Thursday, 15 November 2012

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Aguja Nortena

Cuts of Beef

The cuts of beef in the butchers shops in Mexico can be slightly different to what I am used to and it can sometimes be confusing to identify exactly where in the animal a particular cut comes from, and also what the best cooking method for a particular cut is.

This article by Karen Hursh Graber gives as good a summary as one could hope for. It has finally cleared up the arrachera question for me, which US writers regard as equivalent to hanger steak, flank steak or skirt steak pretty interchangeably (it's skirt steak). It's a very useful resource and I've used it quite a bit over the past three years. The diagram below is from the same source.

Aguja Nortena

When it comes to cuts of beef, especially the popular Mexican cuts which are destined for the grill, you need to remember that quick fast cooking and medium rare meat doesn't necessarily equate to tender meat.

Arrachera for example, can be quite stringy when cooked medium rare and works much better when cooked through completely. Similarly, aguja nortena, which is very common here in Monterrey for BBQs, works better when grilled slowly and served well done. It seems counter intuitive, but in these cases, well done is more tender. The mesquite coals that are used here help  by providing a steady but not fierce heat that allows relatively slow grilling.

Agujas themselves are cut from the underside of the animal, about six inches by three inches with some bone along one of the long edges. These steaks are cut quite thin - to about a centimetre. At parties they are often cooked, a couple for each guest and offered with tortillas. They are best when seasoned simply, just salt and a sprinkling of Worcester sauce before grilling.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Fish Tacos
(Antojitos Marineros - Guadalajara)

Cafe De Olla and Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate.

Mexican hot chocolate, rather than being made from cocoa powder or powder is made using bars of spicy sweetened chocolate. This chocolate is very sweet and has a coarse texture, you can see the grains of sugar in it and it's spiced with cinnamon.

The hexagonally shaped Ibarra and Abuelita brands are popular, but it also comes in rectangular slabs similar to regular cooking chocolate.

Preparation is simple. Heat the milk, place in a blender with the chocolate and process until combined. Simple. There is a traditional tool called an molinilo which can be used to whisk the drink, and while it probably makes a fine souvenir, the blender is faster.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Cafe de Olla.

Cafe de Olla is a sweet coffee spiced with cinnamon and sometimes also clove and orange peel. It is sweetened with piloncillo, a unrefined sugar sold in cones slightly smaller than a fist. Assuming this isn't available to you dark brown sugar will substitute just fine.

When it comes to preparation there are lots of methods, most of which tie themselves up in knots with French presses etc. The problem is that the time necessary to extract the flavour from the spices and dissolve the cinnamon is longer than required to brew the coffee. Rick Bayless gets around this by making a spiced syrup first then brewing the coffee using the syrup. Personally I can see no reason not to simply add the coffee grounds to the pot after the syrup has been made and let that stand for five minutes. The drink can then be strained directly into a mug, removing both the grounds and any stray bits of cinnamon or clove at the same time.

I think a single stick of cinnamon and two to three cloves will flavour about four cupfuls of water and to my taste this will require about 3 heaped tablespoons of ground coffee and add as much sugar or piloncillo as you like.

It's unusual, but comforting, and goes well with pastries of any kind, perfect for a mid-morning break.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Frijoles Charros

Frijoles charros are a common accompaniment to meat dishes here, they are pinto beans cooked with meat and served in a light broth and are served on a bowl on the side. The ingredients vary slightly, bacon is definitely used, as are onion and garlic and the remaining ingredients are selected from tomato, sausage, chorizo, epasote and sometimes a hint of corriander.

The important thing is that there is quite a lot of broth, therefore the quantity of water used in cooking the beans is larger than normal.

I'm now convinced that the easiest and quickest way to cook beans is in a pressure cooker. No soaking, no waiting. (No forgetting that the beans are soaking and finding them fermenting a few days afterwards)

Frijoles Charros
3 cups of dried pinto beans
12 cups of water
1 tablespoon of lard
2 teaspoons of salt (I used Kosher, so a little less if you are using table salt)
1/2 to 1 cup of onion, medium diced.
2 cloves of garlic, chopped.
1 good sized tomato, diced
1/2 cup or more of bacon, smoked if possible, chopped and preferably pre-cooked.
Chorizo, to taste, either Spanish cured or Mexican uncooked can be used, (cook the raw chorizo first).
Jalapeno, preferably canned but fresh are fine too. Don't use too much this isn't a very spicy dish.
Epasote or corriander if available and desired.

Cooking the dish is a simple as combining everything in the pressure, clamping on the lid and bringing the pot up to pressure. When the pot comes to pressure reduce the heat to very low and cook for an hour like this.

