. Fanny Gerson's recipe from her book, which I mentioned in an earlier post, includes fruit between two layers of sponge. Personally I don't like this, I prefer the cake to come as a single square of sponge, topped with cream. The only amendment I made to Alton's recipe was to to the cake with plain whipped cream rather than sweetened cream as I find the cake a little less cloying that way. There is a restaurant close to may apartment which serves the soaked sponge, which is coated in toasted nuts, on a small cast iron pan, sitting in a pool of the three milk mixture. It is very very classy and delicious.

Good Eats Tres Leches Cake


For the cake:

  • Vegetable oil
  • 6 3/4 ounces cake flour, plus extra for pan
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 8 ounces sugar
  • 5 whole eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the glaze:
For the topping:
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 8 ounces sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil and flour a 13 by 9-inch metal pan and set aside.
Whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.
Place the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium speed until fluffy, approximately 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly. This will appear to be a very small amount of batter. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees F.
Remove the cake pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.

For the glaze:
Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half in a 1-quart measuring cup. Once combined, pour the glaze over the cake. Refrigerate the cake overnight.

Place the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk together on low until stiff peaks are formed. Change to medium speed and whisk until thick. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.


Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Another cookbook.

I like this one an awful lot. It's approach is very different from the other books which aim to be encyclopaedias of Mexican cooking. This book has a much narrower range (and somehow seems to accomplish more as a result), he covers a large variety of salsas, followed by a number of different guacamoles, then nut thickened sauces and moles. Finally all of the various sauces are drawn on in the final chapters in a variety of meat and fish dishes.

There isn't a huge emphasis on the ethnographic matters that Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless cover, for example there isn't a huge chapter in this book, as there is in the other two, on dishes made from corn masa. Rather he is satisfied with a brief description on the method of making corn tortillas, the salsas and moles making up the heart of the book.

There are a couple of very interesting recipes. There is a restaurant here in Monterrey which specialises in chicken tostadas smothered in crema and a very smooth guacamole containing tomatillo - there is a recipe here for this guacamole, which is something I have been meaning to try for a while now. I also have a bag of pumpkin seeds waiting in the cupboard to be included in a pumpkin seed sauce, something he has a straightforward example of.

The book is beautifully photographed by Romulo Yanes, who was a photographer for Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, everything looks delicious without looking manicured or overly fussed with.

Santibanez himself seems to have come from a European culinary background and is careful to spend time explaining how the techniques used are different from those which would be familiar to someone more acquainted with French or Italian cooking.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Carne en Salsa Colorada

Another approach to creating a salsa aside from those based on tomato, tomatillo or vinegar, all of which we have seen already, is to use toasted dried chiles blended with water or stock as the base and thicken the resulting mixture with a roux made of lard and masa harina. This type of salsa is generally used to braise meat as opposed to being used as a condiment.

There are a lot of variations here. Different types of dried chiles can be used, the roux can be made from masa and lard, from flour and butter, a slurry of flour can be used or the roux omitted altogether and the salsa allowed to thicken naturally.

Toasting the Chiles and the Garlic
I used a combination of chile ancho, chile passila and small chile de arbol. The ancho has a deep raisin taste, the chile de arbol resembles a dried thai birds eye chile, they round out the flavour of the passila, giving additional depth and heat.

The easiest way to toast them is on top of a hot comal. You can remove the stem, split them down the middle, open them out, remove the seeds and membrane and then toast them briefly, pushing them down with a spatula for a few moments on each side until they are fragrant but not burnt. Alternately you can lay the unopened on the comal, turning regularly and remove the stem, seeds and membranes afterwards.

I used roughly 3 anchos, a half dozen passila and another half dozen chile de arbol. After toasting the chiles are placed in a bowl of hot water to soak, weighted under a plate to keep them submerged if necessary.

As the chiles are toasting you also need to toast 3 or 4 cloves of garlic on the comal in their skins until soft.

Blending the Salsa
There a couple of divergences here. Some authors suggest that the soaking liquid is too astringent to be added to the blender. Some also suggest adding water while others use chicken stock.

Personally I don't find the soaking liquid to be a problem, however I would not add all of it to the blender lest the salsa be too loose, and I would certainly use chicken broth if some was available. Perhaps I'll just sit on the fence and suggest 3/4 of a cup of each.

Along with the liquid and the soaked chiles you will also need to add about 1/2 teaspoon each of oregano, cumin and salt. Blend everything to a fine purée.

Cooking the pork.
For the carne part of the dish I used leg of pork cut into 1cm dice. Pork shoulder would also be fine, in fact any meat which benefits from long slow moist cooking would work well.

