Monday, 12 December 2011

Mole Poblano Prologue: I am insane

[First published 12 December 2011 - The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe - just before I took my Christmas break from posting. It sets out my plan for cooking mole poblano over the holidays.]

There is something seriously wrong with me.

I could spend Christmas happily eating leftovers, cheeseboards, chocolate, and other easy, unhealthy foods whole sitting on my ass watching bad television.

Instead, I'm going to cook something that has between 26 and 34 ingredients (depending on the recipe) and takes up to four days to prepare.

This Christmas I am going to attempt the national dish of Mexico: mole poblano de guajolote.

I'm not, however, planning to have this on Christmas Day. The traditional British Christmas dinner is the highlight of my year. But since we'll never eat all that turkey in one night, even with the obligatory midnight turkey sandwich, we'll still have heaps left over.

So I'm going to serve the leftovers with the traditional mole sauce. Right now, there are voices in my head saying "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

What makes this plan especially ridiculous is that I have some perfectly good mole paste in my fridge right now. It actually came from Mexico and is absolutely delicious (I've tried it). But no, I'm going to make my own.

I am a very sick man.

Amazingly, I already have all but three of the ingredients in my house, which is probably an indication of how much of MexiGeek. I even have some Mexican chocolate I got from Jordan Valley on Nicholson Street. I don't know why they had Mexican chocolate, but we found it when we went in for pumpkin mix before Thanksgiving.

What I'm missing is the holy trinity of mole: the three chiles, ancho, mulato, and pasilla, without which it just ain't mole. So it's another trip to Lupe Pinto's this weekend.

I have four possible recipes to use for this dish. The longest one, Rick Bayless's, takes 6 hours if you do it all at once, though he recommends spreading it out over several days.

The shortest one, Thomasina Myers's, only takes one and a half hours, but that's probably a masterchef-style blitz of activity that I could really do without on Boxing Day.

And in any case, all four recommend making the sauce in advance and letting the flavours mingle in the fridge. Fine by me.

However, it does put me in a bit of a bind. Ideally I would like to make a stock from the turkey to use for the mole. If I do that, I cannot start making the mole until the morning of the 26th at the earliest. But I am hoping to have the mole made and in the fridge by the end of Christmas Day.

Then all I have to do is heat it gently on the hob and serve.

There are only two options: either have the mole on the 27th (and risk having no more leftover turkey), or use a different stock. Sadly, I think it's option 2 for me, which is a shame, because I have never made stock in my like and I really want to.

In the meantime, I am reading and re-reading all four recipes and making notes, because as a further indication of my unsound mind, I don't intend to use any one recipe. I'm going to create my own variation based on the best bits of all four.

This goes even for the ingredients. I am using raisins because all four recipes call for them, but I am forgoing prunes, which are only called for in one recipe (and because I hate them).

My plan of attack so far is to prep the chiles by seeding and deveining them and cutting them into small, flat pieces on day one. Then I will toast the seeds and nuts and grind them in my molcajete.

On day two, which will be Christmas Eve, I will:
  • Get up ass-early and drive to a farm to collect our turkey
  • Fry the chiles and then soak them in hot water for an hour
  • Roast and crush a tomato
  • Fry almonds, raisins, onion, and garlic, in that order; then add them to the crushed tomato along with the ground seeds and spices, stale corn tortilla crumbs, stale brioche crumbs, and a bit of Mexican chocolate
  • Blitz the chiles, sieve them, then fry them again until the mixture gets nice and thick
  • Blitz the other stuff, fry it until it thickens, then add the chile mixture and some stock and simmer for a really long time
Once the sauce is done simmering, I can refrigerate it, or even freeze it. I plan to make a helluva lot, so I may freeze as much as half straight away.

Day three is Christmas Day. My mole sauce will be maturing in the fridge.

On day four, I will reheat the sauce gently on the hob, adding more stock if necessary. About 20 minutes before serving, I will add the leftover turkey. I am considering frying it in butter first, to give it colour and texture, and because frying things in butter rocks.

This may be the national dish of Mexico, but it can be a rustic dish in terms of presentation. Also, the sauce is unavoidably brown, and one thing I've learned from years of watching Masterchef is that it's very hard to make brown food look elegant.

Therefore I will be serving the mole on a neat stack of arroz verde, with a ring of sauce around the inner edge of the plate. The rest of the sauce will be in a serving dish on the table.

For an additional side I'm planning one of Thomasina's salads: a winter salad of caramelized pecans and goat's cheese. I would like to serve this on side plates, on a fried corn tortilla for additional texture.

Lastly, additional warm tortillas will be in a basket on the table.

Anyone who would like to join us for dinner, leave a comment.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Losing the plot

When I was in school I wrote short stories, and I never got lost. It's not that short stories are easy, but because they deal with one incident in one character's life, leading to one moment of realization (or epiphany, as Joyce called it), they are neat, succinct, and focused. There's no room to get lost because only one thing, really, is happening.

Novels, unfortunately, are not just long short stories. They have several major characters in addition to the main protagonist and antagonist, and at least one significant sub-plot. They have falling action, whereas a short story tends to end as soon as the main character has reached their epiphany. And most difficult of all (for me at least), they have much more plot going on in the middle.

