Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas Dinner (la cena navideña): in defense of turkey

I hadn't planned on doing another new post until 2013, but I was inspired to write this after watching River Cottage Christmas Fayre, starring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

(I see he used ye olde Englishe spelling, despite knowing nothing about Old English. And fayre would be Middle English anyway.)

My beef is with how Hugh and his army of effeminate Aga-loving country fudruckers decry the Christmas turkey as "an American intruder".

Yes, turkey is "American", but not in the sense of "United States" (by which Hugh means "How dare another country have people in it who are wealthier than I am? A pox on them!").

Turkey is "North American" food, and it's an important part of Mexican cuisine.

Chicken is the most commonly eaten bird in modern Mexico, but it was introduced by the Spanish.

When the Spanish first arrived, they found turkey was the long-established culinary bird of choice.

Today it features in Mexico's national dish, guajalote en mole (turkey in mole sauce), which will be eaten in Christmas dinners throughout the republic.

In fact, as the Spanish conquest of Mexico comes about 100 years before the landing at Plymouth Rock, we might say turkey is first and foremost Mexican food.

Of course, our Christmas-style roasting has nothing to do with Mexico. In fact, the Castilian Spanish word for "roast" (asar) means something very different in the Mexican kitchen.

But the fact remains that when you eat turkey, you are partaking of Mexico's long and infinitely varied culinary history.

That's why turkey will always have a place on my Christmas table.

¡Feliz navidad!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and Christmas break

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

Mexico actually has one of the most appropriate patron saints of any nation.

The story goes that, not long after Spain took control of what is now Mexico, a priest was walking from his village to Mexico City.

A young girl appeared on a hill and asked him in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) to build a church on that spot.

According to the Catholic Church, this young Nauhatl-speaking girl was an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and is now known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

There is still a church on that site, by the way, but it's quite old now, so they built a new one on the other side of the square.

Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to announce MexiGeek's Christmas plans.

I'll be winding down on posts until after New Year, but I plan to complete some of the redesigns I've been meaning to do for a while, including my reviews of US cookbooks and a list of Mexican food resources.

Because they were so poplar last year I will be reposting links to my series on mole poblano over the Christmas holiday, just so you don't forget about me.

For this year's Christmas cooking project, however, I will be making sweet tamales and champurrado.

Sweet tamales, of course, are just tamales that are sweet. But the champurrado will be a completely new experience for me.

Champurrado is a kind of atole, and atole is a Mexican hot drink thickened with masa (corn tortilla dough). Champurrado is a chocolate-flavoured atole.

Atoles of all varieties are the traditional accompaniment to tamales, and tamales are celebration food, very popular at Christmas.

I plan on having this for breakfast one morning between Christmas and New Year, so I won't post it until 2013, but if you're looking for a Mexican Christmas recipe (and you have a lot of time on your hands), have a go at turkey in mole sauce.

¡Feliz navidad y próspero año nuevo!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Breakfast with MexiGeek: huevos con elote y calabacita en chiltomate

...which means eggs, corn, and courgette (zucchini) in chiltomate sauce.

Chiltomate sauce is literally "chile and tomato" sauce, but because it's from the Yucatán I added "bitter orange" or naranja agria.

Bitter orange is a Seville orange. It grows year-round in the Yucatán but in Europe it's only available in January. You can make  "mock" bitter orange by combining orange juice, grapefruit juice, and maybe a dash of lime juice as well.

You add the bitter orange to a standard roast tomato salsa and you're instantly transported to the Yucatán. To step it up a notch, use habaneros in the salsa.

For the corn and courgette, I cut the kernels off a fresh corn cob and fried them with onion and garlic until they started to caramelize, then added shredded courgette and fried about ninety seconds longer.

Then I added a quick green sauce of coriander (cilantro) and green chile (jalapeños).

To this I added some scrambled eggs. Then I wrapped it all in a fried corn tortilla and covered with the chiltomate sauce.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Haggis and Luchito tacos: a Scottish Oaxacan fusion

The smokiness of Gran Luchito is such a perfect match for the rich, spicy haggis you'd think they were made for each other.

Having said that, I wouldn't be surprised if some of my non-Scottish readers are a bit dubious about this recipe.

I was inspired to make haggis tacos by of Saint Andrew's Day (30 November). Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and he's also my patron saint, proof that I was meant to live here.
So last Friday I decided to cook a Mexican/Scottish fusion dish, sort of like my blog logo in food form.

Of course, I.'m not the first person to put haggis in a taco. Illegal Jack's on Lothian Road does it; probably some other places as well.

But I may well be the first to add smoked chile to the famous "chieftain o' the puddin' race". However, before we get to the recipe, let's talk about haggis.

Haggis is one of those things that many people have heard of, but what they've heard isn't always right. So what are the common questions about haggis?

Is haggis cooked in a sheep's stomach?

No. It used to be. Now it is cooked in a large collagen casing.
Sausages, which everyone loves, used to be stuffed into pig intestines, but are now also encased in collagen. In the olden days people didn't have many artificial materials, and they had to use every part of the animal. Now they don't.

