Monday, 25 June 2012

Burritos al pastor

¿Burritos al pastor? ¿Que?

That's right. I put the al pastor filling in a flour tortilla. Now what would possess me to do that?

Well, I've been looking for something Mexican to cook after those disastrous polvorones, and the same friend for whom I baked them loaned me Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, which, by the way, you all should read.

Apart from the usual things you'd expect from great literature, this book made me want to do two things: learn Nahuatl and cook tacos al pastor (shepherd's tacos).

These tacos are apparently quite famous, but I'd never heard of them. And whenever I discover a Mexican dish I've never heard of, I have to cook it.

First, allow indulge in a bit of background and literary criticism (because old habits die hard). The tacos al pastor come into the story when the boy narrator, Tochtli, lists the foods he likes. It is interesting to note that all the Mexican dishes on his list (including enchiladas and tacos al pastor, but without the pineapple, which is "ridiculous" in a taco) are antojitos: starters or snacks. Proper Mexican main dishes like pozole and mole don't float his boat.

This could be simple childish fussiness, but it could also be Americanization of Mexican cuisine, for it is Americans who have taken a small number of Mexican antojitos and turned them into main meals, while ignoring the more challenging dishes. This is especially likely considering that, of the several world currencies he and his drug-dealing family have, their favourite are the US dollars.

Anyway, I looked up the recipe online and found a promising one on Rick Bayless' website. However, I had made tacos fairly recently, and while I enjoy making and eating them, it is quite a faff. Also, being antojitos, I don't anticipate they will feature prominently on Esteban's menu.

Also, I had remarked to my wife that, whereas for like 9 years whenever I made Mexican food I made classic American-style "combination plate" beef and bean burritos, since embarking on my journey through real Mexican food I haven't made one burrito.

But I still like burritos, even if they were possibly invented in San Francisco. And like tacos, they can be filled with anything. So I thought, why not make burritos al pastor?

This was an exciting opportunity for me, because it was my first chance to make Yucatecan achiote paste (recado rojo).

So what is achiote? It's a tree/shrub that grows in Mexico. It's called achiotl in Nahuatl (bizarrely, since the Yucatán is a Mayan region and Nahuatl is the Aztec language). You might know it by its Brazilian name, annatto.

The seeds of this tree are these tiny super-hard red pyramid-looking things, which are ground up with other spices and used to season meat throughout the Yucatán. Since I first read about it I've been dying to make it.

Where do you get achiote in Edinburgh? Lupe Pinto's of course. While I was there I also got some homemade flour tortillas, a tin of chipotles en adobo, a tin of tomatillos, three kinds of dried chile, some deadly hot naga chile sauce, and some pumpkin pie mix before the fucking Canadians kipe it all.

(By the way, though more and more supermarkets are stocking dried chipotles, Lupe Pinto's is still the only place in Edinburgh to get them en adobo; ditto tomatillos.)

Of course I cheated a bit. Lupe Pinto's sells both whole achiote seeds and ground achiote - for the exact same price. Having read about how hard the seeds are (Rick Bayless says even a spice grinder will have trouble with them), I opted for the pre-ground. I love my molcajete, but I'm only so strong.

Anyway, I made up the paste on Tuesday. I followed the Rick Bayless recipe exactly, so I won't repeat it here, but it's basically achiote, some cumin, some coriander seed, some cinnamon, rather a lot of garlic for a Mexican recipe, and some cider vinegar. Oh yeah, black peppercorns and a bit of wheat flour.

Interestingly, though this paste would seem über-traditional, it has clearly been augmented with Asian spices (and European wheat flour), introduced by the conquistadores. Mexico's complex relationship with its former oppressor strikes again.

This paste will keep for months well-sealed in your fridge.

On Friday, I made the full-blown al pastor marinade for the diced pork shoulder. Again, this is a Rick Bayless recipe, so I won't repeat it verbatim, but basically you combine the recado rojo with (for the amount of meat I was using) two chipotles and three tablespoons of the adobo sauce. Add some olive oil (another contemporary innovation I'm sure, as olives are traditionally scarce in Mexico), and blend.

I used pork shoulder that was already diced, and I marinaded the meat overnight.

Pay attention to the cut of meat you use, by the way. Pork shoulder has enough fat in it to be suitable for slow cooking. Strictly speaking, Rick Bayless' recipe called for you to marinade the un-diced shoulder overnight. Then you grill the cuts on a barbecue. Then you dice or shred the meat. This would make these tacos al carbón (tacos with a grilled or roasted meat filling). However, I had a side dish to prepare, and I needed the meat to just go away and cook slowly for a while.

So I browned the meat cubes on all sides, then added all the marinade (most recipes recommend keeping some back for other dishes) along with the pineapple chunks, covered the pot and put it in a fan-assisted oven on 160° C for an hour. This makes the tacos (or burritos in my case) de cazuela (tacos/burritos with a stewed or casserole filling).

