Monday, 30 April 2012

Salsa, and further adventures with tortillas

I never read recipes for salsa, because I learned how to make it from my mom, like a real Mexican would.

And my mother's salsa is delicious, so why would I use anyone else's recipe? That is the prologue to my adventure with what I call Shut the Front Door Chipotle Sauce.

But first some exposition.

Salsa means "sauce" in Spanish. In English, the word denotes the chunky tomato sauce that is ubiquitous in Mexican cooking (and a "spicy" Latin dance, but that's of no concern to us).

Just take a moment to reflect on how incredible it is that such a general word in Spanish has come to mean such a specific thing in another language. It is an indication of how important the basic tomato sauce is to Mexican food, but also of how thoroughly Mexico has occupied its niche in the international culinary world.

Of course, salsa also means sauce in Italian, and Italy has definitely embraced the tomato (though Mexico, as I love to point out, was born with tomatoes).

But as Rick Bayless writes, there is a marked difference between the taste of a Mexican tomato sauce and an Italian one. I always thought it was down to the chiles. It ain't. It's the asar.

Bayless writes that there are three techniques that make Mexican food distinctive. One of them is braising, charring, blackening, or otherwise cooking things by placing them on a very hot flat metal thing called a "comal". This is how you make carne asada. It's also how you make tortillas. And if a Mexican recipe calls for roasted tomatoes, they mean "tomates asados".

Of course, I don't have a comal. Outside of Mexico, we use a large dry frying pan on a high heat.

Discovering the asar technique was quite exciting for me, because even my own mother often bulks up her salsa with some tinned chopped tomatoes. Purist that I am, I couldn't help wondering what you did before there was such a thing as tinned tomatoes.

But why was I experimenting with other salsa recipes in the first place?

One of my favourite cookbooks is Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food Made Simple, and as I've written before, her approach to tacos is to prepare some fresh, seasonal ingredients with some Mexican herbs and spices (or their equivalents), wrap it in a homemade corn tortilla, and enjoy. This, after all, is what the Mexicans do.

So when my wife said we needed to use up some asparagus, I decided to dice them with some mushrooms and carmelized corn, sauté them in butter with some tarragon (Mexicans love aniseed) and make Spring tacos.

But what kind of sauce to go on top? Well, Thomasina recommends her sweet chipotle paste, and you know how much I love chipotles.

I had no intention of copying her recipe exactly, but I did take some inspiration from it. However, I wanted a sauce, rather than a paste, so mine was much looser. She calls for chipotles en adobo, but I used dried chipotles. She calls for fish sauce, which I didn't use. She doesn't call for Mexican oregano, but I used it, hoping for a kind of barbecue sauce effect when combined with the smoky chipotles. Also, I put in some white onion, just for the helluvit.

I had high hopes that this sauce would be kick-ass, and I was already planning to call it Shut The Front Door Chipotle Sauce. I did not think of it as a salsa, because it was not going to be chunky (I was even planning to sieve it, but when I tasted it, I rather liked the thicker,puree texture).

Now I know I haven't always been very structured in how I communicate recipes. Partly it's because I use a lot of other people's recipes (and they're copyrighted), and partly it's because I view this blog as more a chronicle of my journey with Mexican food, rather than suggestions of what my readers should cook. However I will put down my recipe for Shut The Front Door Sauce before continuing with my story.

6 medium tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
1 medium white onion, diced
15 g dried chipotles
1 tbsp brown sugar (UK) / raw sugar (US)
1 tsp Mexican oregano

Stem and de-seed the chipotles, reserving the seeds. Reconstitute the chipotles as you would any dried chiles.

Roast the tomatoes and garlic: put a large, dry frying pan on high heat. Put the tomatoes and garlic cloves (still in their papery skins) on the pan. When one side begins to blacken, turn it over (the garlic will blacken first, so keep both eyes on it). Once the tomatoes and garlic have black spots on all sides, remove from the pan and let them cool.

In the same dry pan, roast the seeds for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until they start to change colour. Then grind them immediately with a pestle and mortar.

When the garlic and tomatoes have cooled, remove the skins and core the tomatoes.

Remove the chiles from the boiled water (reserving the water for the sauce).

Put the chiles, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and ground seeds into a blender and blitz, adding some chile water as necessary to keep the mixture running through the blades. The consistency should be loose, with a soft texture, but no visible chunks or lumps.

Taste for seasoning and then add the sugar and oregano, mixing thoroughly. You can add more seasoning if you wish.

