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.