Wednesday, 29 February 2012

"Butter over too much bread"

My blog has been getting a lot of action from Twitter recently. Some of my followers have been retweeting my posts, and my last post was even included in an issue of (on-line periodical) The Mexico Daily. I am well chuffed about this.

It was one of my twitter followers' retweets that inspired me to write this post (that and the fact that I haven't cooked anything this week). The wonderful @Sharliebel (whom I recommend you follow), mentioned my book in her retweet.

If you view my twitter profile (@dogrove), you'll see my bio reads "I am writing a screenplay about Hell. It's no longer a workplace comedy. I'm also writing a book about Mexican food."
The workplace comedy thing is an inside joke, but @Sharliebel's retweet reminded me that I'm meant to be dividing my writing time equally between the Mexican food book and the screenplay. But I'm not. The Mexican food book has completely taken over.

The last time I posted about writing, rather than cooking, I mentioned that I had got stuck in what screenwriters would call Sequence 6. After fastidiously sticking to my writing schedule (writing every night, Sunday through Thursday -- because even amateur writers need a weekend), I have solved the Sequence 6 problem as far as the Mexican food book is concerned. A lot of that writing was literally writing about why I was stuck and what I wanted in terms of plot progression. I spent several nights writing about writing, and in the end, I once again had a clear path to the end of my novel.

Meanwhile my screenplay, Hell, is still stuck in the same sequence.

Originally, I had planned to quickly (!?!) bash out a "treatment" of the novel, and then write another sequence of the screenplay. Then I would start the character profiles for the novel, then write another sequence of the screenplay. Then do a chapter outline for the novel. Then back to the screenplay. And so on.

Well, that was in September 2011. I haven't revisited the screenplay since. Naughty me.

I am a bit annoyed with myself, actually, because I've been working on that screenplay since late 2007, and I still haven't finished it. It's one of the most commercial ideas I've ever had (four teenagers find themselves in Hell and have to get out, loosely inspired by Dante's Inferno), and I'm sure I could have finished it by now. But things keep getting in the way -- or I keep letting them.

To start with, before my daughter was born, I continued to (try to) write as if I were still a college undergrad, even though once I had a full-time job, my free time shrank by about 90%. Please take a lesson from this, aspiring writers who are still at Uni: once you get a day job, you will have to write through the inevitable exhaustion.

But stubborn me was still intent on writing only when "inspiration" hit, which it never does after work or on the weekend after a 40-hour week. And even if it did, you wouldn't have time to write. You'd be too busy sorting out boring things you would not believe you will have to care about: flat-pack furniture, pensions, tax credits, the colour of your bedroom walls, whether you can get a dishwasher into your tiny kitchen. These are things that have probably never ended up in a book (though some of them have ended up in Arab Strap songs) but they will become part of your life, whether you like it or not. So you have to write around them.

I should have been doing back then what I do now: writing a bit everyday before bed, at least five days a week. It's not romantic, but it gets results.

The other reason I've been neglecting my screenplay, though, may be that I'm getting bored with it. The protagonist is a sullen teenage boy, much like I used to be, and I'm tired if writing about sullen teenagers (no offence, by the way, because they can make great characters). Almost all my high-school writing was about such teenagers, and my first book was about a sullen 21-year-old, which isn't really that different. But now that I'm in my 30s, I feel like writing about adults. We're people too, though we may not be very pretty or interesting.

Another thing that makes Esteban more exiting to write about is that he and and I don't actually have that much in common. Every aspect of Esteban's history and personality is something I have to delve into and discover for myself, rather than taking for granted that "he would do/say/feel/think what I would."

In fact, I probably have more in common with Esteban's wife Linzi than I do with Esteban himself.
I can't recall reading this anywhere, but I wouldn't be surprised if writing advice guides tell you not to write more than one major thing at a time. Right about now I'm wondering if it is possible to devote enough time to both projects. Is this Mexican food book just going to keep pushing my screenplay into the background? Have I spread myself too thin? Will Hell ever see the light of day? This is starting to sound like the end of a Batman episode, I do have two sequels planned. 

For now, though I have to finish the treatment. Having planned out sequences 6 through 8, I have to write them down. Then the temptation will be to jump right into the character sketches. But I may find time to go to hell again in between. We'll just have to see.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Mole Poblano 4: verdict and meaning revisited

[First published 18 February 2012]

The last instalment in my mole poblano series is something of an anticlimax in that, once the sauce is made, there isn't that much work left to do.

What had been worrying me (besides the flavour) was how I was going to make the dish look nice.