Now, two Mexican things I'm particularly obsessed with are the Yucatecan pickled onions (cebollas en escabeche) and Thomasina Miers' warm sweetcorn salad. So I made batch of the cebollas to go top of the burritos and designed my own variation on the salad.

First, I made a salsa verde. However, I did not add any chile because I'm taking a lesson from Indian cooking and trying to include something non-spicy to balance out the meal. This salad was meant to be the "cooling" counterpart to the chipotles in the burrito filling. But ordinarily you'd want a couple jalapeños in the salsa verde.

Salsa verde

1 tin of tomatillos
1 bunch of cilantro/coriander
1/2 a white onion
A couple cloves of garlic (optional)

(Here is where I would list the chiles, which I didn't use this time. Just remember use pickled jalapeños or else roast them first, unless you intend to fry the sauce before eating)

Put all this in a blender, add some water to keep it loose, and blend to a fairly thick consistency (I made mine smooth and velvety, because of what I planned to do with it).

I may have accidentally ripped the above recipe off, by the way, but salsa verde, like the basic tomato salsa, is simplicity itself, so it's hard to write a recipe for it that differs significantly from all the other ones.

For the bulk of the salad I cut the kernels of one cob of sweetcorn (it is vital that you use raw corn on the cob for this or the corn will probably turn to mush. Tinned sweetcorn will have been heat-treated and thus cooked). Then I heated some butter and olive oil over a medium heat and added the corn, stirring constantly for about five minutes. Then I turned the heat way down and stirred occasionally for a further ten minutes.

Meanwhile I shredded one raw carrot, one raw courgette (zucchini), and about five raw radishes.

Mexicans love radishes, by the way. In Oaxaca they even have a holiday, la noche de los rábanos (night of the radishes), when people get together and carve radishes into various shapes. If I wanted to be truly authentic with this dish, I'd have kept one radish back and carved it into a rose or something. But I don't know how.

Anyway, when the corn had gone all sweet and carmelized (but not burnt), I took the pan off the heat, tipped in all the salsa verde and gave it a stir. Then I added all the shredded veg, gave it another stir, and covered the pan.

By now my stewed pork al pastor was ready. I scooped a bit of the filling into each flour tortilla, wrapped them carefully, and toasted them on a dry pan.

Then I put a long rectangle of the salad across each plate, lay the burritos perpendicular on top, and finished with the cebollas en escabeche. Behold: Burritos al Pastor con Ensalada de Verduras en Salsa Verde (photo below).

How did it taste? The veg, salsa verde, and cebollas are old friends of mine and were delicious as expected. Honestly, you can't go wrong with those things.

But the real star was the burrito filling. When I first opened the achiote, I was amazed that such a red powder could have such a "green", almost minty scent. However, after maturing a few says, the finished recado had a darker, spicier smell (and not spicy in the sense of "hot"; remember there's no chile in the recado).

Combined with the pineapple and chipotles this marinade became utterly addictive. So much so that I saved some of the sauce and cooked my eggs in it the next day.

Intriguingly, the sauce had a vaguely Indian flavour, which was either a coincidence or the result of the combination of cumin, cinnamon, and coriander seed (a classic trio in Indian cuisine). Whatever the explanation, it occurred to me this would make an awesome flavouring for my birriani.

The pork was well-cooked. Because I was unsure how it would turn out I served it with steak knives. But while it didn't quite fall apart under fork pressure it put up absolutely no resistance in your mouth.

In terms of spice, I could (as usual), probably have had it hotter, but it was pretty much at my wife's limit of chile tolerance (though thankfully not over it), and she was glad of the cooling salad.

I made this with two persons in mind, but we each had seconds of both meat and veg so this could easily stretch to three or even four servings.

Two final notes: achiote is also used to dye clothing, so wash everything it touches as soon as possible unless you want it to turn red; and no offence meant to Canadians. It's not their fault they celebrate Thanksgiving on Columbus Day.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

That's why they call them polvorones

The photo of homemade Mexican cookies at the end of this post is an illusion, a dangerous flight into the world of a biscuit that does not exist. It's like one of those hypothetical lurkers at the back of the Periodic Table of Elements that only ever existed for a few seconds in a laboratory.

Our story begins with the end of my holiday in Menorca, when my wife and I were feeling too lazy to cook anything more complex than bolognese sauce. I squeezed out a blog post by rhapsodising about Spanish tortilla, but when the end of yet another week was in sight and I still had yet to crack open a cookbook, I began to worry.

Fortunately (it seemed at the time), inspiration came in the form of a flat-warming party. Instead of bringing store-bought biscuits or cake, I thought, why not make something homemade and Mexican?

I know very little about Mexican sweets. In fact, most Americans' experience of Mexican sweet dishes is probably limited to the flan and deep-fried ice cream. (By the way, why is ice cream the only thing Scottish people won't stick in a deep fryer?)