All my short stories have been written with pretty much no preparation, and I've always been happy with the result. But you can't really write a "novel" by just plunging into it and hoping for the best. I learned this the hard way with my disastrous first book. The comments I received praised the writing style but complained there was no plot.

Of course, there wasn't. I never bothered putting in a plot for that book. One of the things they teach you when you study literature instead of creative writing is that plot is plebeian. What they fail to remind you is that every book worth reading has a plot, that you can't write a story that's not about something. There's an entire section of academia devoted to pretending that Ulysses has no plot, when in fact it has a very intricate and well-thought-out plot. (Academics are afraid that if ordinary people read the books they like, they will seem less clever. Academics have very low self-esteem, and compensate by making everyone else feel stupid.)

But even if I had put a plot in my first book, I probably would have got lost in the second half of Act 2. That's where I always get lost. That's where my first screenplay starts to sag, for instance. That's also where my current screenplay is stuck.

Although this book isn't a screenplay, I am trying to structure its plot along the lines I learned from screenplay writing. This is not just to make it more commercial. The "gimmick" of this book is the in-depth treatment of Mexican food. If I didn't have a clear idea of where the story was going, it could wind up being a long-winded cookbook instead of a work of fiction. Again I learned this the hard way from my first book, which ended up being a long-winded travel guide.

The three-act structure is older than Aristotle, and works like this:

Act I: we see the hero in her/his normal life, when something happens. The hero reacts to or makes a choice about that something, which locks her/him into the story.

Act II: the hero encounters setback after setback. At first s/he is usually defeated by these setbacks.

In the very middle of the story, there will be an opportunity to give up or escape without finishing the quest, like when the Goonies have a chance to ride up Troy's bucket, or when Sarah eats the forgetting fruit in The Labyrinth.

The story cannot continue unless the hero chooses to finish the quest. That's where the seconds half of Act II begins.

This consists of more setbacks, but this time the hero starts winning sometimes. Unfortunately this causes the antagonist to up their game as well, and the action reaches a peak.

Act III: everyone gets ready for the final showdown. It is the hero's greatest and most difficult test and, depending on what genre of story it is, s/he will either succeed or fail in the end.

Where I got lost is in the portion of Act II after the midpoint. With a plot as long as a novel's, it's easy to forget at this point what your story is actually about at this point. By now at least one major subplot will have come into play, which is good in that it can keep the reader from getting too bored by the main story, but I find I get easily distracted by it and start writing a completely different book.

My initial plan for the pre-writing was to do the summary, then the eight sequences and five plot points, and then the chapter outline. I wrote up to where Esteban's wife leaves him, and then predictably got stuck. Do I make this part of the story about how he gets his wife back, or should I stick with the food? And if so, should I ditch the wife leaving him bit altogether?

So I interrupted the plot summary and started working out the eight sequences early. When I got to sequence 6, I realized one of the reasons I was stuck is that I didn't actually have an Act III. This is unusual for me, as I usually see the ending of a story more clearly than the middle.

One thing about writing: never begin if you don't know the end. It's like chess: you need to see checkmate before you can make your first move. Even if you original checkmate changes, you always need to have one in mind, or you'll never know where you're meant to be going.

I did come up with a third act and, more importantly, a final image with which to leave the reader. This completed the right sequences, and I thought I'd move on to the five plot points before returning to the summary.

Then a new challenge emerged: the third act twist. Did I have one?

A third act twist is something that alters or changes the hero's goal, showing they've learned some valuable lesson and are different then they were at the start of the story. Some twists are earth-shattering. Luke Skywalker goes to Bespin to rescue his friends and kill Darth Vader. Then he finds out Vader is his father, and that goal goes out the window. Or take the kids in Stand By Me, who set out to achieve fame by discovering a dead body, but after their altercation with Ace and his gang, they decide to make an anonymous call, taking no credit for their deeds.

So what's my twist? Well, Esteban's first forays into cooking are all about uncompromising authenticity, and motivated by the death of his mother, who cooked delicious but rustic Oaxacan food. After coming to grips with her death, he finds his own identity as a chef and is able to re-invent Mexican food as haute cuisine. His food becomes an expression of himself and his pride in his heritage (which is why his restaurant is called "Patria"), and that's what earns him the Michelin star.

Anyway, that's how I spent my week. Writing is harder than it looks.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Cebollas en escabeche

When I first decided to make panuchos, Alison was totally on board...until I mentioned the pickled onions. Why would you make a delicious meal and then ruin it with something gross like that, she wondered. You don't have to eat them, I told her, but I think they'll be nice.

There was a misunderstanding, you see. She heard "pickled onions" and thought of those stunted baby onions soaked in vinegar and sold in jars. Why indeed would I put those on my delicious food? Why indeed do those onions exist at all? I can't imagine anyone enjoying them. Even if you had no taste buds, their texture would put you off.

Of course I had no intention of putting pickled white baby onions on our panuchos. The pickled onions I had in mind are a Yucatecan delicacy, like panuchos themselves.

Like most things beyond the limited range of North Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Mexi-Cali cuisines (eg burritos, baked enchiladas, chile con carne, and those U-shaped hard tacos), I had never heard of this condiment. In fact, these pickled onions belong to the list of foods I would never have expected to be part of Mexican cuisine, like duck en pipián.