Is haggis made from, like, guts and lungs and shit?

By "guts and lungs and shit" I mean "offal", which rhymes with "awful".

Offal is the collective name for the edible internal organs of an animal, such as hearts, liver, etc.

Although everyone used to eat this stuff (and a lot of posh restaurants still serve it), many modern diners find the idea of it "awful" indeed.

Yes, haggis is made with offal. So are sausages (especially cheap ones). And let's not even talk about what goes into hot dogs.

But the truth about haggis is it doesn't contain all that much meat of any description. For all that everyone knows about the sheep's stomach thing, people forget the other famous ingredient in haggis: oatmeal.

Haggis was poverty-food, so the scant bits of offal were bulked out with dried oats. Then the whole thing was mixed with spices to make it taste better. This is still done today.

Does haggis actually taste good?

Yes, haggis is delicious. Unusually for a traditional British dish, it is full of flavour, and even quite spicy (these days it is seasoned with a lot of black pepper).

It also goes beautifully with a dram of single malt Scotch whisky. And as my favourite Scotch is the smoky Ardbeg (an Islay malt), it occurred to me that haggis and smoked chile would make an excellent taco filling.

Now, the recipe...


500 g haggis, cooked according to the instructions
1-2 tbsp Gran Luchito Oaxacan smoked chile paste
6-8 warm corn tortillas
Radishes, finely chopped or shredded
Salsa of your choice
Oil or fat for frying


 Heat about 2 tbsp of oil in a saucepan. Then add the Gran Luchito.

You have to estimate your taste on this. Luchito is pretty spicy. You don't want to exceed your limit, but you do want the smoky flavour to come through. I used 2 tablespoons, but I'm a chile fiend.

When the Luchito has started to loosen a bit, add about a third of the cooked haggis and gently mix it in as if you were folding it into a larger mixture.

When it's well incorporated, fold in the next third of the haggis and repeat until it's all fully mixed.

The haggis will now have a reddish-brown colour running through it.

To serve, place about 2 dessert spoons of the haggis into a warm tortilla, top with finely chopped or shredded radishes and a salsa of your choice.

The peppery radishes are a good complement to the haggis and also provide a bit of bite (haggis is very soft).

For the salsa, I think a salsa picante made from chiles de árbol works well and adds a nice splash of colour, but it's very hot!

A milder roast tomato salsa could also work.

Alternatively you could double up on the smokiness by using a smoked chile salsa.

Or, if you want to turn the heat down, try some Mexican crema or commercial sour cream.

When I first conceived this dish, I planned to use chipotles en adobo, but I'm glad I opted for the Luchito instead.

Adobo sauce is so bit on the sweet side, which I think may have clashed with the haggis. Luchito has a more subtle sweetness which blended well, and the depth of flavour was more than able to stand up to the haggis's rich seasoning.

If I haven't convinced you on Scotland's National Dish, you're unlikely to try this, but I definitely see this becoming a MexiGeek household tradition.

Fair fa' yer honest, sonsie face!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Tequila tasting at Lupe Pintos

Tequila is one of those things everyone knows about Mexico. Or do they?

Last Saturday I took my MexiGeek crew (@Book_Love_Sarah and @EdinburghIsla) over to Lupe Pintos, the spiritual home of Mexican cooking in Edinburgh, for their annual tequila tasting.

I have a confession to make: although most of the time I'm enamoured of all things Mexican, my Achilles' Heel is tequila. I'm a whisky drinker, as in single malt Scotch whisky, which I drink neat (or, if it's cask strength, with just enough water to cut the noseburn).

It's really whisky's fault that I don't like other distilled spirits. Whisky sets the bar to an unreachable height. Really, how are you supposed to compete with something that's been aging in a barrel for 12 years or more?

Add to that, my only previous experience of tequila is some rough José Cuervo drunk from a shot-glass perched on the belly button of an inebriated sorority girl with no self-esteem (this is called a "body shot").

But the good news is Lupe Pintos' tequila tasting is just the thing for someone who isn't sure they like tequila.

First of all, Doug Bell, owner of Lupe Pintos, is the original MexiGeek, and really knows his stuff. He's passionate about all things Mexican, and his knowledge and enthusiasm really come through as he takes you from the more basic Casa Casco Viejo to the elite (though American-owned) Patron.

You learn the history of tequila (which is to mezcal what champagne is to sparkling white wine), how it's made, how it's actually drunk in Mexico, and the recipe for the perfect margarita. The tasting comes with some delicious homemade botanas (Mexican tapas, essentially), including the traditional diced fresh fruit and tajín (ground chile and lime salt).

But the two most important things I learned were:

  • Tequila can be delicious
  • Mexico takes the same pride and care in producing its national drink that Scotland takes in whisky
So did it convert me?

Well, I did buy a bottle of tequila: Don Agustin anejo (meaning it has been aged in a barrel for at least a year).

This was less intense than the Patron, and probably empirically not as good as the family-owned Herradura (Doug's favourite), but it was the one I liked best.

Leave it to me to go for the tequila that tastes like whisky!