I don't like the routine of running the pot under cold water after cooking and prefer to simply let the pot cool in it's own time (a little extra cooking time may need to be factored in if you don't plan to do the same - I'm not sure!).

This will make a couple of liters of beans, and they will keep for at least a few days in the fridge.

Simple, quick and tasty.

Friday, 14 September 2012


Mazapan in Mexico is not the same as the same as the bright yellow marzipan paste used in cake decorating that you are probably already familiar with. It a slightly crumbly, very very sweet puck of nuts and sugar.

Peanuts are normally used but any nut will do fine.

The procedure is simple, nuts and sugar are combined in the food processor and chopped until the oil from the nuts is released (a couple of minutes) and a loose cake can be formed. For two cups if nuts use about a cup and a half of powdered sugar. I don't keep powdered sugar on hand so I use granulated sugar but process it separately first to make it finer. The texture is much looser than European marzipan. There is no way you could make those miniature models of fruit from the Mexican version.

Marzipan is very common here, you can see it at most shop checkouts and it's most commonly sold in packs of four two inch pucks, though you do also see larger cakes of it too.

It's simple and tasty, and ideal treat to make with kids. But be warned, when I say it's very, very sweet - I'm not joking.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Barbacoa de Res


Barbacoa, unlike what the name would suggest, hasn't much to do with barbecue. It's a traditional weekend treat (presumably as it takes some time to prepare) and is a specialty of northern Mexico in particular. It consists of beef, seasoned with little apart from garlic, cooked long and slow in little liquid until it's reduced to an unctuous beefy mass.

I've made a type of faux barbacoa a number of times using shin of beef and a slow cooker. Shin, in fact any cheap cut of beef, works fine, however in order to cover the shin pieces I had to use a little more water than I would have liked. This meant there was more liquid which had to be reduced off at the end of cooking to reach the right consistency. To make a more traditional barbacoa the best cuts of meat to use are cheek of beef and tongue of beef, however if the thought of cooking tongue of beef doesn't appeal then the cheek alone will do just fine.

Traditionally the meat would be cooked wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked underground. Very tasty I'm sure but not practical for my purposes! I have also seen barbacoa prepared commercially buy enclosing the meat in large torpedoes of aluminum foil which are then cooked slowly, standing upright, in a large pot. However for home cooking the best, and simplest method, is a slow cooker.

If you are using cheek of beef alone (a single cheek of beef is about the size of a small chicken) then the beef can be cut into inch cubes added to the slow cooker along with a couple of cloves of garlic, some salt and a small amount (a cup or two) of water. If you are using both cheek and tongue then you will to arrange things in such a way as to be able to remove the outer skin from the tongue after it is cooked, which means cutting the tongue into chunks that are larger and can be skinned after cooking without too much fiddling.

The consistency of cooked barbacoa is not that of shredded meat, it has a very fine texture, fine enough to be eaten with a spoon. The secret therefore is long slow cooking, but also not to use a lot of liquid. I have read lots or recipes with the sentence "after cooking discard the liquid" in them. This makes me cringe. Neither is is necessary to add a lot of competing flavors. Some garlic and some salt are all that is necessary. A bay leaf would be fine but anything beyond this, chile for example, is overkill and detracting for the softness and beefyness of the dish.

Cooked on low overnight the following morning all that remains to do is shred the cooked meat very finely, reduce the cooking liquid and add it to the meat until you have a very fine smooth texture, almost a loose paste.

It's a wonderful Sunday morning brunch and needs nothing more than some chopped coriander and onion and a nice tomatillo salsa to make some excellent tacos.

The first time I had barbacoa I was very surprised by it. The name suggested something completely different to me; something grilled, and the texture was new. There is something elemental about it's simple beef taste. If there was a periodic table of cow, this would definitely be an entry on it.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012



Chocoflan or Flan Imposible, is a desert which combines a custard sitting on top of a chocolate cake. The custard is poured over the cake batter, yet somehow during baking the cake ends up on top and the custard underneath. Hence the impossible.

The recipe for both the cake and the flan are simple. There is a straightforward recipe in Fanny Gerson's book, where the proportions I have listed here are from.

The Cake
3/4 Cup sugar
3/4 Cup A.P flour
1/3 Cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup of buttermilk
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Combine the dry ingredients together, then whisk the wet ingredients together, finally combine the wet team and the dry team and stir until well mixed.

The Custard
1 (12oz) can of evaporated milk
1 (14oz) can of condensed milk
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Blend all of the above in a blender.

Making the Cake
Grease and then pour some cajeta over the bottom of an 8 inch cake pan or a bunt pan (the cake will be cooked in a ban marie so a springform tin won't do).