Now, right away I thought the sauce tasted good, but was it Shut The Front Door? Not until the next day. This is one of those things where the flavours need to mingle and marry overnight, so make it a day in advance.

Also, the six tomatoes make loads of salsa, without having to resort to any tinned toms, so that's one mystery solved.

Back to my story:

Although I was always happy with mi madre's salsa, I did notice that at some of the better Mexican restaurants the salsa they gave us had a certain je ne sais quois that our family recipe didn't have. However, I never thought to seek it out.

But I found it, practically by accident, while making this sauce! The secret to Mexican salsa is roasted tomatoes and oregano, of all things. (That's Mexican oregano, by the way.)

I love this sauce so much that I am pretty much scrapping my family recipe. From now on, I will use this as the base of my chunky salsa, adding some diced fresh tomato, chopped jalapeño, and fresh herbs to compete it.

I had wanted to take a photo of my sauce in a nice dish, but ended up eating most of it instead. Sorry about that.

The other news is that my tortilla-making skills are coming along nicely. This time I used a combination of traditional hand-patting with rolling in the ziploc bag. The edges were still a bit rustic, but definitely improving.

And finally the two photos: the first is leftover salsa on a sandwich the next day (delicious); the second is my latest batch of homemade tortillas.

Now I'm taking a holiday from the kitchen, but before I go, happy Cinco de Mayo! By the way, this is not Mexican Independence Day. That would be September 16th. Cinco de Mayo is the Battle of Puebla.

Monday, 9 April 2012


I swear I don't do this on purpose, but often when I've cooked something spicy, like Mexican or Indian food, I taste it and say "Good: that's got a nice tingle, but it's not too spicy." Then I look over at my wife, whose eyes are wide open, like a deer in headlights, and she says "Actually it's quite spicy."
This happens nearly every time I cook. FAIL!
I guess I just like my food muy picante. I can't help it. I find chiles are one of those things that you need more and more of. But I'd rather have that with chiles than heroin.
Anyway, in a previous post I mentioned my love of the biryani, and that the first time I had it (at Original Khushi's here in Edinburgh), it came the über-traditional way in an earthenware pot, sealed with unleavened dough that had turned into a chapati.
So when I came across a dish called a "birria" in Rick Bayless's book Authentic Mexican, a dish cooked in an earthenware pot and sealed with masa (corn tortilla dough), I immediately thought "Maybe this is like a Mexican equivalent to the biryani!"
(You'll recall from my post on Indian food that I'm a bit obsessed with the similarities between these two cuisines.)
Unfortunately a close reading of the birria recipe revealed this not to be the case. But it was too late: the idea was already in my head. I was about to unleash upon the world the Mexican-Indian fusion dish I call the birriani.
(See what I did there? Combining the two names into one? That's what linguists call a portmanteau.)
First, let's talk about the differences between the biryani as usually found in Britain and the birria as described in Rick Bayless's book. (I also consulted a birria recipe from Diana Kennedy, but chose to base my creation more on Rick's version, apart from using multiple kinds of chile).

Obviously the seasonings are very different, but apart from that:

In the UK, biryanis usually have diced meat. The birria, by contrast, is a slow-cooked full cut of meat, such as a shoulder (or even the whole animal, if you're feeding your extended familia).
No rice in the birria. This is the main difference. It ain't a biryani without the rice. It's the rice that makes it. In fact, in Madhur Jaffrey's book, the biryani is in the rice section at the back (after the bread section). In Bayless's book, the birria is in the meat section.

The birria is slow-cooked in a huge pot, on a rack, below which is some water. Thus the meat not only roasts, but steams as well, remaining moist throughout. More importantly, the juices drip down and and mix with the water to form the base of the sauce.

The biryani, by contrast, doesn't use water this way, and the finished dish remains "dry". In the UK, it therefore tends to be accompanied by a vegetable curry.

My favourite difference: the HEAT! The birria begins with a chile paste, and if you recall the intro to this post, you can probably guess the finished dish is quite spicy. The Biryani, though, contains no chile. It it is a mild dish. The heat comes solely from the side curry (which I always ask to be as hot as possible, though the chefs never believe me).

As I said, in planning this combination dish, I stayed closer to Rick Bayless's birria than Diana Kennedy's. However, there is one feature of Kennedy's version I borrowed: using more than one kind of chile.
Rick Bayless only calls for dried guajillos. Kennedy calls for guajillos, anchos, and even some cascabels.

