Wednesday, 25 July 2012

¡Taco, Taco, Taco, que me Taco!

So, this post is partially in celebration of getting over a thousand pageviews and partially to introduce some planned changes to this blog (whenever I get around to making them).

I have five blogs; one is seasonal, and I don't expect it to get many hits when it's not Christmas; one is about my two-year-old, and it's mainly for my relatives; one is for random writings that I feel I may as well put out there, but I don't mind if nobody reads.

The other two are what I consider my "primary" blogs: this one and James Aristophanes Keaton.

If you're a regular reader here (and if you've read my first post), you'll know I'm writing a novel about a Mexican chef, which is why I need to know so much about Mexican food. I have occasionally posted about the writing process when I haven't cooked anything interesting in a while.

Based on how I tag this blog and especially on the search terms that lead people here, I'd say the majority of the audience for La Cocina y Yo are foodies rather than lit majors. My most-viewed posts are food posts (with my mole posts topping the list).

Quite quickly after starting this blog the pageviews exceeded my expectations (and I do disable my own pageviews). Even so, 1,000 is quite a milestone. In addition, my posts are fairly regularly shared on twitter and have earned me followers like @spicyfood and @thecurryguy (and, finally, A Mexican in Scotland). When compared to my other blog, which only has a couple hundred pageviews (though it hasn't been up for as long), you could say La Cocina y Yo is the more successful of the two.

On the other hand, James Aristophanes Keaton has 21 followers, to this blog's five. That means that, though JAK doesn't get as much attention, I'm more assured of repeat readers. JAK gets "likes" as well (a Wordpress feature). For all I know, the La Cocina audience is mainly one-time viewers who end up here by accident and never return. That's the thing about blogging: without "likes", comments, and named followers, you never really know who's reading or if they enjoy it.

I would like to have more confirmed repeat readers, and I would especially like all of you, if you're out there, to read my novel if and when it ever gets published. So I'm going to make a few design changes, a combination of suggestions from friends and advice from other blogs I follow, to encourage a more "visible" participation. I'm not trying to guilt-trip you into following me or commenting, by the way. If the changes work, visible traffic should increase "organically".

First, the ads. I'm sure you noticed my flirtation with having adverts on this blog. I optimistically thought Google would be cool enough to find Mexican-themed ads. I would even have settled for links to the McMaya resorts on the Yucatán peninsula. But no. Just unlimited data packages and tablet computers and other shit you can't eat.

One thing I know from adsense is that not one viewer has ever clicked on one of those ads. Know why? Because people looking for a blog about mole poblano don't give a rat's ass about  SIM cards!

So I ditched the ads. Instead I want to choose the Mexican-food suppliers, blogs, and other resources I want to give a shout out to. Therefore, hopefully very soon, I will be creating some new pages to that purpose. I say pages because, believe it or not, I like to keep as much as possible above the fold (meaning you don't have to scroll down to read it).

I plan to have a page for other Mexican food blogs, a page for non-Mexican food blogs my implied readers may find interesting (several pages if there are enough to form categories).

I also want a page (or pages) of links to ingredients-suppliers around the world so you can really cook this stuff yourselves. I will try to vet all of these, though as more than half my readers are in the US this may be tricky.

And lastly I want a page of cookbooks, with reviews based on my actual experience of using them. I may also review restaurants some day, but that would have to be very local to Edinburgh. Except when I go on vacation.

Basically I want this blog to be, in part, so portal to the wider world of Mexican food enthusiasts. (Some of this material will be replacing the current sidebar menus, of course.)

However, the blog must also remain about me and my project. Therefore I will be including an About the Author page with more information than just the sidebar, and contact details, so you can tell me what a puto gringo ignorante I am if you want. Positive feedback will also be welcome.

Naturally, there will also be a page about the project itself, with as many details as I can copyright.

Lastly, I would like to establish a newsletter, subscribable via email. I will probably be confining news about the writing process to the newsletter, and I aim to do one or two a month.

So, lots of plans. We'll just have to wait and see if I can bring this all to fruition.

In the meantime, what have I cooked?

As promised, I turned the rest of my chiles de árbol into a salsa picante. And I'm glad I did, for three reasons:

1) it's hot as hell!

2) it's delicious as fuck!

3) my wife loves it (I didn't expect her too)

This is one of those typical sauces that's in nearly every cookbook (and apparently at every taco stand in Mexico). I ended up using the Rick Bayless version, with a few modifications, because he included pumpkin seeds and I LOVE pumpkin seeds.

I don't usually do this when I've more or less followed someone else's book, but I will paraphrase the recipe, because I really want everyone to taste this.