The Edinburgh tastings are over for the year, but the Glasgow ones are up next. If you would like to know the truth about this world-famous but often poorly understood drink contact the store to book your place.

I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Other exciting news is that the shop is now stocking tajín and pilocillo (Mexican unrefined sugar). This place just keeps getting better.

Two MexiGeeks and two perfect Margaritas

Saturday, 24 November 2012

This Week's MexiFeast: Lime Soup (sopa de lima)

This was the first authentic Mexican dish I ever cooked, and it's still one of my favourites.

It's also dead easy. This recipe serves two as a main or four as a starter.

Take two chicken breasts

one roasted, chopped red pepper

three roasted, chopped tomatoes

chiles to taste (some like it hot; others do not)

one chopped onion

two cloves chopped garlic

the juice of two limes

500 ml chicken stock

Put all that in a pot, bring to the boil, then turn the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 20 minutes.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it and take the soup off the heat.

if you have the time and inclination, make your own crispy tortilla strips out of corn tortillas and put them in the serving bowls. Or you can just crumble up some store-bought tortilla chips.

Shred the chicken and place it in the serving bowls on top of the tortilla strips/chips.

Strain the soup through a sieve. You don't want any bits floating in it.

Ladle the soup over the chicken and tortilla strips and garnish with chopped coriander (cilantro).

This is a soup from the Yucatán, so the chile should technically be a habanero, but these are very hot. Don't use it if you can't take it.

The red pepper, too, is probably not original, but I think it adds a nice sweetness.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A Real Oaxacan Smoked Chile Paste: Gran Luchito (product review)

This is possibly the most exciting Mexican product to arrive in the UK since I’ve lived here: a real Oaxacan smoked chile paste called Gran Luchito.

It’s exciting not only because it’s delicious - which it is - but because it used to be available pretty much in only one part of Mexico.

Gran Luchito is made in Oaxaca, a state in the south of Mexico (bordering Guatemala). Oaxaca is one of the culinary capitals of Mexico and is world-famous for its distinctive regional cuisine, including chiles so rare they aren’t even widely available in the rest of Mexico, let alone all the way across the Atlantic.

Chief among these is the pasilla de Oaxaca, a smoked chile exclusive to the region. I’ve read about this chile many times, in many books. They all say the only place to get it is a market stall in Oaxaca - if you’re lucky, because it’s becoming increasingly rare.

The elusive pasillas de Oaxaca.

You can’t just nip down to Tijuana and pick up some of these chiles. They ain’t there. But they are the star ingredient in Gran Luchito.

So how does it taste?

Gran Luchito is a smoked chile paste, somewhat like a chipotle paste, but much deeper and more complex.

It has a gorgeous aroma, and because it’s sweetened with agave nectar (agave is the plant from which mezcal and tequila are made) rather than sugar, the sweetness is more natural and subtler than that of commercial chipotle pastes, which tend to use refined sugar.

Heat-wise it’s at least as hot as a chipotle paste, which most people seem to rate as 7/10. I can’t quite decide whether I think it’s slightly hotter, because for me chile heat takes a backseat to chile flavour, which Luchito has in spades.

I’m a guy who LOVES chipotles, but Luchito could honestly make you switch.

How do you use it?

The producers advertise its versatility, because it can be used on its own or as an ingredient in other dishes.

On its own I like to spread it on toast or a warm tortilla. It can really liven up a sandwich as well. I also mixed some in with my homemade Sikil p’ak (Mayan pumpkinseed and tomato sauce) for a Yucatecan/Oaxacan fusion.

Mixing some Luchito into a sauce or mole will give it a beautiful, smoky dimension, and it would be an incredible marinade for roasting or grilling meat.

You can also transform it into a delicious salsa by simply blending a tablespoon or two with a of couple roasted tomatoes and one or two cloves of garlic.

Don’t overdo the garlic because there’s already some garlic in Luchito, and make sure you blend to a rough, textured consistency.

This salsa will blow your mind, and it's great for dipping or to spoon on top of tacos or other dishes.

You can also substitute tomatillos for the tomatoes (if you have some). The contrast between the smokiness of the Luchito and the tartness of the tomatillos is incredible.

The other great thing about Luchito is that’s it’s easy to use. Many, many Mexican recipes call for you to make your own chile paste, usually by toasting dried or smoked chiles in a dry pan, soaking them in boiled water, and then grinding or blending them down. Luchito have basically done that for you.

Así se hace en México. They grind the chiles with a metate so you don't have to!

As making a chile paste is one of the more labour-intensive steps in making a sauce or mole, having a jar of Gran Luchito means you can have a authentic Mexican meal midweek. And how can you not be amazed by the possibility of cooking with authentic Oaxacan flavours after work on a Wednesday?

Now, I like to be balanced in my reviews, so I tried to think of any negatives, but I really can't. This is just a delicious and exciting product and I'm amazed that we can actually get this here in the UK.

So where do you get it?

Probably the easiest way is online from Gran Luchito’s website. (They also sell dried pasillas de Oaxaca. Awesome!)

Or you can check your local Mexican deli, grocer, or shop (if you’re lucky enough to have one near you).