Once she tried them, Alison agreed they are delicious, but insisted I learn their Spanish name, you avoid evoking the jarred monstrosities. In another cookbook I learned they are called cebollas en escabeche.

So what are they? Well, to start, they are red onions, not white; and they are full-grown, not baby-sized; and they are sliced, not whole.

The pickling is a bit problematic, actually, as the usual way to pickle something in European cooking is to soak it in vinegar. To get vinegar you need wine, and Mexico is not a major producer of wine (much to the dismay of the Spanish colonists).

Obviously vinegar can be and is imported now, but how did they make the dish traditionally?

A running theme of this blog is that I have a lot of Mexican cookbooks, and all of them include recipes for certain classic dishes. The Two Cooks version of pickled onions calls for red wine vinegar. Other versions use white wine or even cider vinegar. There's even one which doesn't call for vinegar at all. It can, apparently, be done with boiling water.

The other common natural pickling agent is citric acid, i.e. the juice of any citrus fruit, which is and always has been readily available in Mexico. Yet strangely, citrus juice is not used in this recipe until after the onions have already been pickled! However, all versions call for habanero chilies, so perhaps the acid from these is enough to do the job on its own.

I have made these pickled cebollas twice, once using red wine vinegar and once using white wine vinegar, and I haven't noticed a major difference in taste. In both versions, more than half the liquid is still just boiled water, so I'd say the more important thing to get right is the seasonings. Some versions call for nothing more than the chilies, but I stand by the Two Cooks version, which includes allspice berries, Mexican oregano, and epazote. These have been my favourite Mexican seasonings ever since I discovered them, and I use them at every opportunity.

So, begin by slicing red onion very thinly. I cut the onion in half first, because I don't want rings, but this may not be the most attractive way to present the finished product. It is, though, only a garnish.

Then you need some habanero, roasted and finely chopped. You can leave the seeds out if you include vinegar, but if you're going with just water I'd include the seeds, as you'll need as much acid as possible.

Then you need some allspice berries (lightly crushed), some epazote, Mexican oregano, and maybe a teaspoon of ground cumin.

Put all this in a bowl. Add vinegar until the onions are about a third of the way to being covered. Then pour in boiling water to cover the onions. If you're not using vinegar, just cover with boiling water.

Seal the bowl with clingfilm and set aside for about four hours.

But that's not the end. After the onions have pickled, drain most of the liquid (and remove the allspice berries) and place the onions in a serving bowl. Then pour the juice of one bitter orange over them.

Bitter orange is a Mexican citrus fruit that does but seem to be available outside Mexico. Obviously I've never had it myself, but apparently it tastes life a cross between orange and grapefruit, so you can make "mock bitter orange juice" by mixing the two fruits. It is this bitter citrus zing that makes this such a delicious condiment. And the best part is that there's usually plenty left over to put on sandwiches and such for the next few days.

One of my cookbooks calls these "pink pickled onions" in English, and indeed, though they start out as standard red onions, they end up uniformly pink by the time they're ready to serve.

I forgot to take a picture while they were in the serving dish, but I do have a photo of the last of them sitting on a flour tortilla (store-bought), moments before I filled it with chicken and probably too many chipotle peppers. I'm not sure the picture does them justice, but at least you can see how pink they are.

If you are ever cooking a Yucatecan dish, you must include these. In fact, you should probably make them anyway. They're that good.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Adventures in Tortilla-Making

I don't own a tortilla-press, which is perhaps why I attempted tamales before I tried making my own corn tortillas. Even after I bought a bag of real Mexican masa harina from Lupe Pintos (Maseca, which is the leading brand in Mexico), the first tortillas I made were actually panuchos.

Before I read Two Cooks and a Suitcase I had never heard of panuchos, and unless you've lived in Yucatán, you probably haven't either, so I will explain.

Panuchos are extra-thick corn tortillas with pockets cut into them, sort of like a Mexican version of pita bread. The pockets are filled with refried beans or black beans; then the panuchos are shallow-fried. Just before serving they are topped with something like shredded pollo pibil and some Yucatecan pickled red onions (cebollas en escabeche) - or just the onions, if it's a snack or a light lunch you're after.

Obviously, stuffed and fried tortillas would be tempting enough on their own, but it was equally the "extra-thick" part that appealed to me, as I thought they would be easier to make without a tortilla-press.

When I was in college, I saw this film about Guatemalan refugees called El Norte (which you should definitely check out). In one early scene, a young girl makes tortillas by patting them back and forth from hand to hand. I figured I could try this technique for my panuchos. How hard could it be?

So I made a batch of masa dough and patted out some panuchos.

It's pretty tricky to get it right your first time, so the first few were a bit wonky, but most were usable, shape-wise. One caveat for anyone trying this at home: there is no way to get perfectly round edges on a homemade tortilla unless you trim it using a bowl or something, which I've never bothered to do.

The recipe I had (again from Two Cooks), said that when you flip the tortilla to cook the other side, you must press down gently to get it to puff (essential for the pocketed panuchos). I didn't believe them. I thought, how could pressing down in the middle cause a great puffy pocket to form? So I pressed down firmly around the edges for the first one. And nothing happened.