It's difficult to make a big lake of brown sauce look beautiful.

To add to the trouble, I'm not really much of an artist. I love being served beautiful plates of food in restaurants, but I'm not sure it's my calling to design them.

So I basically ripped off the common technique of resting the dish's main component on a neat round pillar of accompanying rice, with extra sauce around the edge.

Choosing the rice was tricky.

 I wanted something with colour, to relieve the brown of the mole. But the recipe I usually use for arroz verde has tomatillos, which are very tart, and would probably clash with the dark, rich sauce.

Luckily I found an alternative version of arroz verde in Thomasina Miers's Mexican Food Made Simple. She excludes tomatillos, cuts down on the coriander, and ups the quantities of common green leaves and herbs like spinach and parsley.

This is most likely because her book is written for British cooks, and she is mindful of what ingredients are available in the UK.

Tomatillos are especially hard to get here, though, as expected, Lupe Pinto's sells them tinned, and you can even order fresh ones from The Cool Chile Company when they're in season. The website currently promises them in July 2012, and I will definitely be ordering some for fresh salsa verde.

By the way, the basic recipe for any arroz verde is:

1) blitz whatever green leaves and herbs you're using together with some green chiles

2) sweat some finely chopped onion in an oven-proof pot over medium heat

3) add plain white rice to the pot and fry for a few minutes, until all the grains are coated in oil

4) add minced garlic to the pot and fry for a minute or two longer (you want the garlic to get lightly brown, but don't let it burn)

5) add the pureed greens to the pot and fry for a minute

6) add stock (about twice the volume of rice) and bring to the boil

7) either turn the heat down and simmer for a half hour or cover and place in a 150°-170° C oven for a half hour

Anyway, the other thing I wanted was a salad of some kind.

The Romans apparently invented salad, and it's really a European thing.

In Mexican dining, vegetables are included in the main dish, or there is a separate vegetable course. But because American dining is largely based on European dining, I feel compelled to have an accompanying salad.

My original plan was to use the sweet corn salad from Thomasina Miers' book. It's delicious. But then I discovered an even better idea from an unlikely source: Jamie Oliver.

One of the books my wife uses is Jamie's 30-Minute Meals. Though we never really get the food cooked and served within a half hour, the recipes are amazing. I know people have mixed views about Saint Jamie, but you have to admit he's got it in the flavour department. I'd take him over that twat Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall any day.

The salad is meant to have an Indian feel to it, and consists of shredded courgette (zucchini) and carrot, in a dressing of plain yogurt, fresh red chiles (yay!), and red wine vinegar.

As I was eating this bomb-ass salad, it ocurred to me that with minor alterations, this salad could be completely Mexican.

Courgette is native to Mexixo (where it is called calabacita). And though carrots originally come from the Middle East, they are a popular vegetable in Mexico. Check your jar of pickled jalapenos if you don't believe me.

In fact, in 2010 Mexico produced over 346,000 tonnes of carrots.

The alterations I made were swapping the yogurt for sour cream (okay, technically sour cream isn't Mexican either, but it is the closest thing I'm likely to get to crema espesa, unless I make my own, which I'm scared to do), and the red wine vinegar for lime juice.

Now, after the epic journey to make the sauce over the preceding four days, today's work was relatively minimal.

First, I took the mole sauce out of the fridge and put it in a pot on the hob over a medium heat, stirring occaisonally. 

In a separate pan I melted some butter. Mexicans cook with lard, but I don't, and my wife also expressed interest in frying the turkey breast in butter before adding it to the sauce.

So when the butter was melted and beginning to foam, I put in the turkey breast left over from Christmas and browned in on all sides. Then I put it into the mole and left it to simmer.

Next I did the rice as described above and shredded the carrot and courgette.

I had never eaten raw courgette before I tried this salad, but trust me, it's delicious.

I also whipped up the salad dressing, but kept it separate until it was time to serve. It's not very acidic, but I didn't want to risk the lime juice (and chile acid -- see my post on cebollas en escabeche) cooking the veggies and making the salad go soggy.

When the rice was done it was time to serve. The salad went on side plates, and I spooned the dressing on at the very last minute.

I created a restaurant-style column of rice by using an ordinary cookie-cutter. I was very pleased that the rice held its shape after I gingerly pulled the cookie-cutter away.

Using tongs, I painstakingly placed slices of turky breast on the rice, spooned over a bit more sauce, and then made a ring of sauce around the edge of the plates.