I’ll be ordering another jar of this shortly, as well as some of the dried chiles (which I need to make mole negro). And a lot of my chipotle-based recipes are already becoming Luchito recipes.

MexiGeek can’t go to Oaxaca, but Oaxaca has come to MexiGeek!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Breakfast with MexiGeek: scrambled egg taco

This is a fried tortilla, almost like you'd make for authentic enchiladas, only I didn't dip it in sauce.

First I cracked two eggs into a mixing bowl, seasoned them with salt and pepper, dried epazote, and ground chiles.

Then I beat them until not quite combined. Never over-beat your eggs.

Next I fried the corn tortilla in butter: about 30 seconds on the first side, then a little less than 10 seconds on the other side.

Then I removed the tortilla to a plate. It should not be crisp.

Over a medium heat, I melted some more butter. When it was hot, I added some cumin seeds and let them fry for a few seconds (a technique from Indian cooking).

Then I added the eggs and gently scrambled them until just done.

"Scrambled eggs" in Spanish are huevos revueltos, which means "thoroughly turned eggs", so I always use a circular motion when scrambling.

At the very end I added a teaspoon of my homemade chipotle sauce.

I put the eggs in the tortilla, folded it over, and topped with more sauce.


This week's MexiFeast: pumpkin and chorizo tacos

I made these tacos last year as well but with butternut squash instead.

This is very easy to make (especially if you already have a pack of Cool Chile Company tortillas).

Chop the pumpkin or squash into tiny cubes. Next time I'm gonna do really tiny cubes, about the same size as the chopped chorizo, so you get squash and sausage in every bite.

Toss the pumpkin in some olive oil, minced garlic, and ground chile. Roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until it starts to blacken at the edges.

To avoid over-cooking the chorizo and onions, wait until you know the pumpkin is cooked. Then fry the finely chopped chorizo and diced onion (I actually used shallots) in olive oil until the onion goes translucent.

Now add the pumpkin and fry a few minutes more, until all the flavours mingle.

Wrap in a warm corn tortilla, top with some homemade chipotle sauce (which I'm sure you just have lying around) and provecho!

I also garnished with white pickled onions, a variation on the traditional Yucatecan pink ones.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Review of Cool Chile Company Tortillas

Some Cool Chile Company tortillas, with a few of their friends

Being MexiGeek, I do a lot of labour-intensive cooking. I don't buy tins of chopped tomatoes. I buy fresh tomatoes, asar-roast them, and bash the living hell out of them in my molcajete.

I don't buy ground spices like cumin, clove, and cinnamon. I buy whole seeds or sticks, toast them in a pan until they release their fragrance, and then grind them by hand in my molcajete. (I don't own a spice grinder.)

And I make my own corn tortillas, which takes forever.

But I'm a MexiGeek. That's just what I do. What if you want to eat Mexican food and you don't want to spend your whole night cooking and then eat dinner at 10pm?

When I arrived in the UK in 2001, I couldn't find corn tortillas, even at Mexican restaurants. But now that supermarkets are selling disgusting polenta/wheat flour hybrid things as "corn tortillas", I feel it's my duty to steer my readers in the right direction.

Because you can now get real corn tortillas here in the UK: just order them from the Cool Chile Company.

First a bit of background on Triple C.

The Cool Chile Company began importing dried chiles from Mexico into the UK in the early 1990s. Many, many Mexican recipes call for dried chiles, so they're an essential part of authentic Mexican cuisine. Also, because of the historical ties to India, most fresh chillies available in the UK are Asian varieties. CCC were one of the first (if not the first to make Mexican chiles available in Britain.

Honestly, I could not cook without these guys.

In 2005 they brought in the UK's first ever tortilla press (which they named "Lupita") and began making the UK's first (as far as I know) ever real Mexican corn tortillas. Demand has grown, so Lupita has been replaced by El Monstruo ("the Monster"), which makes 3,500 tortillas an hour.

You can order these tortillas online. They ship anywhere in the UK and Europe.

By the way, I don't know these guys personally. I learned this from their website, which I visit frequently.

I've bought these tortillas a few times. They're a real lifesaver when you want tacos but can't be bothered spending the two hours or so it takes to make a homemade batch.

So how good are they? Well, consider I basically fisked the sub-par Old El Paso tortillas, I feel I should be systematic.

Appearance. Professional. They are perfectly round and just the right colour (because they are made from real masa harina (and not polenta like some commercial brands). Basically, if you placed these next to any of the commercial brands in North America, you could not tell the difference.

Taste. Spot. On.

This is exactly what tortillas are meant to taste like (I should also add that the inviting smell of proper tortillas greets you when you open the pack).

You have to reheat them before using (helpful instructions are on the package). Corn tortillas need to be warm to unlock their flavour. Also, because corn is gluten-free, a cold tortilla cannot be folded like a flour one can.

Texture. Again, spot on, because these are made from just masa harina and water. They have a uniform thickness and when warm they fold easily without falling apart (very important for tacos).