40 g chiles de árbol (dried)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
4 allspice berries
2 cloves
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
3/4 cup cider vinegar

Para Hacer
The first thing you have to do is stem and seed all those chiles (there will be, like, 50 of them). This takes forever. You have to cut the stems off and then roll the beautiful little red chiles between your fingers until the seeds fall out. Save these seeds to toast and grind later (good rule of thumb: never throw chile seeds out. You can almost always use them in what you're cooking).

Next reconstitute the chiles as described in my last post. (I'm happy to say I didn't burn any this time.) Rick Bayless doesn't call for the chiles to be reconstituted, but most other recipes do, and I had plans for the soaking water.

Now you must roast/toast/asar the seeds in the usual way: in a hot flat fry pan, stirring constantly so they don't burn. When they start to darken in colour they're done.

Rick Bayless had a variation for toasting the pumpkin seeds though. He recommended leaving the pumpkin seeds sitting in the pan until the first one pops, then stirring constantly until they all pop. I tried this and it worked brilliantly, so I'll be doing it again.

Once the seeds are done, they go into a molcajete with the garlic and spices for a good grinding.

By now the chiles should be ready. Remove them from the water with tongs and put them in a blender with the ground seeds and spices and the vinegar and blitz it to a smooth texture.

Now strain it through a medium-mesh sieve. This also takes forever because you have to push as much liquid as possible out of the pulpy residue. You basically want to end up with a bowl full of orange liquid and a mass of dry pulp. Discard the pulp. Remember it is compostable (let's be green).

Now add 3/4 cup of water to the liquid. I used the chile-soaking water, as I always do ever since I learned it from making mole poblano. Let the sauce "mature" for 24 hours in the fridge before serving.

I love this sauce so much I've been putting it on everything (within reason). I've even taken to drinking it straight with a dessert spoon.

My first use for it, though, was to go on top of the sweetcorn and courgette tacos I made last Saturday. I served the sauce on the side and warned my wife it would be quite hot. However, she lapped it up with almost as much gusto as I did, which demonstrates how delicious this sauce really is, as well as how much my wife's chile-tolerance has grown. (Remember, chiles de árbol are the second-hottest chile in Mexico.)

Also of note: I discovered that I have been making my tortilla-dough a bit too dry. I added a little extra water this time and got a much rounder shape. Every time I make tortillas, I learn something new!

And lastly, my two-year-old loved the tacos (she's still too young for the sauce though), so she's definitely her father's daughter.

Now, I was going to take pictures of all this, but I pure couldnae be bothered, so instead I have selected a little music video for you. It's called "Paco". If anyone leaves a comment I'll tell them a hilarious anecdote about this song.

It's a Spanish, rather than a Mexican song (Mexicans generally have better taste than this), but it's hilarious and I think of it every time I make tacos. I've also taught my daughter to sing it.

It's apparently about seven niños, at least one of whom is called Paco, on the camino de Sevilla. In Spanish, "que me" is an intensifier, so the chorus translates as "Paco, Paco, ¡PACO!" I don't know why there's such so fuss about Paco; my wife suggested that perhaps todos los niños se llaman Paco. ¿Por qué no? ¡Disfruta!

Sopa de Lima

I've decided to name my protagonist Esteban, after my brother, who learned to cook before I did.
Although he is a Mexican, Esteban (my fictional character) was born in the US, while his parents were living there illegally, so he is a de facto American citizen (unless Bush changed that rule). However, he was deported with his parents soon after he was born, and he grew up in Tijuana.
But that's not where his parents come from. They are from Oaxaca, and that is the culinary heritage he usually looks to when creating his food.

The other cuisine he becomes enamoured of is Yucatecan. And that's where sopa de lima comes in.

Almost all Americans from the southwest will be familiar with tortilla soup (and if you're not, you need to try it). Well, sopa de lima (lime soup) is the Yucatecan variation. A the name implies, it is flavoured with fresh lime juice, which adds such a compelling lift that I've completely gone off making the non-lime kind.

Sopa de lima was the first recipe I cooked from <i>Two Cooks and a Suitcase</i> (in effect launching me on my culinary adventure), and it was an instant hit.

As with all traditional soups, there are as many versions of the recipe a there are grannies and old aunties who make it. So when I got four new Mexican cookbooks for my birthday this year, I found lime soup recipes in three of them (and standard tortilla soup recipes in all four).
I recently tried one of the new recipes, but unfortunately it just inspired me to return to the Two Cooks one.