I can't remember now if I decided to try pressing down in the middle on the second or third panucho, but I regardless, I eventually trusted the recipe enough and pressed down in the middle with my spatula. And behold: it puffed! Not a helluva lot, but enough to create a pocket.

Fresh-cooked tortillas and their relatives are hot to touch, so I let them cool in a pile on some kitchen paper. Then I gingerly tried opening the pockets with a sharp knife.

Obviously the first one or two had no pocket because they hadn't puffed properly, but most were definitely usable. I made more than enough, so I decided to choose the best looking six (three per person).

Once they had been fried, I arranged them in a triangle patten on the plate, with a neat pile of pollo en pipián in the middle, plus a trio of garnishes in the colours of the Mexican flag: chopped tomatoes, diced avocado, and sour cream (one for each panucho). I wish I had a picture of this, but I didn't record my food back then.

Naturally I made cebollas en escabeche as well, but I'm making them again this weekend, and they deserve a post of their own.

The second time I made "panuchos", I was really after plain tortillas to go with the mole sauce I got for my birthday, but (again owing to no tortilla press) I lacked confidence to make them. Further, Rick Bayless confirms in his book Authentic Mexican, that the hand-patting technique I saw in El Norte is practised in Mexico as well, though discouragingly he doubts a non-native could ever learn it.

My first batch of panuchos had looked a bit rustic, but the last two of my second batch looked almost right, so I did begin to hope I could eventually master this. (All the the panuchos tasted lovely, by the way, so if you're making this at home don't worry too much about looks. Dinner will still be delicious.)

The hand-patting technique is even a plot point in my story. Esteban impresses his friend's mother by hand-patting tortillas, which she hasn't seen since her childhood in Mexico. This friend becomes Esteban's business partner for his first restaurant and an investor in his second.

However, my own hand-patting experiments were brought to a halt by a tip from Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food Made Simple. In the absence of a tortilla press, she recommends placing the ball of masa dough in a large ziploc bag and rolling it out as if it were a pastry. This works a charm, though the edges are still not very round (again, you could use a cutter or trace around a bowl if you want perfect edges).

I first tried this out the Sunday after I made the disastrous alternate version of sopa de lima. I had hella broth left over, plus some of the hot chiles, and I needed something to do with them. There were also some bits of veg left in the fridge from the week's other meals: cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, sweet peppers, etc.

Thomasina Miers only includes four recipes for taco fillings, one for each season, and all are veg-heavy, with two or three exclusively vegetarian. This gave me an idea: make some corn tortillas, sauté the veg with some of the broth and some Mexican seasonings, and make tacos.

This calls for a bit of exposition. In Mexico, tacos are not those fried U-shaped things filled with ground beef. In the first place, beef is not widely eaten on Mexico, apart from in the North. Chicken, pork, and goat are the main meats. Secondly, the U-shape things are a complete US invention. Real Mexican tacos are either not fried (what we would think of as "soft tacos", but with corn tortillas), or if they are fried, they are first rolled into a cigar shape (like what we call "taquitos").

Tacos are street food: really nothing more than a warm corn tortilla informally wrapped around whatever stewed, fried, or grilled fillings the taco vender has on hand, with maybe some salsa on top for good measure. And they are both more delicious and easier to rest than the American imposters.

Now, back to my tacos.

I seasoned the veg with epazote, jalapeño, and some ground allspice berries (which was a revelation to me, as far as Mexican cuisine goes) and just a bit of the leftover soup. The rest of the soup I used to cook arroz blanco.  For something I just made up out of what was on hand, the sauteed veg was delicious. In fact, it could stand up to any planned dish. But the real stars were the tortillas.

The recipe for tortilla dough from masa harina is simplicity itself: one part masa harina to one and a quarter parts warm water. Bring the dough together with your hands and knead for ten minutes. The let it rest for half an hour. Tortilla dough is made from warm or room-temperature ingredients, so rest it on the counter, not in the fridge, but cover it with clingfilm to keep it from drying out. If it's to dry after resting (and won't hold together when you roll it out), work a bit more water into it.

There are few things I love more than the gorgeous corn smell you get when you add warm water to masa harina. It always fills me with a combination of good memories and anticipation.

Thomasina's rolling advice was spot on, and I got the best-looking tortillas I'd ever made, but the real triumph was when I flipped them and watched them puff. Next time I make tacos I'll try to make video of it. Until then, here's a picture of my impromptu vegetation tacos and white rice (tacos de verduras con arroz blanco).

Next time: Yucatecan pickled onions get their own post.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Truth about Tamales

By special request from my friend Megan, I'm going to follow up on the teasing hint about tamales in my last post with the full story (so far).

As I said before, when I first started cooking Mexican food in the UK, I limited myself to burritos with homemade tortillas from Lupe Pintos in Tollcross. But there were so lot of beloved dishes I was missing, things I took for granted in California and even Colorado, because they were on the menu of every Mexican restaurant worth its salted tortilla chips. But these things were NOT on the menu of ANY Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh. I did occasionally find a burrito, but only one place served enchiladas (The Tijuana Yacht Club in the New Town, now closed), and no place served tamales. I don't even know if Thomasina Miers' Wahaca in London serves tamales. (For American readers, she has to spell the restaurant's name that way or the Brits won't be able to say it. And it works: there are now heaps of Londoners who can pronounce Oaxaca!)