Usefulness. The Cool Chile Company actually sells two kinds of tortilla: soft ones for tacos (the kind I bought) and "frying tortillas", which are a bit coarser and are for making tostadas and totopos (tortilla chips).

I used the soft tortillas for my tacos de carnitas de pollo, and they worked brilliantly as expected. The next day for a snack I heated a tortilla up, put some cheese in it, folded it and finished it off on a hot dry frying pan before drowning it in chile sauce: a rough quesadilla. It was so good I had to make another right away.

And although they don't recommend you fry these tortillas, I found they worked perfectly for baked totopos:

Cut the tortillas into wedges (I used a pizza-cutter).

Preheat the oven to 150° C.

Grease a baking sheet and lay the tortilla wedges on it.

Using a pastry brush, brush them with some oil (I used olive oil, to keep them as healthy as possible).

Then bake for 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don't burn. They will continue to crisp a bit as they cool.

Sprinkle lightly with salt as soon as they're our of the oven. These are way more delicious and much healthier than crisps.

So are there any negatives?

Well, as with all professional, machine-made tortillas, they lack the charming irregularity of homemade tortillas. Also, commercial tortillas like these are never slightly charred, they way homemade ones often are.

Also, because these are made from masa harina instead of masa, conventional wisdom holds that you can't use them for enchiladas or chilaquiles, though I actually made chilaquiles with my baked totopos and found they worked fine.

In any case, these aren't really negatives. There's nothing like a fresh homemade tortilla. But if you want it you're gonna work for it. With these on hand, you can have tacos as an easy mid-week meal, instead of a big production thing you have to leave for the weekend.

Bottom line. I really can't fault these. They are, as far as I know, the only authentic corn tortillas available in the UK. It's this or homemade. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

El día de los muertos v Halloween

... v British Halloween v Guy Fawkes Night.

There can be only one! Or can there? Photo courtesy of The Mexican Londoner
Yes, there's a lot going on in late October / early November in my world.

Now, MexiGeek is many things, but he is not a cultural anthropologist, so please don't think I have some kind of expert knowledge of these holidays. This is going to be a personal and subjective look at three and a half important Autumn festivals.

Let's start with the Mexican one: El Día de los Muertos, "The Day of the Dead". Repeating my point about not being an expert in this, I first heard of this festival in the god-awful film The Crow: City of Angels, which is more horrible than a crate full of small pox blankets.

I have since learned more about this fascinating holiday (really two days), though I have never been to real Day of the Dead festivities (more's the pity).

Day of the D read is a commemoration of your decreased loved ones. It takes place on 1 November (also the Catholic Feast of All Saints) and continues through 2 November (also called All Souls' Day).

(Neither of these are official holidays or días feriados oficiales in Mexico, because Mexico has a separation of church and state that makes the US look like the flipping Vatican and doesn't give days off for religious holidays.)

As Thomasina Miers told us on Sunday Brunch last weekend, DOD is a chance to commune with your dear departed and celebrate their life. On these two days each year, the dead are able to travel back to the land of the living for a visit, and fine thing is to throw them a massive fiesta and cook their favourite foods (plus some extra seasonal treats).

This celebration of life is joined up with the imagery of death, and culminates with a party on your loved ones's gravestones.

Probably the most striking symbols of DOD are the calaveritas, sugar skulls eaten as candy. Less famous is the pan de muerto, "bread of the dead", which is a sweet celebration bread (like you'd eat at Christmas in some countries) but with a bone motif as well.

Then there are the elaborate altars and brightly-coloured skeleton decorations, the marigold arches which symbolize the doorway to the land of the dead, and the raucous processions to the cemetery.

Tamales, those mainstays of communal Mexican food, are also involved. I'd certainly come back from the dead for good tamales.

Though it's festive, DOD is a bittersweet holiday. The first day of it is devoted to dead children (El Día de los Angelitos or "day of the little angels"). And even for those who left this world peacefully at a ripe old age, the dead are still dead.

Still, it seems to be a happy festival, throwing the light of life in one of the darkest parts of human existence.

And it's typically Mexican as well. Firstly, it's based on an Aztec ritual. The church moved it from its original date in August to the Feast of All Saints in order to Christianize it (they did the opposite with Christmas, moving Jesus' birthday, which no one knows anyway, to the date of a European pagan winter festival).

And the imagery and attitude itself are thoroughly Mexican. I can hardly think of another culture whose relationship with death is such that they can mock it while at the same time commemorating those it took from them.

Unless you're a closet Goth, like me (and you wondered why I always dress in black!), a non-Mexican is likely to find the Day of the Dead somewhat macabre. In this increasingly global age, where all our cultures are getting mixed together and we focus more and more on what we have in common, a nation's attitude to death remains personal and distinctive.

In fact, it's been said that the attitude to death is one of the principal things that keeps the US and the UK apart. After 11 years in Britain I'm still not sure what it is that defines a British view of death; probably some mixture of a "stiff upper lip", self-deprecating humour, and complete denial (whereas the American view of death is based on over-dramatized sentimentality).

But the attitude to death implied by El Día de los Muertos is different. This version of death is omnipotent and omnipresent and yet non-threatening, imutable and unconquerable but not unassailable.