What you eat as a sweet tends to be culturally prescribed, much more so than savoury dishes. Most people I've met are wiling to try most other cuisines, at least for lunch or dinner. But candy, ice cream, cake, and desserts from other countries tend to inspire fear and suspicion. If you've ever been to a candy store in New York's Chinatown, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Even very similar cultures can reach an impasse where sweeties are concerned. In the UK, purple Skittles are black currant flavoured; in the US they're grape flavoured. And while many Americans have developed a taste for chocolate and orange, it remains a characteristically British combination (and one I personally can't stand). Meanwhile all Brits hate rootbeer (which they say tastes of medicine), but they themselves are a bit more fond of aniseed-flavoured sweets than we are.

So it should be no surprise that, even though Mexican food has been successfully exported, Mexican candy and cookies, generally, have not.

I stupidly resolved to remedy this, even though baking is really not my forte.

I looked in Rick Bayless's Authentic Mexican. Bayless certainly thinks real Mexican sweeties are worth exploring, but he mostly gives dessert recipes, and certainly no cookies.

Ditto Thomasina Miers, though she at least includes chocolate con churros. (I've only had this in Spain, but who cares? It rocks!)

Good old Diana Kennedy, however, didn't let me down. She provided not one but two cookie recipes: roscas (ring-shaped aniseed cookies) and polvorones (Mexican shortbread cookies).

I opted for the polvorones, because they seemed easier, and because I'm am idiot.

I should have known better: I know enough Spanish to know that the name polvorones comes from polvo, "powder". But despite this and Diana Kennedy's myriad warnings that the cookies are very crumbly, I thought I could pull this off.

Polvorones are made primarily of wheat flour and ground roasted almonds, which means they were introduced by the conquistadores. Indeed, Spain still has a similar sweet biscuit called a polvorón (the singular of polvorones). But as with all such things, Mexico has put its own stamp on their version.

I've written before about the importance of dry-roasting things on a hot, flat metal cooking surface called a comal ("asar-ing" things). That these Mexican cookies would require almendras asadas (roasted almonds) is no surprise; that the asar technique applies to the flour as well, however, is.

Yes, the first step in making this dough is to dry-roast the flour on a comal. Luckily, Diana Kennedy's recipe lets you do it in the oven.

Kennedy's introduction to the recipe tells us polvorones are traditionally eaten at weddings and at Christmas. She also says they can be flavoured with cinnamon or orange. I said "Fuck that"and flavoured mine with cinnamon and orange, using half a cinnamon stick, roasted (asado) and ground, and the zest of one orange.

Once again, baking is not my forte. In fact, it's my culinary Achilles Heel. If it weren't, I might have seen that I was heading for a disaster and taken steps to avoid it.

Mexico, you see, may have got wheat from Spain, but excluding the North, there isn't much of a cattle industry, and I believe even in the North the cattle are for beef, rather than dairy. Which means butter is not a traditional Mexican ingredient.

So the original Mexican polvorones were made with lard. Even Diana Kennedy recommends ditching this, however, and using a combination of butter and shortening. I opted to use all butter.

And here is where things started to go wrong: the fat. Scotland has its own traditional shortbread cookies, and if I were much of a baker I'd probably have made them several times by now. And I'd have noticed there its usually a ratio of 1 part fat to 1.5 parts flour (I have researched this following my fiasco).

The Diana Kennedy recipe for polvorones called for less than half a part fat (taking both kinds into account) to 1 part flour (counting the ground almonds as part of the flour).

Basically, the damn things just wouldn't stick together, and sticking together is what good biscuits do.

Even though I did manage to roll the "dough" out, cut them into shape, and (very gingerly) lift them into a greased baking tray, I might as well not have bothered. After baking them for 15 minutes at 180° C and letting them cool completely, they still fell apart the moment I tried to pick them up. Luckily I got a photo before I tried to move them.

I have discussed my failure with some more experienced bakers, and they all agree that the fat content was too low. Still, it seemed odd that a Diana Kennedy recipe could go so wrong. Then my mother-in-law pointed out that fresh almonds are quite oily, and that could have been the source of more "sticking power" in the original recipe.

This makes sense: one the reasons Mexican recipes insist you grind nuts and seeds in a molcajete instead of chopping them in a food processor is that grinding releases the natural oils, whereas chopping does not.

This is great for Mexico, where you can go down to the local mercado and but fresh almonds from a stall. My almonds came from Tesco, and though they weren't "off", who knows how long they'd been sitting on that shelf in their sealed plastic package?

All was not lost, however. The powdery crumbs were delicious and made and excellent crumble topping (make do and mend in these times of austerity).

Also, I will have another go at polvorones, probably at Christmas, using more fat. Because baking will never cease to be my weak point if I don't keep trying.