So when I found a recipe for tamal dough in Two Cooks and a Suitcase, I had to try out out.

The first step was explaining to Alison what they were in order to get her to ready them. For those who don't know, tamales are like steamed corn dumplings, with a savoury filling inside. There are apparently sweet tamales as well, but I've never had them.

The tamale dough is made from the same finely ground corn as tortilla dough, but with additional fat (fresh lard is traditional, but I use full fat butter), and stock instead of water. This flavours the dough and gives it a looser consistency. Tamales are steamed either in corn husks or banana leaves, neither of which are common in the UK, which might be why most restaurants don't serve them here. The other reason is that they take fucking forever! First you have to make the filling (actually, first you have to decide the filling, which is pretty hard, as almost anything can go in there). For my first time, I chose carnitas de pollo, which means shredded chicken. First poach two chicken breasts in water seasoned with peppercorns, allspice berries, and Mexican oregano for about 20 minutes or until tender. Remove the breasts to a plate and cool. You don't need the liquid now, but it is in effect a weak chicken stock, so you could keep it back for your tamale dough rather than pouring it down the drain. Make sure your strain it first. When the chicken is cool, shred it. Heat some butter in a pan. Sweat some finely chopped onion. When the onion is translucent (but not brown) add the chicken and fry until it gets a bit of texture and colour. Then add some pickled or roasted jalapeño (or any chile of your choice) finely chopped and seeded. After a couple minutes, stir in some crema mexicana. You cannot get this outside of Mexico, but you can make your own or use sour cream or creme fraiche. Now, you can make the filling days in advance, but if you're using it on the day, turn the heat down to minimum and keep it warm while you make the tamales. You may need to add some more liquid to loosen it if it gets too dry. So, tamal dough. Well, first you have to have soaked your corn husks in water overnight. Then for the dough mix melted fat (butter or lard) into masa harina (flour made of finely ground white corn). You'll need about half as much fat as masa. Then add stock until the consistency is loose and spreadable. You'll need about as much stock as masa. The masa needs a bit of baking powder as well, or the tamales will be too heavy. Spread some of the dough on a corn husk, add about a tablespoon of the filling, and fold up the husk. Tie it off with thin strips made of spare corn husk. Once all the tamales are made, put them in a steamer for about an hour or until cooked. You will probably want a sauce to pour over them when you serve, and something green on the side. The first time I made tamales, I used husks from sweet corn on the cob we bought at Craigie Farm. Of didn't have proper masa harina, so I used polenta, which is much coarser. This gave the dough a consistency like cake batter, so it was impossible to spread, plus the husks were very small, making the whole thing quite a difficult and messy enterprise. And yet, it ended up working brilliantly, and Alison thought the tamales were delicious. I made them again for my parents, again with the polenta. My mother read doubtful of the consistency, but even she had to admit they turned out well. So you can make tamales out of polenta, but they will be messy and hard to work with. Persevere, though, because they will still be delicious. I've only used proper masa harina for tamales once. I might some at Lupe Pintos, along with canned tomatillos which I needed for the pumpkinseed sauce I used for the filling. The relevance of all this to my novel, however, seems to be that tamales cannot be on the menu at the posh restaurant, because they need an hour to steam even after the filling and dough are made, and no one waits that long for food at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The only way to do out would be to make them in advance and keep them warm, which is not really Michelin-star cooking. It's unfortunate, because tamales really are wonderful. Finally, in reference to my note about English people pronouncing foreign words, the English CAN say: fajita, tortilla, guacamole, Menzies. They CANNOT say: José, Joaquin, machismo, loch.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Great Pumpkin

If you live, or have ever lived, in the United States, you'll probably have seen It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the Peanuts Halloween special, which features Linus waiting all night in a pumpkin patch for the fictitious Great Pumpkin (a kind Halloween version of Santa Claus) to appear.

Part of the humour is that the precocious Linus believes the Great Pumpkin will only rise from a "sincere" pumpkin patch. "Not a trace of hypocrisy as far as the eye can see", he tells Sally.

Well, what I wouldn't give for a sincere pumpkin patch now. Halloween has come and gone, so pumpkins will soon be scarce here in the UK. They only really setup them for jack o'lanterns anyway.

Which is an improvement in and of itself. My wife had to carve turnips when she was a kid.

The problem with the Halloween-orientated pumpkin market is that it only gives you about a month to cook all your pumpkin recipes. Do far I've done two.

On Friday night I chopped our pumpkin into wedges, measured out 200 grammes, and diced them for pumpkin risotto (Tom Kitchin recipe).

I wasn't nervous about this. Alison and I have made risotto millions of times. It's one of our favorite dishes, especially in cold weather. Our usual additions are prawn or (in Spring) asparagus.

However, I wasn't quite happy with the result. The first thing was the pumpkin itself. The recipe calls for sweating it in a pan, rather than roasting it. The texture gets nice and soft that way, but unroasted pumpkin is always a little on the bland side.