It is mysterious and yet its very commonness (for we'll all end up there in the end) makes it safe to taunt. For, really, what more can death do than kill you? And he's gonna do that anyway.

Now contrast that with Halloween, which is also about the dead returning to the land of the living, and also contains gruesome and macabre imagery. But on Halloween - or at least one version of it - we use the imagery to scare the dead back to their own realm.

Death is frightening; we either have to protect ourselves from it or disarm it by turning it into a game.

I say "one version" of Halloween because Halloween was once my favourite holiday, and I read a lot about where it came from. And I never found two sources that agreed on its origins, nor any one source that seemed definitive.

What we know is that the name is short for "All Hallows' Ev'en", meaning "the night before the Feast of All Saints", which it (it may not always have been celebrated on the same day). Some versions of the Halloween story say it was natural for people to believe that, on the night before one of the holiest feast days, that evil would have free reign.

But is that really a natural assumption?

I've also read some books that claimed it was originally a Celtic festival honouring the passing of a powerful god (some, like modern-day Wiccans, say Cernunos) into the land of the dead (which is meant to symbolize the dying of the earth as Autumn sets in). This leaves a rip in the border between our world and the underworld, allowing the dead to come back.

Whether or not any of this is true, Halloween is now a day when American kids dress up in costumes and go house-to-house ringing the doorbell and saying "Trick or Treat!", at which point the people who live there will give them some candy.

If you're lucky, the people will have decorated their house with lots of spooky things and may be playing spooky music and they'll probably try to give you a fright as well as candy. That at least is my memory of Halloween in California.

Back then Halloween was the highlight of my year. I've always loved horror imagery, and I looked forward to everyone in the world (it seemed to me) finally doing what I wanted to do (which was dress up like a monster and try to scare people all night) more than I looked forward to Christmas.

One year my dad built an entire family of jack o'lantern people on our front lawn. And this guy in our neighbourhood was a movie special effects artist (because that's the kind of neighbours you get in LA), and his house was always incredible. One year there were zombie hands digging themselves out of a grave.

Then my family moved to Colorado, where there's usually snow on the ground on October 31, and Halloween was never the same again. Who the hell wants to trick-or-treat in the snow? Or the pouring rain, now that I life in Scotland?

Which brings us to what do Brits do for Halloween.

Well, pseudo-Celtic origins or not, Halloween is basically an American holiday, like Thanksgiving, so for a long time the Brits didn't do anything. Then they saw Halloween back in the 80s and said "Jolly good! Let's have some of that!"

But as usual when Brits adopt things from America, it's still not quite the same.

If the symbol of Day of the Dead is a skull or skeleton, the symbol of Halloween is a Jack o'Lantern, which (if you don't already know) is a big hollowed-out orange pumpkin carved with a scary face and with a candle placed inside it.

Pumpkins come from the Americas (from Mexico, in fact). So they didn't used to get them in Britain, which is why my wife spent her childhood carving turnips for Halloween.

Yes, turnips.

They are a bitch to carve. Your hands end up raw. And when you put the candle in, they stink! (Pumpkins, on the other hand, smell delicious when the candle is lit. There's nothing like roast pumpkin.)

They have pumpkins here now (in fact there's like a pile of them at Tesco). And all the shops are happy to sell lots of candy (which Brits call "sweeties") and costumes, so that's all taken care of. My three-year-old even had a Halloween party at her nursery (this year and last year).

But they don't go trick-or-treating. They go house-to-house asking for sweeties all right, but it's called "guising" (and the kids who do it are called "guisers"). This word comes from "disguise", as in the costume you wear.

Naturally they don't say trick-or-treat either. Instead, they tell you an awful joke or sing you a song. Here's a typical exchange.

ME: Oh my, what scary costumes.

GUISER: (absolute silence)


GUISER: Who's the coolest person at the hospital?

ME: I don't know. Who is the coolest person at the hospital?

GUISER: (absolute silence)

GUISER'S MUM: (whispering)

GUISER: The ultrasound man.

ME: Lovely. Here's a Mars bar.

Brits love Mars Bars, but they're not the same as American Mars Bars. They're more like a Three Musketeers.

Halloween, whether American or British, has no food traditions, beyond the obscene amount of candy we let the kids eat. One year my mother made pumpkin soup, but it was disgustingly bland. You can't use carving pumpkins for cooking, as I discovered again myself last year. They're bred for their looks, not their taste.

(Actually, mom did used to make a snack out of the pumpkin seeds, so that was kind of a cool tradition.)

But what the British have been celebrating much longer than Halloween is Guy Fawkes Night, also called Bonfire Night.

I have lived in the UK for 11 years and I still have absolutely no idea what this "holiday" is really about. Based on personal experience, it seems to be not one night but many many nights on which American exchange students light fireworks into the small hours of the morning. It lasts from about 15 October to whenever they finally run out of fireworks, some time around the second week of November.

I say "American" students because we Americans are all pretty much obsessed with fireworks, what with them being banned in most states.