The neat needs to be browned on all sides, when the meat is coloured remove from the pan. In a clean pot make a roux from a tablespoon of lard and a tablespoon of masa, allow to cook through and then add the salsa, straining it through a sieve to catch any pieces of chile or cumin that didn't blend fully, then add the meat and any juices to the salsa.

The whole thing is simmered slowly until the meat is tender - at least and hour.

The meat and salsa freezes well. It makes a beautiful taco, either with the meat left in cubes or pressed lightly with a masher while reheating so that is falls into strips and drinks up the salsa.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A selection of salsas:
Habenero salsa from previous recipe, Cholula Chipotle Salsa (mild and smokey), El Yucateco Habanero Salsa (very hot), Valentina salsa Picante (mild and citrusy), La Anita Habanero Salsa (insanely hot).

Habanero Salsa

My tolerance for chile, and habanero in particular has increased a lot over the past 18 months. This is a good thing. Habaneros, though hot, have a unique fruity taste, quite different from the crisp clear heat of a serrano, it is a much more interesting taste - provided you can stand the heat!

This salsa is fairly hot. It takes a different approach from the tomato or tomatillo based salsas we have seen already in that it is a vinegar based salsa. There are very few ingredients; chiles, water, vinegar, onion, garlic and salt.

I was a little careless in measuring the quantities, in truth it was just an initial exploration and I was surprised it turned out so well. The quantities here should be taken as a guide rather than a blueprint.

To temper the heat slightly I used some serrano along with the habanero, so the final list of ingredients was:

1/2 to 3/4 cup of water
An equal quantity of red wine vinegar
2 chocolate habaneros (though orange or green would be fine)
2 cloves of roasted garlic
2 roughly chopped serranos
A couple of slices of onion
A good helping of salt.

Everything was added to a small saucepan and simmered for 10 minutes or so. You need a roughly equal quantity of water and vinegar. Cider vinegar would be more authentic but red wine vinegar was what I had available, and considering the quantity of chile I'm not sure it would be possible to tell the difference anyway.

The poached ingredients were blended until smooth and the seasoning adjusted. You should end up with about a cup of a loose salsa with the consistency of pouring cream.

I find the sauce to be hot without being totally overpowering, it keeps the nice fruity floral taste of habanero. It's certainly ho enough to get your attention but it doesn't obliterate whatever it's eaten with and it is certainly much less spicy than some of the bottled habanero salsas you can by in the shops here.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Sweet Tamales With Rasins and Pecans

I have tried these sweet tamales a couple of times, once with shortening as a fat but I have also made them also using butter. The recipe below (apart from the vanilla) is from Fanny Gerson's book but there is a similar recipe in Rick Bayliss which has raisins but does not include the pecans.. These are a nice treat, they make a excellent breakfast and, as they freeze well, they are convenient.

I have been trying, without success, to find some logic in the ratios of masa to fat that people use, and to whether or not baking powder is used. Generally the ratio of masa to fat, whether butter, shortening or lard, is about 4:1 but some recipes have more fat than this and some have less but as a general rule of thumb a ratio of 4:1 works well, whether for sweet or savoury tamales. The recipe below has baking powder included,  One would imagine that baking powder is used mostly in sweet tamlaes and that savoury tamales contain no baking powder. That doesn't seem to be the case. There are many recipes for savoury tamales that contain baking powder and I have made sweet lime zest tamales, again from Fanny Gerson's book, which contain no baking powder.
There is a small amount of organisation involved in tamale making, perhaps less for sweet tamales that for savoury filled ones, as there is no salsa and meat to be prepared beforehand. For sweet tamales all that is really required is enough time to soften the corn husks and to ensure that the fat is at room temperature and workable.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time going through the mechanics of things. You are going to make a dough, get it into a corn husk and steam it for an hour to a hour and a half. Many of the descriptions of the process seem determined to make it more mysterious than this and somehow dependant on lots of arcane knowledge. In truth, it isn't difficult and it's a hard thing to fuck up too badly.

Making the Dough

I don't have a stand mixer, so I use a hand mixer to mix the batter, before that I mixed everything by hand without any problem, aside from some cramp and a denser batter.

Firstly the fat is beaten to lighten it, after that the sugar is creamed with the fat for about half a minute. When the fat and sugar have been creamed together the masa harina and liquid are beaten in alternately. Gerson's procedure is different - the water is first boiled and the masa harina is beaten into the boiling water and then the masa is gradually beaten into the creamed sugar and fat, alternating with some milk to keep the mixture pliable. She, in fact, describes the dough as "pourable". This is not a method I have seen elsewhere and I have gone with the more common method of gradually incorporating the masa harina and the liquid into the creamed fat and sugar.

The batter should be light. The classic test is to see whether some of the dough will float in water.

When the batter is light enough add the salt, vanilla and the baking powder, mix briefly to incorporate and then stir in the raisins and the pecans.