There was no garlic in the recipe either, only shallots. Obviously the flavouring of the dish was meant to be "subtle", but it's a fine line between subtle and bland if you're not a michelin-starred chef.

When tasting for seasoning, I kept finding it under-seasoned, even though I used a stock cube for the liquid. So I kept adding salt. But of course the final ingredient is 100 grammes of Parmesan cheese, to give it that unctuous texture, and Parmesan is quite salty too, so it ended up over-seasoned after all. (When we make risotto, we use creme fraiche, with just a handful of Parmesan for flavour.)

The recipe also called for the rice to be al dente, and mine was not, so I probably over-cooked it slightly as well, but Alison didn't mind, as she prefers risotto to have a softer, creamier texture.

There's a photo of the finished product included in this post. It's garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. That's an art I have yet to master, but I think the problem is I don't watch them closely enough. They seem to blacken very quickly.

Anyway, my second pumpkin experiment was pumpkin gnocchi. I have never made gnocchi in my life. Oddly enough, I've never been inspired to make my own traditional potato gnocchi, and I'm still not. It's quite a faff, and you can buy decent gnocchi from anywhere. Similarly, I'm in no hurry to make my own spaghetti, linguini, etc.

But pumpkin gnocchi? I don't know where to buy that apart from at The Kitchin.

I decided to make a half recipe and freeze it to use on Thursday. The good news is that the pumpkin was roasted, so it has more flavour. The bad news is that I forgot to halve the eggs when I halved everything else, shop at first the dough was much too wet (probably didn't help that I didn't really know what gnocchi dough should look and feel like). I ended up having to add the original, unhalved amount of flour to get the consistency right, so I've probably ended up with gnocchi that only slightly tastes of pumpkin. At least it's orange.

We used the rest of our roast pumpkin for a pumpkin, goat's cheese, and cranberry salad (you can use butternut squash if pumpkin is unavailable). Apart from the pie later this month, that's it for pumpkin season.

So why am I so obsessed with pumpkin? Because it's one of those ingredients we take for granted, but comes from Mexico. The earliest evidence of pumpkin cultivation comes from prehistoric Mexico, though it seems it was the seeds they were primarily interested in.

When the Spanish first arrived in Mexico, they wrote about a green sauce made of pumpkin seeds called pipián, an Aztec speciality. This sauce is still called pipián, and I made version of it earlier this year (with chicken) as filling for tamales, using a recipe from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. It's delicious, but very rich, even with the tomatillos to cut through it. Pumpkin, along with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chilies, chocolate, and vanilla, is one of the many ingredients the whole world takes for granted, but wouldn't be available without Central and South America, and the vast Empire that once ruled it. Oddly enough, another quintessential Mexican ingredient, cilantro (coriander) was introduced by the Spanish. Anyway, now I've got to source a can of cooked pumpkin for Thanksgiving, if the fucking Canadians haven't nicked it all.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Knives Out

One of the things I learned about on the road with the Spelling Bee (in my past working life) was Groupon, from which I recently purchased a set of Prestige kitchen knives. When I watch cooking shows, I love how the chefs chop things so effortlessly, and I have always wanted to see if I could do it as well.

After a three-week wait, the knives finally arrived yesterday. I haven't had an opportunity to try them out properly yet, though Alison reports they made light work of the orange bell peppers last night. The set includes a boning knife, so I may need to buy some kind of dead animal from a butcher soon.

Apart from the pumpkin risotto for Friday, that concludes this week's culinary experiments, so onto literary ones.

This protect represents a number of firsts for me. It's pretty much the first time I've written about someone other than myself (a few short stories aside). It's the first time I've done research for a work of fiction. And it's the first time I've kept a writing schedule.

When I was on high school and college I didn't need a schedule. I had loads of free time, energy, and ideas. Now I have none of those things, except the ideas. I have to write them down to avoid forgetting them all.

A schedule is one of the tips I got from the screenwriting books I read. When of read younger I rejected schedules. I wrote when inspiration hit, and you can't plan for that. But I have so little time now I have to manage it carefully or I'd never end up writing at all (something the past three years have illustrated clearly).

The thing is the schedule really works. I write before bed Sunday to Thursday for at least a half hour. Most nights I really wish I could put it off. I'm just not in the mood, too tired, whatever. But I force myself, and within a few minutes, the writing starts to get pretty good. I always end up feeling it was worth the effort.

The thing I'm working on now, I don't really have a name for. It's a kind of pre-writing (preparatory writing you do to flesh out plot, characters, etc, that will inform the story but not literally be part of it). It's too long to be a synopsis, but way too short to be a treatment. Basically it's a condensed version of the story so I can check to see if I have all the beats, plot points, character developments and such worked out before I start the actual writing. The last thing I want is to get a third of the way in and find I've literally lost the plot.