The recipe is really very simple, which for me is part of the attraction. To make a batch for two people (until Abby starts eating dinner with us we'll be cooking for two most nights) you need:

2 chicken breasts
1 roasted tomato, roughly chopped
1 roasted red pepper, roughly chopped
1 white onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, roasted and roughly chopped
1 chile pepper, roasted or pickled (NOT raw), seeded and diced
1 tablespoon of Mexican oregano
The juice of one lime

The chile you use is a matter of some controversy. The habanero is the ubiquitous chile of the Yucatán. It is also the hottest chile known to humankind, and it has a very distinct flavour. The only recipe I know that calls for it in the soup proper is Thomasina Miers' in <i>Mexican Food Made Simple</i>. Which is not to say I doubt you'll ever get this soup with habanero in the Yucatán; I'm just saying be sure you know what you're getting into.

The other recipes I have call for a green chile, which I usually read as "jalapeño", though it could be any green chile.

You'll also need somecorn tortillas, cut into strips and fried.

Though roasting tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and chiles is not hard, one of the great things about this soup, is that there's a cheat version. Use pre-roasted, stuff out of a jar and some diced, pickled jalapeños (even Tesco has these now). And for the tortilla strips, get a bag of tortilla chips and crush them.

Basically, bung everything except the tortillas in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked and tender.

Remove the chicken breasts to a plate, let them cool briefly, then shred them. I make a cut against the grain and rapidly shred the meat with a fork, like waiters do with crispy duck in Chinese restaurants.

Now strain the soup. The first time I did this I felt very weird about throwing away all the bits, but all the flavour by now will have gone into the broth, so there's no need to keep the chopped bits, and  they would be very off-putting floating around in the soup.

Place some shredded chicken into each bowl, add some broth, and top with the crispy, fried tortilla strips, and maybe some chopped coriander and a lime wedge.

The variation I tried recently came from Diane Kennedy's <i>Essential Cuisines of Mexico</i>.
Kennedy is meant to be the Julia Childs of Mexican cooking, so I had high hopes for this recipe. However, there were two issues with it which made it less successful than the simpler Two Cooks version.

The first issue was the amount of chile. Whereas Two Cooks calls for one chile, Kennedy gives a specific weight of chopped chile. I initially took this as good sign, as chiles can vary in size. However, the jalapeños I used came from Mexico (there was no English on the can), and were very hot. Jalapeños can very from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units, and these were definitely at the higher end of that. This meant the final soup was far too spicy.

The problem with this isn't that we're chile-wussies. It's that the dish ended up lacking balance.
Balance was something I heard them talk about a lot on Masterchef, bit I never really understood it until I cooked this soup for the first time. No one flavour overpowered the others; nothing got lost in the shuffle. Everything was there in just the right amount, working in harmony. It was beautiful. That kind of balance is impossible to achieve if the chiles drown out all the other flavours.

The other issue was the chicken. Kennedy calls for chicken on the bone, which is probably more authentic than breast. However, I suspect that chicken legs and thighs simply can't get tender enough in 20 minutes, the ready breasts can. The meat was difficult to shred, and still had a chewy texture. Mexican chicken tends to be more active (and therefore tougher) than battery farm chicken (we used organic, free-range chicken). As a result, Mexicans often boil chicken (and other meat) for a long time to soften it - much longer than 20 minutes. Failing that, I think you're going to need breast meat.

However, I did learn some interesting things from this experiment. Kennedy omits the roasted sweet pepper and does not use roasted tomato (odd, since she has a fool-proof method of roasting toms that Rick Bayless also cites in his book Authentic Mexican). However,as I began simmering the soup, the aroma was immediately familiar, and there was nothing in the pot at this point except chopped garlic, Mexican oregano, and water. This suggests that the true soul of this dish consists of of those two ingredients (so if you wanna make this soup, you better get hold of Mexican oregano).

The other thing I'll take with me is Kennedy's garnish idea. Although she doesn't use habanero in the soup proper, she recommends roasting some, skinning and seeding it, and chopping it finely. Then you put the chopped habanero in a dish on the table for diners to help themselves (put a small spoon in the dish as well, as it's dangerous to touch chiles with your bare hands).

This added lovely flavour and colour to the soup, and as it's on the side, anyone who doesn't want their head blown off can just leave it out.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Truth about Chillies

I'm not sure if you have noticed this, but I regularly use two different spellings of "chilli". While I am certainly not immune to inconsistency or typos (I once spelled "dairy" as "diary" in this very blog), the chilli thing is intentional.

The word chilli, however you spell it, comes from Nahuatl, like a great many other names for Mexican ingredients or dishes. In Spanish it became chile (plural chiles), just as Nahuatl <i>molli</i> became <i>mole</i>. I love Spanish and I'm pretentious enough to make a big deal of replacing everyday words with their non-English root words (you should see me when I get going with German). On the other hand, some of the food I write about is either Indian, some nouvelle-cuisine-ish creation of my own, or a hybrid of the two, in which cases it doesn't seem as appropriate to insist on using the Spanish word.