Filling the Cornhusks

A quick soak of 30 minutes or so in very hot water is plenty to make the cornhusks pliable. There are two sides to the cornhusk, there is a smoother and a more textured side. I have seen both sides recommended as the correct side of the cornhusk to fill. It seems easier to me to think in terms of the concave and convex side of the cornhusk and it seems stupid to try and fight nature and fill the cornhusk on the convex side.

For these sweet tamales you are looking for about a quarter cup of dough in each cornhusk. Put an oblong of the dough on the mid line of the cornhusk close to the top of the cornhusk. The dough will expand as it is steamed so be careful not to fill to the very top, leave a little room for expansion.

Roll the cornhusk and fold the bottom of the cornhusk up toward the middle. There is no need to tie the tamale, as you are preparing them keep them folded side down so they won't unwrap. Once the tamales are all standing together in the steamer they can't come undone.


If you have a tall pot that is best. I don't, and just use the biggest I have with a steamer basket in the bottom. Mine isn't tall enough for the tamales to be kept completely vertical, but once they are stacked carefully and are not resting in the water there won't be any trouble.

They need to be steamed for an hour or more. The test for doneness is that the tamale should come away from the cornhusk easily.

These keep well in the freezer, kept in the cornhusks in a freezer bag and can be reheated in the microwave again still in the cornhusk.

Sweet Tamales With Rasins and Pecans
1 to 1 1/2 cups warm water
1 1/2 cup Massa Harina
1/2 cup butter
1 Cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cup raisins
Vanilla essence

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Sopa De Tortilla

Sopa de Tortilla

I've playing around with this recipe for a while. For a number of reasons, firstly there is a pretty wide variety of approaches, some recipes use pork, others chicken, some are very simple and others have a large list of ingredients. Secondly the basis of the soup, the light broth enriched with a purée of tomato, onion and chile is common to lots of Mexican soups and a lot of Mexian recipes in general, and is something which I have been having difficulty with.

Seeing as so many sources which I regard as authoritative have different approaches to the dish, I picked the elements I have like best from what I have read, seen online and actually eaten in restaurants here. The dish I prefer is a soup of fried tortilla strips, served in a light broth enriched with tomato and garnished with cubed avocado, panela cheese, corriander and strips of passila chile.

The tomato base
We have seen this a number of time already, and the preparation is a fundamental to Mexican cooking as sofrito and mirepoix to Spanish and French cooking.

I have tried using raw tomatoes, onion and chile blended with water, which works fairly well and which I have seen used by lots of Mexican cooks online. The problem I find with this is that when the mixture is cooked out it tends to from a scum and it has a tendency to separate. I have also tried halving the tomatoes and cooking them on a dry non stick pan before blending them. This works a little better but still won't produce the light clear broth I am looking for.

The best approach would seem to be char the tomatoes under a hot grill (or broiler for any Americans), however while a have a lovely, and enormous, gas oven and a six burner hob in the apartment, I don't have a grill, so that approach is out.

The best compromise I have found, for soup at least, is to boil the tomatoes for five or ten minutes, skinning and coring them and then blending the flesh. When this is blended with the onion and chile the resulting mixture is homogeneous and cooks out to a beautiful golden colour and isn't inclined to foam.

Sopa De Tortilla
To make a single serving, I boiled a single large roma tomato, skinned and cored it and added it to the blender with a slice from a medium onion, a clove of garlic, about 3/4 of a serrano chile, salt and enough water just to allow the blades turn.

I cooked the mixture out in a small quantity of lard. This takes about 10 minutes and you need to be careful not to allow the mixture catch. While this was cooking I sliced two tortillas into strips 1/2" wide and fried them until golden in a small pan in an inch or so of corn oil. When they were golden brown I drained them on some paper and fried a garnish of passila chile strips in the oil.

I added chicken broth to the cooked tomato and brought the mixture to a gentle simmer. 

I put the fried tortilla strips in the bottom of the bowl, topped them with a half of an avocado cut into cubes and the same quantity of queso panela. Then I poured the broth gently over all of this and garnished with the passila, some coriander and a drizzle of crema and served with a couple of wedges of lime.

It was damn nice.

The broth is refreshing, delicate yet spicy. It seemed odd at first to eat avocado in something hot but they add a lovely creaminess, and there is a hint of acidity from the crema.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Yet more cookbookery.

I picked this up last week. The version I have is in Spanish and is about the size of a family bible. How the hell I'm going to ship this growing library of Mexican cookbooks back home when the time comes is becoming a concern!

Unlike the other book of Diana Kennedy's I have this one is illustrated. This book is also far more rustic.... even with my terrible Spanish I'm pretty sure that the HEB around the corner doesn't stock Iguana meat.