But where to get these chiles? Lupe Pinto's, obviously. Except I didn't have time to drive all the way from Corstorphine to Tollcross, owing to being away for the Easter weekend, combined with potty-training my two-year-old (which pretty much stops you leaving the house).

But believe it or not, Tesco carries dried chiles! I started noticing it a few years ago. They often have anchos, and I have also seen cascabels. More recently they have started carrying something that really impressed me: "dried" chipotles!

In case you don't know, a chipotle is a smoked jalapeño. The word itself means "smoked chile" (in Nauhatl, I believe). Although I have developed a strong affection for the habanero, the chipotle remains my all-time favourite chile (it's the smoky flavour). But even in the US I had only every seen them tinned and soaked in a chile sauce (en adobo). So getting them in their dry form here in the UK was very exciting.
Tesco were out of anchos that day; luckily I had some left over from when I made mole poblano. The rest of the chile paste was all chipotle. This had become a smoky dish. (A significant change, as neither of the birria recipes call for chipotles).
The next decision to make was what rice recipe to use. The biryani uses plain basmati rice, seasoned with saffron milk. But I chose to use one of the Mexican "coloured" rice dishes. Originally I wanted the red rice, to go with the tomato sauce of the birria, but we happened to have a helluva lotta spinach that needed used, so I went for green rice or arroz verde (my wife's favourite, and mine as well, truth be told) instead.
And finally, the cooking method. I had flirted with the idea of keeping the rack and the water, and putting the rice in the water so both elements cook st the same time. But the lamb has a different cooking time than the rice, so it wouldn't have worked.
I still had to decide whether to marinate the meat. The birria recipe calls for the lamb to be marinated in the chile paste overnight, if possible. The biryani recipe I had called for no marinating at all.
I eventually decided to follow the biryani cooking method and the birria ingredients list (in both cases, more or less), and deemed marinating to be part of the cooking method (it tenderizes the meat). So I ditched it. No marinating.
Now, to the cooking.
(I discussed arroz verde in a previous post, so I won't repeat the recipe here.)
First, I made the chile paste: one or two ancho chiles and about 28 grams of chipotle.
Tear them into flat pieces and toast them on both sides in a dry pan until the skin blisters, then put them into a bowl, cover with boiling water, weigh them down with a plate, and let them soak for about 20 minutes. This is the standard way to reconstitute dried chiles, by the way.
Because I had no cascabels, I was worried the sauce wouldn't be spicy enough. So I saved the seeds from the chipotles, toasted them, and ground them with a bit of cumin and black peppercorns.
In the meantime I roasted three tomatoes and a clove of garlic, as described in my post on mole poblano. After I skinned the tomatoes, I put them into a molcajete with a teaspoon of Mexican oregano and ground that into a rough sauce.
When the chiles were done, I removed them from the water and blitzed them with the ground seeds, cumin, and peppercorns, along with a pinch of sugar and as much of the chile-water as needed to keep the paste running through the blades (using the chile-water instead of plain water is a trick I learned from making the mole).
Then I heated some vegetable oil in a pan to medium-high and browned the diced lamb on all sides. I removed it tho a plate, lowered the heat to medium, and fried the chile paste until it thickened and darkened a bit.
Then I returned the lamb to the pan, turned the heat down to low and covered the pan, adding more chile-water as needed to keep the mixture wet.
The lamb simmers for 30 minutes at this point, so this is when I made the rice.
After 30 minutes, I added the tomato sauce to the lamb and let the whole thing simmer another 30 minutes. By this time the rice was done.
Now, bringing it all together: I put a layer of green rice in the bottom of a casserole dish, then added all the lamb and sauce (it was still quite wet at this point, due to the slow-and-low cooking). Then I covered it with the rest of the rice.
I had considered sealing the pot with masa, but opted instead for kitchen foil as per the Madhur Jaffrey recipe. So I covered the casserole dish with foil and put the lid on. Then into an oven at 170° C for an hour.
It's a rustic dish ("birria" means something like "mess" in Spanish) but I tried to put it in as neat a pile as possible on the plate. I garnished it with cilantro (coriander), chopped white onion, and half a lime, which added a nice citrus lift.
The verdict? I can't say it's an improvement on the biryani, but that's largely because I love a good biryani. However, there's no getting away from the fact that my birriani was A) delicious and B) spicy as hell.
The dish still has a way to go before it becomes "refined". Also, I would like to try it with the red rice, and maybe a bit of diary, like crema espesa (a traditional biryani includes yoghurt).
The other thing this dish proves is the versatility of the biryani cooking technique. It's a great way to create a combination meat-and-rice dish.