When this treatment-esque thing is finished, I plan to work out the three-act structure, the five plot points and eight sequences, just like I learned to do for screenplay. On addition, I want to do a complete chapter outline, firstly because I want every chapter to be named for an ingredient or dish that features prominently in the chapter, and also because I want every chapter to have a purpose. That's another thing I learned from screenwriting. When I tried to write my first book, I wrote when I was inspired and focused primarily on the writing style, never really giving a thought to how the chapter would fit in with the whole. The result read that a lot of chapters read beautifully but didn't go anywhere. In a screenplay, every scene has to have a purpose. There are several reasons for this. One is that most audiences won't sit through a scene where nothing happens. And script readers will bin the script anyway, so the film would never get made. Also, films are expensive to make so you can't afford to film dead air. Well, print is expensive too, and readers have a lot of other, more exciting options for their spare time, so are they really going to read a whole chapter if they're no further along at the end of it? Or will they put their Kindle down and play with their iPad 2? So in terms of progress, I'm nearing the end of Act 2. Of course, I still have to make up (and test) a lot of recipes. Next time: the results of my pumpkin risotto.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Jaws of Defeat

Following on from last weekend's triumph of Carrot and Star Anise soup from Tom Kitchin's book From Nature to Plate, I was anticipating another weekend of culinary success.

But I was mistaken.

The week started out promisingly enough, with leftover soup and roast chicken from last Sunday, reminding me how well we had cooked at the weekend and how much I had to look forward to.

The plan for Friday night was Smothered Poke (pork) Chops and Soul-Baked Macaroni from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. Ever since I had first read this book, I had wanted to cook the stodgy, soul-food macaroni recipe, not least because of the suggestion to chill some in the fridge, cut it into slices, dip it in egg and flour, and shallow-fry it the next day.

The poke chops were just the recipe the book suggested would go well with the macaroni.

So when we bought the seven tonnes of meat for £26 last week at Craigie Farm, I made sure the package included two pork chops.

Now, let me say I was a bit nervous about this recipe from the beginning. Firstly, though I joked about possibly having a heart attack from the high fat content, I was actually a little worried about it. I'm not used to eating food this...heavy. But more than that, I noticed the poke chops recipe was a little incomplete. The only listed ingredients were the chops themselves, and the components of the spice mixture (onion salt, salt, cayenne pepper, and mustard powder). The method part of the recipe, however, spoke of flour, (presumably) diced onions, and stock (probably chicken, but who knows). Clearly, these things had been left out of the ingredients by accident, so I had to guesstimate the amounts using previous experience.

I opted for 250 mL of stock, 125g of flour, and the equivalent of about half a diced onion (we've been using pre-chopped frozen onions since Abby was born, along with Very Lazy Garlic (pre-chopped and preserved in a jar), because having an under-5-year-old does not leave you lots of time for cooking).

Basically, I fell at the first hurdle. I had forgotten the chops were in the freezer, so they were still frozen solid when I got home on Friday evening. I did NOT want to defrost them in the microwave, as that would inevitably cook them a bit, and dry them out. (Microwaves function by heating the natural water content of food. The heated water in turn cooks the rest of the food product. The problem with this method is it tends to evaporate the water, leaving meat tough and dry.)

We solved this problem by putting the chops in a bath of room temperature tap water to defrost (Alison's idea). This worked so well that when I came down to the kitchen after putting Abby to bed, I found the chops cool and soft, with no trace of ice.

But it that wasn't the end of my problems. Usually when I cook at the weekend, we end up eating on "Spanish time", which basically means I serve dinner at 10 o'clock at night. This time I tried to avert this by making a tight schedule which would enable me to serve by 9 (I had tried to work out timings to serve by half 8, but it would have involved cooking during Abby's bath time).

My schedule required me to have the prep started by 7:45, but it was 7:55 by the time I left Abby's room. I raced downstairs thinking if I could start by 8:00 I would only be fifteen minutes behind schedule. But I was so flustered I made really stupid errors like hammering the chops with the handle of our wooden rolling pin without first covering them with clingfilm. I also forgot to turn the oven on. At one point I got so frustrated I actually threw a dish towel across the room, although the nadir was probably when I screamed so loud Alison came downstairs, thinking I had cut my finger off or something.

Though my schedule was quite a bit off by now, I did manage to get it together and get the macaroni cooked and in the oven, though I chose too small a bowl to beat the eggs and evaporated milk in, so I don't think they were fully combined in the end.

With the macaroni in the oven and the chops fried for 5 minutes on each side and in a baking dish, it was time to make the gravy. The first step was to add the mysterious flour to the oil and pork drippings and make a roux (my first ever roux, by the way). The recipe said to stir the flower constantly over a low heat for 10 minutes, then add the onions, then the stock, slowly, once the onions were soft. 10 minutes is a long wait, and as the flour got darker and darker, I really began to doubt this recipe, but I hung in there, because the authors spoke about a "creole roux" which is apparently much darker than a French roux.

I never made it the full ten minutes, because I started to smell burning. I went ahead and added the onions, but somehow that only increased the burning smell, probably because the water released from the onions loosened more burnt flour from the bottom of the pan.

When the onions were soft, I added the stock, slowly as directed. When there was enough "gravy", I tasted it with a spoon. It tasted of burnt salt. I asked Alison's opinion. She said she couldn't taste the burning so much as the salt, but we both agreed it was disgusting, so down the drain it went. Instead, I put a bit of sherry into the baking dish with the chops, to keep them moist, covered the dish in foil, and put them in the oven.