Flores de Calabaza

The last time I tried to tackle squash flowers, when I took them from the fridge a couple of days after buying them they had already turned to mush. So be warned, work quickly. They are best used the day of purchase.

The squash flowers here are not actually the same as the flower you see attached to baby courgettes, the squash flowers here are the flowers of a larger tougher vegetable.

There are a couple of recipes using the flowers in soups. The recipe I tried is pretty much directly from Rick Bayless with little modification. It is Flores de Calabaza Guisadas or Stewed Squash Blossoms. The flowers are lightly stewed in tomato with a saute of onion and chile. This is used as the filling for a quesadilla.

Cleaning the flowers is easy, though they are delicate, and personally I find the hairs on the stem and leaves unpleasant to handle. The stamen needs to be pulled out of the inside of the flower and the sepals pulled from the outside. The flowers are then carefully rinsed and cut crosswise into 1/2" pieces.

Flores de Calabaza Guisadas
I sautéed a half of a medium onion, diced, in lard with chile. I used two finely diced serranos, but it's a matter of taste. When the onion had softened I added the flesh of a roma tomato which I had boiled, skinned, cored and puréed in a little water and about 20 chopped squash flowers.

I seasoned this and let the whole lot heat gently for another few minutes and finally added some small cubes of queso panela and a small amout of corriander and let the mixture cool on a plate before using in the quesadilla.

Rather than making a proper empanada style quesadilla of masa, stuffing and deep frying it, I took the quicker option of heating some corn tortillas and placing the filling inside a doubled over tortilla and heating this on a dry comal. This shortcut is regarded rather sniffily by Diana Kennedy, however it's also how I see the guys where I work prepare their lunches every day, so good or bad it seems to be a common approach, and the idea of deep frying a Saturday lunch was not an appealing one.

The blossoms made a pleasant lunch, but I think I'd like to try the couple of soup recipes before deciding on whether squash blossoms are an unusual novelty or something I'd buy regularly. Perhaps they were a little drowned out by the onion and chile, but to my palate - dulled by cigarettes and whiskey :-( - there wasn't anything very distinctive about them.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Another cook book!

My Sweet Mexico: Recipes for Authentic Pastries, Breads, Candies, Beverages, and Frozen Treats.
by Fany Gerson

The book has only arrived today, but it is very very pretty and seems well researched. It covers all of the greatest hits of Mexican candies and cakes, and there are a couple of things which caught my eye that I had never seen before; a lime boiled and with the flesh scooped out then stuffed with coconut, and fantastic bright green lime zest tamales.  

The quality of Mexican patisserie is a constant surprise. As well as the very common flans there are lots of sweat breads with very enriched doughs and some gorgeous looking cakes.

Chiles Rellenos

I'm going to cover two types here, firstly a poblano chile stuffed with queso fresco and secondly a jalapeño stuffed with queso oaxaca, a type of melting cheese.

Poblanos Rellenos
These are a treat, the chile is soft and grassy with just a hint of heat and there is sharpness from the cheese, that cuts the oil. I think its best to use a queso fresco with a poblano as, given the larger size of a chile, any other cheese would be too rich.

There is nothing difficult here. The preparation is more a matter of motivation and organisation and there is certainly no difficulty, just be prepared for a lot of cleaning up! The only unusual item is the batter itself which is an egg white whipped to a stiff peak, with the yolk folded into it and stabilised with a spoonful of flour. The batter is therefore very light, it's not crispy like a tempura, neither is it dense like batters normally made with egg.

The first job is to roast the poblano. As you would do if preparing rajas.

The dough is prepared by beating the white of an egg to a stiff peak. (I don't have a mixer and have to do this with a small manual whisk, it's not actually as much of a chore as I thought it would be, although I probably stopped somewhere short of stiff peaks). When the egg whites have been beaten the yolk of the egg is folded in and I also add a tablespoon of flour just to stabilise the batter, but this is omitted in many recipes.

When the roasted peppers have been steamed and skinned, cut a slit in the side and extract the seeds and membranes and stuff the cavity with grated or crumbled queso fresco. Try and keep the slit as small as you can manage, you can use a couple of toothpicks to suture it back together after you have stuffed it, however if you work carefully there is no need as the batter will set before anything falls out.

Dust the stuffed chile with flour and then coat with the batter. Either deep fry or fry in an inch or so of corn oil.

Drain on some kitchen paper as the cooked chiles can be quite oily.

Jalapeño Rellenos
The procedure for jalapeño peppers is identical to that above, except the peppers are smaller and everything is more fiddly and infuriating!

Rather than using queso fresco though you can use a melting cheese like queso oaxaca, as the jalapeño is so much smaller and hotter than a poblano there would not be too much cheese and there is some heat to contrast the richness.