Because my efforts weren't as neat as I had hoped, here's an airbrushed version of the final result:

Yes I cooked this. I also edited it using Photoshop.
So how did it taste?

I've had mole a few times before.

There was the mediocre mole with chicken I had in a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh.

Also I have been given jars of mole paste on two separate occasions: once it was La Preferida, and once La Costeña. Both are respectable brands, the latter being an actual Mexican company while the former was founded in Chicago by Hispanic Americans.

Fortunately my homemade mole tasted more like the jarred versions than the bad restaurant one. Which is not to say I hadn't been worried.

There is so much preparation involved in this recipe, but once you get to the long simmering stage, there's not much more you can do to add or improve flavour, beyond a bit of seasoning.

I tasted the sauce several times as it simmered.

First it needed salt, because I'd used homemade stock instead of a salty stock cube.

Then I was concerned it didn't have enough rich "darkness", so I added 25 grammes more of the chocolate.

But the chocolate had sugar in it, so now it was too sweet. I added a bit more salt and a bit of the chile water.

It still didn't taste quite right, but I was now afraid to tweak it further.

Besides, the flavours apparently needed time to mingle, so I went upstairs for a shower. When I came back, I found the promised layer of fat that meant the mole was cooked.

I skimmed off the fat and tasted it again. Still not quite there, but moving in the right direction.

I cooled it and let it "mature" in the fridge overnight.

However, when I finally dug into the finished dish, I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted like mole. I had actually made mole!.

Nevertheless, if I ever make this again - and that's a pretty big if - there are a few thing I will do differently.

Firstly, I still think it was a bit too sweet, so I'll forget the brioche and substitute a stale slice of baguette.

Also, it was a bit too chocolatey in that commercial milk-chocolate way, so in the absence of solid Mexican cooking chocolate, I would use high coco-solid European cooking chocolate, for a bitter, rich base note.

Also, as a time-saver I might use more of the chile water in place of stock. It's much easier to make, and would probably make the flavour darker and spicier as well.

Overall the mole was a great sucess, though the big hit of the evening was actually the green rice.

My wife even had seconds, which she never does with rice (except for risotto, which should give you an idea of how tasty the rice actually was).

So well done, Thomasina. No wonder you won MasterChef.

This was quite an undertaking, and certainly the most ambitious thing I've attempted in the kitchen to date.

But there are actually seven types of mole in Mexican cuisine. And I intend to cook them all.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Mole poblano 3: the making of mole

[First published on 2 February 2012]

I have been dreading writing this post, just as I was dreading the actual cooking.

You see, after the recipes are read and the ingredients assembled, there is nothing left but to take that plunge and start cooking the most time-consuming and ambitious dish I have ever attempted.

In his book, Authentic Mexican, Rick Bayless writes that it takes about six hours to make mole if the broth (or stock) is on hand.

It takes a good two or three hours at least to make a good stock; but even if the stock is made, six hours of cooking is not feasible if you're planning on enjoying the meal that night.

Also, all the recipes for mole say it tastes better the second day (and even better the third, and so on), so they all recommend making it at least over two days and letting the flavours mingle.

This is how I made mole:

When we got our turkey from Craigies Farm before Christmas, I put the neck and giblets in the freezer. I also saved the carrot trimmings from the carrot and star anise soup. And of course I saved the leg bones and carcass after the turkey was carved up.

All of this went into the freezer, along with some choice cuts of breast for the finished dish.

On day one I took out my defrosted turkey bones, neck, and giblets, and put them in a large pot with the carrot trimmings, a couple bay leaves, Mexican oregano, epazote, and lots and lots of water. I brought it to the boil and then let it simmer for a few hours.

When the stock was ready (when it tasted very strongly of turkey), I let put cool, then strained the broth and put it in the fridge. The broth was now "on hand".

The next day, my wife and I prepped the chiles by cutting off the stems, tearing the chiles into flat pieces, and discarding the seeds and veins - apart from the tablespoon of ancho chile seeds called for in the sauce. We placed these in a ziploc bag.

The day after that, it was my turn to get up with the baby. I changed her nappy, took her downstairs, and got her some breakfast.

Then she watched me toast each kind of seed and spice in a dry pan and put them into the huge pestle and mortar or "molcajete" I got for Christmas.

"Molcajete" is Mexican Spanish and literally means "sauce pot", grinding being an essential technique in making Mexican sauces.

You have to toast the seeds and spices one kind at a time, because they all have different cooking times. If you try to do them all at once, you WILL burn some of them. And, as I mentioned in my last post, the actual grinding is very hard.