The rest of the timings worked out. Everything was finished at about the same time (even allowing the chops time to rest), and I managed not to overcook the brocoli which was using as our sole healthy component of the meal (I added habenero sauce to mine, but Alison ate hers as they come).

The final disappointment, though, was a macaroni. You'd think something with that much evaporated milk in it would taste decadent, but the 40 minute baking time prescribed by the recipe seemed to have robbed it of all moisture. Worse, it didn't even taste that cheesy.

The chops, however, were delicious: moist and tender and very savoury. We usually just put pork chops under a grill, and they always come out dry, but I'll definitely be using this method again (searing on a high heat, then finishing in the oven).

The next day was supposed to be smoother. The dish on the menu was  celeriac, turnip, and beetroot gratin, from Tom Kitchin's From Nature to Plate. I was feeling confident because the carrot and star anise soup had turned out so beautifully. I was also very excited to be cooking with two ingredients I had never used before: celeriac and beetroot (beets to Americans).

On the BBC food website I learned that celeriac is in fact the root of the celery plant, and when I began peeling the celeriac, I was instantly struck by the strong smell of celery, though it looked like typical root veg flesh. The other surprise was that the beetroot didn't bleed as much as I had expected.

This is a really simple dish: simply slice the veg thinly (Tom recommends using a mandolin, but I don't have one; nevertheless I did get the slices much thinner and more uniform than I would have expected). Simmer some whipping cream with a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Then butter a 20 cm baking dish, lay the veg out in layers, and cover with the cream. Then bake at 150 degrees (C) for an hour and a half.

The problem is I used way too much veg, so the cream I had couldn't cover it all. I also may have misunderstood what Tom meant by "cover generously". I thought he meant fill up the dish, but perhaps what he meant was just make sure the top layer was wet, so it wouldn't dry out. I was out of cream, so what I did was fill up the rest of the dish with full fat milk (seasoned like the cream).

Even after two hours' cooking, that liquid was never going to reduce, so instead of a gratin, I had some root veg slowly poaching in seasoned milk. Worse, because the milk and cream didn't mix, it looked like it had split (curdled to Americans).

The sauce was unusable, so I lifted the veg out with a slotted spoon and served it. The flavours were nice, but the texture was a bit soggy, except for the top layer.

In the end, the beetroot was my favourite. The turnip was far too watery, and the celeriac tasted like a slightly less sweet parsnip (parsnip being my favourite root vegetable).

So, though no victory to be snatched from this weekend's fiascos, at least I've learned some lessons. On the one hand, trust my instincts more. If I'd departed from the poke chops recipe and done what I thought was right, I may have ended up with a nice gravy. On the other hand, I should do more preparation. I had never worked with celeriac or beetroot, or made a gratin, so perhaps I needed a bit more than just the recipe to guide me. Then I could have estimated how much veg to prep, or how much cream to use. (It also wouldn't have hurt to have added a little cornflour to the milk, to keep the consistency thick).

This has not, however, put me off either of the books. I still have many more dishes from Two Cooks to make, and next weekend I'm attempting the pumpkin risotto from Tom Kitchin's From Nature to Plate.

And on the plus side, I learned that I know how to make an omlette!


I have crazy idea: to write a book -- a novel, though I hate that word -- about a Mexican chef.
It's crazy because I'm not a chef and I'm not Mexican*.
This idea started when I first moved to Edinburgh ten years ago. I found that, contrary to my expectations, Mexican food was available (there was once even a Mexican restaurant across the street from my flat). But it was very different from the cuisine I grew up with in Southern California.
I had always thought of burritos as the prime Mexican dish, but in Britain they are rarely on the menu. Instead, the country is obsessed with fajitas, which I don't remember eating until I was a teenager.
My first thought was "This is not real Mexican food." Then, of course, I realized the food we eat in SoCal may not be authentic either.
Not long after that I discovered a brilliant Mexican deli at Tollcross called Lupe Pintos. They seem to have everything, including homemade tortillas (both corn and flour). I stocked up with provisions and started making my own Mexican food.
Alison, my wife, became very fond of burritos; however as that was all I ever made, it did get to be a bit same-y. I started wondering what else I could cook. Lupe Pintos have their own cookbook, called Two Cooks and a Suitcase (actually I believe they have more than one now). So one year for my birthday, Alison got me the book, and I began broadening my culinary horizons.
They idea for the novel, though came much more recently.
Last summer I was sitting in the Ivory and Willow in Corstorphine with Alison and our daugher Abby. I noticed they had nachos on the menu. A lot of British cafes and pubs serve nachos now (of greatly varying quality). I guess it's an easy dish to make, especially if you don't make your own tortilla chips, and it doesn't require any fancy presentation.
I started thinking about how most Mexican food in Britain is still pretty humble, and not very authentic. And basically, I came up with the plot -- about Mexican chef who seeks to elevate his national cuisine to Michelin-star quality -- by the time we finished our lunch.
But as I said, I'm not a chef, and I'm not Mexican. All my previous writing had been about me, more or less, but this project would require serious research.
So that's what this journey is about: learning how to cook real Mexican food and learning how to elevate it to fine dining. Along the way I'll report on how the book is going and any other culinary experimentations I attempt.
*Actually I do have some Mexican ancestry, but no more than many other Americans from the southwest are likely to have