Pour the cake batter into the pan. Gently pour the custard over the batter without disturbing it. Place the cake pan in a larger dish with hot water that comes half way up the side of the cake pan. Cover with foil and bake at 375F for about 50 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool for a couple of hours before removing from the dish and garnish with some chopped nuts.

It's really bizarre, the custard that you poured so carefully over the batter has somehow sunk to the bottom and the chocolate cake is now on top and there the a perfectly clean line separating them. It looks very unusual and it looks like it takes a lot more trouble than it actually does.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Yet more cook book recommending

I'm getting nervous that I may need to charter a plane to ship home the books I have collected over the past couple of years in Mexico, so this one was selected on the basis that it's small.

It's straightforward without being dumb and well photographed. I'm still digging through it but it has a couple of concepts that are new to me and a few ideas worth trying.

Queso in Salsa

This dish is so simple I feel silly even describing it. There are no new techniques and no new ingredients, but the dish is quick and tasty and is an unusual way to use cheese.

Queso in Salsa comprises a cheese, one of the non melting ones, panela is easiest but queso fresco can be used too. The cheese is served in a tomato sauce, and as these cheeses don't melt the end result looks like cubes (in the case of panela) or blobs (in the case of queso fresco) of tofu suspended in sauce.

The tomato sauce is made as we have seen in lots of other dishes (rajas con queso for example), simply tomatoes, blitzed to a liquid in a blender and then cooked out, with some onion, garlic, chile, oregano and seasoning. Rather than adding the onion to the blender it can be cut into strips and sautéed with the chile until translucent before adding the tomato.

Tinned tomatoes can be substituted for fresh, and personally I prefer not to blend the chile with the tomatoes and I feel it muddies the nice red colour, though I'm probably just being picky.

Once the sauce has cooked out the cubed panela is added and heated through. At some point in the future I'll go into more detail on Mexican cheeses, there quite a bit to discuss. I've actually made queso fresco once or twice using milk and vinegar or milk and lime juice. It's fun to do and in interesting experiment, though I don't think I'll be breaking out the cheese cloth on any regular basis.

The dish can be eaten with tortillas or served like a soup. Easy!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Radish carrot and onion salad with Worcester dressing.

Enfrijoladas De Pollo

For some reason enfrijoladas (similar to an enchilada but using a sauce made of beans rather than a salsa) are far classier than you would initially think something so simple should be. Perhaps it the silkiness of the bean sauce or perhaps is the possibilities they offer for dainty presentation - with folded triangles of corn tortilla, resembling crepes, dressed in a light creamy sauce.

They are, despite how fussy or rustic a presentation you prefer, very satisfying.

I enjoy them in rolls, like an enchilada, stuffed with a little chicken and dressed with some Mexican chorizo, a little crema and some queso fresco.

The Bean Sauce
Black beans make the most impressive looking enfrijoladas but any beans can be used, and while I used beans I cooked myself, there is nothing wrong with substituting tinned beans.

The beans need to be blitzed in the blender with enough stock (and some onion and garlic if desired) to make a light sauce. Consistency is critical here, you should be aiming for something close to, or just slightly thicker than, a coating consistency. The sauce thickens quite a bit as it cools. Softening the tortillas in the sauce is a pain if the sauce is too viscous, and the dish is ruined if the sauce is think and lumpy.

There is a good recipe here from Rick Bayless, and while I'm sure cooking some of the chorizo with the beans, as he does, makes for an even more delicious sauce, it's not possible if you are using already cooked beans - as I normally am.

Once the beans have been blitzed with the stock the sauce is strained into a saucepan to heat through.
At this point you will probably find yourself adding liquid to the beans to keep the correct consistency as it will thicken very fast, especially in a wide shallow pan. When it's hot each tortilla is dipped in the liquid to make it pliable before being rolled around a couple of teaspoons worth of shredded chicken and plated. The tortillas have to be softened first. You can either steam them wrapped in a towel or, as I do, microwave them for 30 seconds or so while in a tortilla warmer.

Mexican chorizo is very different to the Spanish version, it is a fresh sausage and is not cured so it requires cooking before use. It's highly spiced, but not particularly hot, and normally sold in sausage-like plastic casings, though it can also be purchased loose resembling a very fine mince.

When cooked it can be used in a number of dishes; papas con chorizo or huevos con chorizo and can also be sprinkled over things like enchiladas or in this case our enfrijoladas.

Assembling Everything
After the tortillas have been softened in the sauce they are rolled around a small amount of shredded chicken, Three or four of these cigars are placed on a plate and covered with the sauce then dressed with the chorizo, crumbled queso fresco and a lick of crema.