This was the part where my daughter stopped watching me and went off to play with her toys. I would have been happy to join her.

Eventually I did finish the grinding, though. Below is a photo of the fruits of my labour.

By this time my wife had come downstairs and took the bairn off to get dressed etc, which was just as well because it was chile time.

I heated up some oil in a frying pan and began frying the chile pieces briefly on each side into they changed colour. This took forever. While it is true that frying one or two chiles this way is no big deal, there is a lot of chile in this dish. I easily spent half an hour or more just frying these chiles.

Once they were finally fried, I put them all in a ceramic bowl, covered them with boiling water, weighted them down with a plate, and left them to soak.

They needed at least twenty minutes, so it was time to get on with the other frying. But first, I needed a roast tomato, a roasted onion, and three cloves of roasted garlic.

To achieve this, I took the wire rack out of the grill pan, lined the pan with foil, and set the tomato, onion, and garlic under the grill.

My intention was to keep an eye on them while frying the other ingredients, as the tomato needed 12 minutes, the garlic barely five, and the onion (probably) somewhere in between.

This was a stupid idea, and of course the time got away from me, so though the tomato turned out fine and the onion just needed the blackened outer layer removed, the garlic was a write-off.

Instead, I used three fresh cloves of garlic, finely minced (on my new garlic grinder I also got for Christmas - thanks Santa!).

I chopped up the onion (roughly, as it gets blitzed anyway), and mashed up the tomato in my molcajete. I then put all this in a bowl with 50 grammes of Mexican drinking chocolate (Diane Kennedy's suggestion).

While all this was happening I was also:

Heating oil in a pan (the same pan in which I fried the chiles, as directed by the recipes)

Frying the pumpkin seeds, almonds, pecan nuts, raisins, brioche crumbs, tortilla pieces, and possibly a few other things I'm forgetting, one kind at a time

Adding each to the molcajete, as soon as it was available

When I dropped the raisins into the hot oil they puffed up and turned golden within a few seconds. At that point I removed them with a slotted spoon and put them into the molcajete. Once they had cooled they turned normal again.

I mention that because it was awesome. 

By the way, you remove everything from the pan with a slotted spoon, in order to preserve as much oil as possible.

All this stuff ends up in the molcajete for some more difficult grinding, and from thence into the bowl with the tomato, onion, garlic, and chocolate.

In Spanish, the verb moler means "to grind" (it's related to the English word "mill" and the French moulin).

Grinding being so vital to Mexican sauces, it's only natural that the Spanish thought "mole" when they heard the Aztec word molli. But alas the two are, as we say in linguistics, faux amis.

By now the chiles had had more than enough time to soak.

I drained the water into a separate bowl (one recipe recommended keeping it) and blitzed the chiles with a hand blender, adding some of the chile-soaking water (which was now a lovely rust colour and very fragrant) to help the chiles pass through the blades. The goal is a thick paste, so only add the water a bit at a time.

Once I had the chile paste, it was time to blitz everything else.

So, again with the hand blender, I blitzed the mixture of fried and toasted nuts, seeds, spices, bread and tortilla crumbs, chocolate, roasted tomato and onion, and minced garlic.

For this paste, I used the turkey stock (again, a little at a time) to keep the mixture running smoothly through the blades. The chile paste was black, but this paste was a kind of mushy beige.

I had started this thing at about 7.30, after my daughter and I had breakfast (she woke up early that morning, and I didn't try to get her back to sleep because I had so much to do). It was now after noon.

For the next step I needed two frying pans (or actually one pan and one pot).

First, I had to fry the chile paste in the big pot for a few minutes until it thickened and got darker (though it was already pretty dark).

Then I turned the heat right down and, in the original frying pan, fried the other paste for a few minutes until it too had thickened and darkened.

Then I added that paste to the chile paste in the pot, turned the heat up to medium, and added most of the remaining stock, mixing the whole concoction into a huge pot of bubbling sauce.

I then left it to simmer for a couple hours, occasionally tasting it for salt, sweetness, chocolate, and general balance of flavours.

The mole is cooked when a layer of fat rises to the surface. You then skim off this fat and transfer the whole thing to a covered dish.

Once it cools, put it in the fridge overnight ( you can keep it there for a week, apparently, and it will only improve in flavour).

I found the hoped-for layer of fat when I came back downstairs after having lunch, a shower, and helping to put a child's bed together. It was nearly 4pm.

My last picture for this post is of the mole cooking in the pot. It looks like chocolate sauce, but it isn't. Next week we'll get into what I did with the sauce the next day.