To get serious for a moment, what I do know about Guy Fawkes Night was that Guy Fawkes planted some kegs of gunpowder in the basement of Parliament to try to kill James VI of Scotland, who had by then become James I of England (so early 1600s). This was called the Gunpowder Plot.

The plot failed and now we celebrate its failure by setting off fireworks and apparently also by lighting bonfires and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, though I've never seen this with my own eyes.

As I've said, students lighting fireworks every night for three or four weeks: that's my experience of Guy Fawkes Night.

One of the other things I know about this holiday, though, is that it is meant to be on 5 November. I know this because, whenever I have asked anyone about Guy Fawkes Night at any time in the past decade, their only response has been to quote the first line of a poem:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I've never met anyone who knows the rest of the poem.

Presumably, Guy Fawkes is meant to be a villain. On the other hand, all those Occupy London people were wearing Guy Fawkes masks, so maybe he's cool now.

Then again, they were wearing the masks because they saw them in V for Vendetta, so who the hell knows.

As you can probably tell, I don't really like Guy Fawkes Night. But which of these holidays do I like?

Well, from a food perspective, Day of the Dead wins hands down. The tamales alone would have done it for me; the sugar skulls and death bread is just the icing on the skeleton-shaped cake.

Unfortunately, none of my dead are buried in Scotland, which is just as well, as mid-Autumn is not the time of year you want to be spending the night in a graveyard. Not in this country, anyway.

And I'm not sure my dead relatives would understand that partying on their grave was a sign of respect.

But Halloween in Modern Britain leaves much to be desired. My last American Halloween wasn't much to write home about either, now that I think of it.

But there is hope. In the next few years, my daughter will start getting old enough to participate in Halloween properly, and we can throw a Halloween/Day of the Dead party for her and her friends.

I can learn to make the sugar skulls and the pan de muerto, we can have roasted pumpkin seeds and do all the traditional stuff like bobbing for apples (which is called dooking for apples in Scotland) and that game where you touch peeled grapes and say it's somebody's eyeballs.

And maybe I can even set up some Day of the Dead altars or ofrendas to my two grandfathers, through one of who I can trace some Mexican ancestry.

This is all assuming the world doesn't end this year, speaking of ancient Meso-American beliefs.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Chiles rellenos!

Mexican Food guru Rick Bayless writes that many people have been "smitten" the Mexican snack known as chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles), "which is unfortunate for them, because they do take a little time to prepare."

Actually, they take a lot of time to prepare. I've read recipes for this dish in every book I could get my hands on, plus all of the many Mexican food blogs I follow (September is the traditional season for chiles rellenos, so everyone was writing about them. I'm late!).

They are all pretty much identical, and there are no short cuts.

Ordinarily I'd file this under Don't Try At Home (unless you're a hardcore MexiGeek). But these are so delicious I think everyone should try them, and until Edinburgh restaurants start serving them, you'll have to make your own.

(Chiles rellenos are common in Mexican restaurants in the US, and you can get them from the London Mexican restaurant Mestizo.)

So: chiles rellenos or "stuffed chiles". Basically, these are exactly what they sound like, only better.

For me, the classic chiles rellenos are stuffed chiles poblanos (literally "chiles from Puebla"). The poblanos' large size, medium-thick flesh and mild heat makes them ideal for this. In fact, many Mexicans call them chiles para rellenar ("chiles for stuffing").

I've read that Mexicans also stuff smaller, hotter chiles, as well as reconstituted ancho chiles. And in the US you can get deep, fried jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, which are addictive, but I'm not sure they're very Mexican.

To prep the chiles, first you have to roast them. Ordinarily this is where I've talk about asar-roasting on a dry pan. You can do that, but in this case it's not the best choice.

Poblanos have a though transparent outer skin which must be removed or your fork will have trouble cutting through it. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to char the skin off without overcooking the rest of the chile.

If you roast the poblano on a dry pan, you'll probably burn through the skin in places before you get all the outer layer charred. Then you can't stuff the chile. FAIL!

If you do the Diana Kennedy thing and stick the poblano under a grill, turning it until it blackens on all sides, the outer skin will slip off easily, but the remaining flesh may be a bit to soft to hold its shape. You want it to be flexible, but not on the verge of turning to mush.

So what works best is to hold the poblano over an open flame until all the skin blisters and loosens. I find you need a gas hob for this.

Once your chiles look like the above, stick them in a plastic bag to "sweat" for ten minutes. This makes them easier to peel, but beware "easier" is a relative term here. The skin will come off in maddeningly small bits and you will have to "shave" some of it with a sharp knife because the flame won't reach into the "valleys" of the chile.

You will get your hands dirty, but they won't sting, because the chiles are mild.

When the chile is peeled, take a small, sharp knife and make a slit down one side of it. This is the hole you're going to put the stuffing in, so don't slice down the entire length of the chile. You want it to stay closed after you're stuffed it.

Now, put the tap on and gently wash the chile inside and out. I'm not kidding. Also, stick your finger in the hole and gently brush the seeds out, and carefully pull out as much of the white veins as will come free easily.