You could also do something similar with triangles of tortilla without filling, or for something more rustic just the filled tortillas folded over in half and laid upon each other,

It's hard to find fault with the dish, it's simple, quick to prepare provided everything is to hand, a sauce of black beans looks very striking and if you have been careful to make a smooth creamy sauce it's quite elegant. It makes a perfect weekend breakfast or a quick lunch.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Not Your Mother's Olla Express...

I have picked up a number of cooking prejudices from my mother, one if these is a distrust of pressure cookers and a belief that they are nasty hissing explosive things and too fiddly to be worth bothering with. Lately they are much praised for making stock by people with well thumbed copies of Harold McGee, and every recipe I read for beans cooked in a pressure cooker seems to contain the obligatory remark that today's pressure cookers are not like you remember from your mother's kitchen.

I had been growing tired of leaving beans to soak and of endlessly simmering them. I was in the habit of forgetting the soaking beans and accidentally leaving them ferment, so I decided it was time to challenge my prejudice and buy a pressure cooker so I could cook my beans quickly and without soaking.

I'm converted.
Frijoles de la Olla
I've covered this before so I'm not going to go through the details of the preparation. In this case I used dry pinto beans, a couple of pieces of onion and celery, a jalapeño and a couple of pieces of the chicharron pictured below.

The beans were cooked for a hour from the time the pot came up to pressure and were perfect. They were soft through but not in danger of falling apart. This will turn cooking beans from a weekend chore to something I can do in an evening without any hassle.

Braised Shin of Beef
The next outing for the pressure cooker was to braise some beef. Much of the meat here used in tacos, for example carne desherbrada or the weekend barbacoa (which is very popular here in Monterrey) is cooked long and slow and cooked down into a very soft texture. I was looking to replicate that texture with a shin of beef.

I cooked two think slices from a shin on beef in a small quantity of water and chicken stock in the pressure cooker along with some onion, a lot of garlic, a couple of chipotle peppers with some adobo and a mixture of cumin, bay leaves, allspice, nutmeg, pepper and clove.

In this case I cooked everything for over two hours and left to cool in the pot. The following day I removed the meat from the liquid and shredded it. I took the couple of cups of liquid, strained it and then reduced it by half. When the liquid was reduced I added it to the shredded meat and cooked the slightly soupy mix together in a wide pan until the liquid had reduced further and I was left with just tender moist meat.

This made some great tacos. The meat was very soft and moist and the highly reduced stick gave it a very meaty taste and the slight gelatinous texture that is reminiscent of barbacoa (though in terms of taste barbacoa is simpler without the Christmas spices in this dish). The tacos were dressed with some onion and corriander and some habenero salsa

I guess I'm converted to using a pressure cooker. I guess the only remaining prejudice handed down to me is a dislike of condensed milk. I wonder how long that will last?


An Unusual Salad

Something that surprises anyone getting familiar with Mexican cooking is how much they love soy sauce, Worcester sauce (or salsa tipo Inglesa as they call it) and Maggi seasoning.

They feature in drinks like micheladas; a mixture of beer with lime and some combination of the above condiments, sometimes with tomato juice or with clamato (a mixture of tomato juice and clam juice). The drinks are not something I like, but they are a good hangover cure, and I might cover the various types at some point.

Worchester sauce is used on its own as a seasoning for grilled meats, however, more unexpectedly, a combination of the three condiments is used as the basis of a crisp and refreshing salad.

There is a seafood restaurant near where I work where this salad is left in the middle of the table for diners to share.

It is comprised rounds of of sliced radish, carrot and jalapeño along with sliced onion and chopped corriander. The salad is dressed (or more accurately sits in a pool of) a dressing comprised of lime juice, soy, Worcester and Maggi. The relative proportions are roughly; a tablespoon of soy, a teaspoon of Worcester and a half teaspoon of Maggi for the juice of each two limes. The objective it a dressing with a balance of sour, salty and savoury.

The salad it then sprinkled with Chile Y Limon which is a type of seasoning salt with chile powder and lime which is often sprinkled on fruit here and is used to dress the rim of a michelada glass in place of salt.

The salad is hot, sour, salty, crunchy and savoury - a list of attributes one would generally associate with Thai rather tan Mexican food, in fact, aside from the absence of fish sauce and possibly some sugar this is something one would not be surprised to see in a Thai cookbook.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Enchiladas de Pollo

Chintextle Revisited

A few posts ago I discussed chintextle, a paste made using pumpkin seeds and dried chile. I mentioned at the time that there was also a version that used dried shrimp instead of pumpkin seeds.