Therefore the compromise I reached with myself was that, when referring to Mexican food or something firmly rooted in Mexican cuisine, I would use the spelling "chile/chiles"; for everything else I would use "chilli/chillies". Like Rick Bayless, I avoid using "chilli pepper" because peppers, which get their great from a substance called piperin, are unrelated to chillies (Latin capsicum), which get their heat from capsaicin (which is what the Scoville units measure).

As a personal aside, piperin might as well be candy to me, and while I am most certainly affected by capsaicin, I have never had a chilli I didn't want more of. But mustard oil, produced by the breakdown of sinigrin in horseradish, wasabi, and (of course) mustard, completely floors me. It is my hotness Achilles' Heel.

Anyway, because I had done it a few times, I assumed I pretty much knew how to reconstitute dried chillies. Well, it turns out I still have more to learn.

I had bought some dried chiles de árbol ("tree chiles", though they don't grow on trees) from Lupe Pinto's. I was very excited about them, because I've never cooked with them before, and they are meant to be the second-hottest chile in Mexico (coming just behind the mighty habanero).
But what to put them in? I read recently - in a guidebook for Mexico, that when chiles are used in Mexican stews, marinades, and other dishes, they tend to be on the mild side, whereas the chiles in side salsas and other condiments tend to be hotter than hell.

While I have not found this rule spelled out in any of my cookbooks, it does gel with my experience of cooking Mexican food. In the mole, for instance, two of the three types of chile were mild, and the other was only medium. Even in the burritos al pastor, which used chipotles (technically also medium, but on the hot side of medium), the amount of chile used was limited so that it didn't become overpowering.

As if in confirmation of this tendency, I was unable to find a Mexican main course that includes chiles de árbol. Instead, all the books wanted me to make salsa picante ("hot sauce" - because standard Mexican salsa isn't "picante" enough, apparently). This sauce is made with the árbol chiles, and is by some accounts like a much better version of Tabasco sauce.

I have every intention of making salsa picante. But in the meantime I really wanted to try using chiles de árbol as an ingredient in a main course.

I also remembered that it had been a while since I chilled Indian food, so I grabbed Madhur Jaffrey's book and looked up "chillies" in index. I was on the verge of making vindaloo when I discovered a recipe for spicy baked chicken. The recipe called for a mixture of paprika and cayenne pepper, but I said fuck that and substituted five árbol chiles.

Which is where the FAIL! comes into it.

Dried chillies can be divided into two groups: wrinkly-skinned and smooth-skinned. Most of the dried chillies I have worked with before have been wrinkly-skinned, which means you have to press them down on the pan to get them to toast properly. Not so with smooth-skinned chiles. Apparently they can just lie there; they already have sufficient surface area exposed to the heat.
Also, most of the chillies I have worked with before have had fairly thick, meaty flesh. Chiles de árbol, however, have smooth, paper-thin skin. And lastly, I may have had the pan on too high a heat.

So what happened was I seeded and deveined my chiles, popped them in the hot pan and pressed down with my spatula as usual.

Instantly a black, acrid smoke rose up, making me and my entire family choke (my wife and daughter actually had to leave the house; there must have been a lot of capsaicin in the air).
 Worst of all, the chiles were already charcoal! Completely unsalvageable.

(Actually, the top halves which hadn't touched the pan yet were okay, but just over 50% of the chiles went down the drain as fine black powder.)

So I started again, this time lowering the heat and continually tossing the chiles until they slightly darkened in colour. Them I covered them with just-boiled as usual and all was well.

The Indian dish I was making turned out brilliantly. I've so far never been steered wrong by Madhur Jaffrey.

One of the things Jaffrey writes about is the technique if dropping whole spices into hot oil, which she says is characteristic of and peculiar to Indian cooking. (Mexican cooking would certainly use the asar technique.)

I dropped whole cumin seeds into hot oil for the rice and dal that accompanied the spicy baked chicken. The moment those seeds hit the fat my kitchen was filled with a beautiful smell that I have previously only encountered in Indian restaurants. It was amazing, and not unlike the time roasting ("asar-ing") tomatoes unlocked the secret of authentic Mexican salsa for me. It was one of those moments that drive home what I love about cooking. In fact, loved it so much I've started doing it for other rice dishes as well.

I haven't made the salsa picante yet, but I will definitely write about it when I do, even if I ruin it. In the meantime, here's a photo of the Indian dish I cooked using Mexican chiles:
Masaledar murghi with masoor dal and tahiri (Hindi must be an awesome language).