It is vital that you don't rip, tear, or poke through the chile or it becomes unstuffable (though you can still slice it into rajas). Must recipes recommend roasting extras in case you rip a couple.

Now for the stuffing. What do you stuff them with?

One the popular Autumnal versions of this dish is chiles en nogada, "nogada" being a creamy walnut sauce. These chiles rellenos are stuffed with a Oaxacan-style picadillo, which is fried pork mince and dried fruit (think of old-school mince pie, which actually contained mince).

The stuffed green chiles are then covered in the white nogada, and sprinkled with red(-ish) pomegranate seeds: the three colours of the Mexican flag.

Because of that and because the walnut harvest usually comes around Mexican Independence Day (16th of September), it is a traditional Independence Day celebration food. To preserve the Mexican Flag colour scheme, chiles en nogada are usually not battered, though I have seen photos of an exception.

I didn't manage to get fresh walnuts for the sauce this September. But it's just as well, because the light, fluffy batter is one of the best parts, and in any case my favourite filling is cheese!

The main cheese in Mexico is queso fresco (literally "fresh cheese"),  a homemade cheese which is like a goat's milk version of cottage cheese, with a firmer, more crumbly texture. If you really want to rock the house, you can make your own, like Tiffany from Kitchen Conversations did.

I nearly always use feta in place of queso fresco because I love feta and the saltiness really works with this dish. However, Rick Bayless writes that real queso fresco isn't as salty as feta, so if you're not a feta fan try plain cottage cheese, ricotta, or even some mozzarella (there's a Oaxacan queso fresco that "hace hebras" or "makes strings" like mozzarella).

Chile relleno, stuffed and resealed, ready for frying

Now, I did the roasting, peeling and stuffing the night before to save some time on the day. I wrapped my stuffed chiles in foil and put them in the fridge. This is a common practice, but the chiles must be at room temperature before you fry them, so take them out of the fridge at least an hour before you start to cook.

Then comes the batter. This is what really scared the living hell out of me. I'm not a strong baker and making a batter - even if it's just for shallow frying - feels like baking to me.

Add to that it's a fairly unusual batter and my nerves were really through the roof. It felt like I was trying to walk before I could run and I was sure I was going to screw it up.

Once again, I read every recipe for this I could find and they all said the same thing. There are no short cuts. So here goes.

The easy part is dusting your room temperature chiles with pain white flour. They look like this:

The toothpick is because one wouldn't close on its own. Bad chile!

But then it gets tricky.

Chiles rellenos have a distinctively fluffy-textured batter. It is apparently quite similar to tempura batter, but I don't know how to make tempura, so that's no help to me.

What you do is get one egg for every two chiles and separate them. Whisk the whites until they just hold a peak (no stiff peaks; this is not a meringue).

Then whisk in the yolks one at a time. Don't be too vigorous or you'll lose all the air you so painstakingly whipped into the whites.

Lastly, fold about a tablespoon of flour into the batter for a bit more bulk.

Finished batter. MexiGeek ALWAYS whisks egg whites by hand.

Now have to do some frying. And despite living in Scotland, I'm not a big fan of frying, beyond shallow-frying with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. However, deep(er)-frying does have its places, and this is one of them.

Pour some flavourless oil (not olive oil) into a wide, deep pan until it reaches about 3/4 of an inch up the sides of the pan. Then heat it until it is quite hot (medium-high, almost to high, but don't set the oil on fire).

Now take a chile by the stem, dip it into the batter and quickly pull it out. It should be evenly coated in the batter, but if not don't stress. Just pour some more batter around the chile with a dessert spoon.

Lay the battered chile in the hot oil until it gets all golden-brown, then turn it over to fry the other side.

Repeat until all the chiles are fried.

These do not keep well; apparently they'll go soggy and stale if you leave them sitting around too long (I always eat them right away, so I wouldn't know). Therefore serve as soon as all the chiles are fried. If you're doing a lot at once, keep the done ones in a warm oven. But they don't take long to fry: maybe ten minutes tops for both sides.

Here's a finished one, with some pollo adobado and what turned out to be inedibly underdone potatoes.

Could be prettier, but could hardly be tastier!

 Now, despite all the faff involved, I managed to get these right my first try! I'll admit mine could have been a bit neater, but they tasted fantastic. In fact, they were Mrs MexiGeek's favourite part of the meal.

I want to stress again that poblanos are mild chiles. Whereas jalapeños have a Scoville Heat Unit count of 2,500 to 5,000, poblanos have like 1,000. So if you or your near and dear aren't into hot stuff, don't be afraid to try these.

Also, the batter and the cheese both help to tone down the heat (capsaicin, the substance that makes chiles hot, is not water soluble but it IS fat soluble, so pairing chiles with cheese, cream, or other dairy products is a reliable way to moderate the chile burn).

Once again, Mestizo in London serves these (stuffed with cheese or picadillo, which I notice they do with beef mince instead of pork). Possibly some other UK Mexican restaurants of similar calibre (if any) also have rellenos on the menu. Otherwise, if you want to taste these (and I highly recommend you do), you've got to make them yourself. Do it at the weekend.