It sounded strange enough that I decided I should try it. I know this is an odd diversion to take given the hundreds of far more canonical dishes I haven't covered yet, but so what - it's got dried shrimp!

The recipe itself is simple; about a dozen dried shrimp toasted on a lot comal, toasted chile - I used about 8 to 10 chiles cascabel - a clove of garlic, a good splash of vinegar and enough oil to form a paste of it all in the blender.

It tastes exactly like what you imagine a paste made from dried shrimp would taste like. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, it's pretty elemental, you certainly wouldn't eat a lot of it, but there is something about it that keeps bringing you back for another small taste. It's intriguing.

I have absolutely no idea however how it could be used. I think it would be nice stirred into a fish soup but I suspect that's not what it's intended for. Until I think of a use it's winking at me every time I open the fridge, and I take a little pick of it now and again. Though I suspect it'll last a long time so there is no rush in figuring it out.


Another very quick and simple breakfast dish. Migitas (or migas which seems to be a more common name, and also means "crumbs" in Spanish) are simply corn tortillas, fried until golden and then scrambled with eggs.

There is not a lot to describe, the tortillas are cut into strips of about a finger's width and a couple of inches long - but there is no need for any precision - when golden brown the eggs are added and everything is scrambled, seasoned and served, either alone as a light breakfast, or in a tortilla.

For the frying butter is nice as is lard, but vegetable oil is grand, and I find two tortillas per three eggs to be the ideal proportions.

Some versions contain onion, tomato and some chile, much as you would if making Machacado, however I prefer the simpler version with nothing but egg and tortilla, and if I were going to do something more complicated I'd rather make machacado or chileaquiles anyway.

One thing I do notice about Mexican egg dishes, especially these breakfast dishes, is that they are not afraid to cook the egg a lot quicker and faster the I would. I'm used to cooking scrambled eggs very slowly and carefully and generally serve them a lot looser than any Mexcican seems comfortable with. "If they are done in the pan then they are overdone in the plate" isn't the motto here. In fact the normal procedure is to fry the tortilla strips, then crack the eggs directly into the pan and mix until roughly scrambled and tightened.

If you are in a hurry Migitas are perfect, they can be cooked and on the plate in seconds, so are a fantastic quick breakfast. They also have some texture, which I like because personally I find eating plain scrambled eggs in the morning more of a chore than a pleasure.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A couple of different ways with Arrachera

Arrachera is a signature cut of beef in the north of Mexico and especially in Monterrey. The cut is from the underside of the animal, either from the flank or plate. There seems to be no consistency in the definition and you find the cut being indicated as equivalent to hanger steak, which comes from the plate (the animals abdominal muscles near the diaphragm) or as flank steak (again underneath the animal but closer to the hind legs).

What I buy, which is sold as arrachera, is clearly hanger steak. It's a fairly ragged looking cut with a long grain. The restaurants which specialise in arrachera (like here for example) seem to use the thicker flank steak cut.

The steak, when served, is cut perpendicular to the long fibres to make it more tender. The meat has a much more intense taste than steaks from the relatively under worked muscles on the top of the animal. Though the common advice is to serve the meat rare to keep it tender, I don't agree, given the fibrous nature of the cut, unlike a regular steak it is actually more tender when well cooked.

I invested in a new grill an used the opportunity of it's first use to compare three different methods of preparing arrachera. For cooking I used mesquite charcoal, which is traditional, and gives a long even heat and is not as hot as the charcoal bricks I would be used to using at home. (I'd never go back to those pressed briquettes after working with lump charcoal like this!)

Arrachera in 3 Chile Adobo
The first was a cut of arrachera (which you can see in a previously posted picture) marinaded in a 3 Chile Adobo rub. I have covered adobos already, so I won't go into detail. The rub was made from toasted and soaked guajillo, ancho and cascabel chiles, along with garlic, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon clove cumin and salt.

The meat was slathered in the paste and left to marinade for a couple of hours before cooking

Arrachera Marinaded in Pickled Jalapeño and Tequila
This was something I picked up from the internet and you see lots of versions under the same theme. In this case the meat is marinaded using the contents of a can of pickled jalapeños and a slosh of tequila.

The meat, jalapeños, can liquor and the tequila were all dumped into a large zip-lock bag and stashed in the fridge until cooling time. Unlike the adobo the marinade has a lot of acid which should help to tenderise the meat.

Simple Arrachera
The third, and simplest, approach was simply to season the meat with plenty of salt and dried Mexican oregano.I guess this was the control in the experiment.

Guess what!
Simple is best.
By far.