Friday, 27 January 2012

Evening Well Spent

After last week's mammoth post, I'm interrupting the mole epic (believe me, there are more chapters) for a post about what I did on Monday night.

First, a bit of background. Last Spring my wife and mother-in-law planted coriander in our back garden. I paid absolutely no attention, because I didn't expect it to grow. Coriander comes from hot places, and we live in Scotland.

Well, it shot up overnight into a bloody great triffid of a coriander bush and I was completely caught off guard. I didn't have any Mexican or Asian food planned, so I barely got to use any of it before it went to seed (which, again, it seemed to do overnight).

This year, I'd like to plant it again, and actually use it this time. But how do I useso much of it, when you apparently have to prune it constantly?

Even under normal circumstances, when we buy some coriander from our local supermarket, I can never manage to use the whole bag before it goes off. The smallest bag they sell is still way too much for two people, considering most recipes only call for a handful or so.

So what do you do with the rest of it?

Well, I got this idea from my novel. When Esteban begins creating his Mexican haute cuisine, he often reinterprets traditional Mexican dishes and sauces as refined European dishes (or reinterprets European dishes with Mexican ingredients and flavours, depending on how you look at it). One of these creations is coriander pesto.

Pesto, as most everyone knows, is a traditional Italian sauce made of basil, crushed garlic, crushed pine nuts, and grated Parmesan cheese. That's the basic, traditional recipe anyway. Nowadays you can buy pesto made of most anything.

I first thought of coriander pesto when trying to think of a refined version of salsa verde. I love chunky salsas, but they are rather rustic. I wanted to think up a smooth-textured sauce that could work in a fine-dining restaurant. By ditching the tomatillos, I hit upon a pesto made of coriander.

I was disappointed to learn that I'm not the first person to think of this. Google "coriander pesto" and you'll find heaps of recipes. Still, at least I knew it was a good idea.

Initially I was just going to use coriander, chile, garlic, and olive oil. My wife then reminded me about the pine nuts. Pine nuts ain't Mexican, but pumpkin seeds are, and I still had some left over from the mole. (I also considered using sesame seeds or almonds, which I also had left over from the mole; you definitely could use these if you wanted to.)

Also, there is a Mexican hard cheese similar to Parmesan, but I thought it would clash with the coriander, so I left it out.

For the chiles I chose one of my leftover chiles de pasilla (just one, because, for my first attempt, I wanted to see how hot the pesto would be). I also had a bog-standard fresh green chile from Tesco (it looked sort of like a jalapeño) and I decided to throw it in, as it was meant to be mild.

To use a dried chile like the pasilla, cut off the stem. Then cut it in half and remove the seeds and white veins (they should tear out easily). Make sure you wear clean rubber gloves if you're not used to handling chiles, or the acid will burn your fingers. It won't cause lasting harm, but it can be painful. Also, chile acid doesn't wash off with soap and water, so the pain can last for days.

Now put a dry, flat frying pan on high heat. When it's really hot, lay the chile halves flat on the pan and press them down with a spatula until they change colour and start to release their aroma (this should take a few seconds). Then flip them over and do the same to the other side.

Now place the chiles in a bowl, cover with boiling water and weight them down with a plate. Leave them to soak for about twenty minutes.

For the fresh chile, just place it whole on a hot, dry frying pan until the skin starts to go black. Keep turning it until it has black spots on all sides. Then let it cool, cut off the stem, de-seed and de-vein it, and chop it finely.

Now, I have some tips on chopping coriander:

1) Sharpen your knife

2) Seriously, sharpen your knife

3) Is your knife sharp?

4) You probably need to wash the coriander before you use it, but it's easier to chop if it's not too wet. So wash it under cold water and place it on some paper towels to drain and air-dry. This will take a little while, so you'll have to occupy yourself in the meantime. Perhaps you could sharpen your knife.

5) When the coriander is dry (enough), place it on a wooden cutting board. Always use a wooden one because it has some natural give that will allow the knife to penetrate it and chop through the herbs. A glass chopping board will stop the knife and you'll end up with some bashed up herb-mush at the bottom.

6) Use a (sharp) kitchen knife with a wide blade and a rounded edge, like the one Michael Meyers used to kill his sister. Do not use a knife with a serrated edge.

7) Place the bunch of herbs longwise on the board, with the leaves at your right hand and the stems at your left. "Slice" the coriander using a back-and-forth motion, moving toward the stem in roughly equal intervals.

If the coriander is to be blitzed or cooked down, you can chop up the stems as well (they're full of flavour), but if it's just a garnish or to be stirred in at the last minute, leave them out (they can be tough to chew).

Now, using the round edge of the knife, rock the blade quickly back and forth to finely chop the herbs, like the TV chefs do. Though it looks easy, show no mercy. Use all your might and try to make a loud thumping noise, like a drum-and-bass song from the late 90s. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much you feel like Jamie Oliver.

That should do it for the technique, so on to the actual recipe.

1 bunch of coriander (including stems), finely chopped

Chiles (pickled, roasted or dried), chopped, to taste

40 g pumpkin seeds

1 clove roasted garlic, minced

Olive oil

Heat up a dry frying pan. When it is very hot, add the pumpkin seeds and stir them constantly (to stop them burning) until they start to pop: about 3 to 5 minutes

Put the toasted seeds in a bloody great pestle and mortar (pestle and pesto have the same root word) with a pinch of rock salt and grind to a fine powder. This is really hard, by the way. But you definitely want to grind the seeds, firstly because grinding is one of the most typically Mexican methods of preparing food, and also because blitzing the seeds will chop the seeds rather than grind them. The texture won't be quite right, and also the seeds won't release their natural oils which will affect the flavour of the pesto.

Put the coriander, garlic, and chiles into a food processor and blitz to a fine paste. You can do this in the pestle and mortar too if you really want to, but it takes ages.

Add the coriander paste to the seeds and mix together. Taste for seasoning and add more if necessary.

Now add the olive oil one tablespoon at a time, mixing well in between, until it reaches the right consistency. If you don't know what the right consistency is, maybe you should buy some Italian pesto before attempting to make this.

I was well-chuffed with the pesto, especially considering it was my first attempt. I was particularly impressed with how spicy it was, so watch out for that if you try this at home.