Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cumpleaños feliz, México (and me)

One awesome about being MexiGeek is that my birthday falls in the same month as Mexico's. Last Sunday (16 September) was el Día de la Independencia, Mexico's national holiday and anniversary of the beginning of their war for independence from Spain
While Mexico celebrated their special day in the usual way (with fiestas, traditional food, "el Grito", and a day off work) I celebrated mine in Northumberland. My haul this year was pretty good. Mrs MexiGeek got me a big book about chiles and some special "Chili Beer".

I first saw this beer in the window of the Brauhaus pub in Edinburgh and I had to try it. I was not disappointed.

First, there was the visual element of an actual chile floating in the beer (a green chile serrano, the first chile I correctly identified using my chile book).When I opened the bottle, the chile started to fizz up, adding a bit of theatre.

But what really impressed me was that the beer actually smelled of chile. I waited until it stopped fizzing to drink it, and when I did I found it not only tasted of chile, but it was even hot! I had never had a spicy beer before, but I definitely enjoyed it.

Chili Beer is made by a company called Cave Creek, an Arizona-based micro-brewery, now basically defunct except as a brand name. If you google "chili beer", you'll find some rather amateurish animation and a fun, if probably embellished story about how the brewer, Crazy Ed Chilleen first came up with the idea.

You'll also learn the brewery is now closed and the beer is brewed by the Mexicali brewery in Tecate, Mexico (home of another famous Mexican beer, named after the town itself).

While I'm sorry that Crazy Ed had to close the Cave Creek brewery, as MexiGeek I can't help but be pleased that this now technically qualifies as a Mexican beer.

Initially I thought I would be able to save the chiles and use them in some kind of beer-flavoured salsa. However, when I tasted one, I realised that all the chile goodness had seeped out into the beer itself. Even the capsaicin was gone.

I would definitely recommend this beer to anyone who loves both lager and chiles (remember, this beer is pretty hot). However, the combination of the carbonated lager and the chile-acid (capsaicin) means you probably shouldn't drink too much of this in one go. If I were serving it at a dinner party I would let everyone have one or two during the hor d'oeurves and then move onto something less "busy", like wine, a blonde ale, or even a dark beer like Negra Modelo.

I also got some super-high-quality chocolate for cooking (the famous Willy's Cacao 100% coco solid) from mi suegra (my mother-in-law), but apart from making more Oaxacan chocolate I haven't used it yet. I may make mole rojo soon, though I was thinking of doing the black mole or the other red mole (mole coloradito) next, and I don't think either of those have chocolate in them.

Also from mi suegra, I got a new, amazing Mexican cookbook: Chilli and Chocolate by Isabel Hood. I will be adding it to my reviews soon, but if I were you, I'd go buy it right away.

And, of course, I got myself something as well. Some of you may remember I had been planning on buying fresh tomatillos from The Cool Chile Company as soon as they came into season. That was meant to be July. July came and went with no tomatillos. Instead we had the wettest "Summer" in the UK since records began, which seriously damaged the all British fruit crops.

However, in late August the tomatillos finally ripened. I decided that as long as I was buying some, I might as well get some fresh chiles poblanos (also suffering from the summer). Also, I was nearly out of epazote and Mexican oregano. And I wanted to get some corn tortillas and review them. And I've always wanted to cook with Avocado leaves.

So I went a bit crazy. Anyway, I will be cooking with this stuff very soon and naturally I will tell you all about it. But this was not the first time I bought fresh chiles poblanos.

A few weeks ago I read on Lupe Pinto's Facebook page that they had fresh poblanos in, so I burned rubber to get down there. I made rajas and chiles rellenos. But while I was there, I found they also had fresh naga chillies, the hottest in the world! I've never cooked with these before, so of course I had to get them.

Depending on who you ask, nagas are either the same thing as or a very close relative of the bhut jolokia or "ghost chilli", the official world's hottest chilli. I don't know if these nagas quite reached the 1,000,000 Scoville unit mark, but they were definitely the most extreme chilli I've ever worked with.

Nagas are members of Capsicum chinense , the habanero family, though they have interbred with Capsicum frutescens. They look kind of like elongated habaneros, and have a similar characteristically fruity flavour, though I detected a hint of caramel I don't find in habaneros, even roasted ones.

Now, I'm not stupid enough to eat nagas raw, but I didn't have a recipe to use them in either (I have since discovered The Curry Guy's recipe for Naga Curry). In any case, this being my first experiment with them, I wanted to make their unique flavour the star, rather than diluting them with too many other ingredients. So I decided to make a simple roasted naga relish.

Nagas are a decidedly Indian chilli (which is why I have switched to the c-h-i-l-l-i spelling), but I based my relish loosely on the Yucatecan cebollas en escabeche, possibly my favourite condiment ever.

Naga Chilli Relish  


4 naga chilies (I used two green and two orange)
1 shallot
1 allspice berry, finely ground
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp Mexican oregano
1-2 tbsp cider vinegar (plus a little extra, if needed)  



Asar-roast the chillies. Once they have cooled, skin, deseed, and devein them. Chop them finely. The relish looks better if the chilli bits are all about the same size.

Finely dice the shallot. Again, it looks nicer if everything its a uniform size, but it won't affect flavour.

Toss the chillies and shallot into a bowl. Add the allspice, cumin, and oregano and mix well. Add some of the cider vinegar and mix again.

Add a bit more vinegar if needed, but don't let the relish "swim".

Ordinarily this is where I say "taste for seasoning", but remember, this shit is HOT! Having said that, you should still check for seasoning, and if you don't like hot food, why are you making naga chilli relish?

At this point, cover the relish and let the flavours mingle in the fridge overnight.

There isn't enough vinegar in this recipe to pickle the chillies, but they will mellow a bit, not that you'll notice because they're so hot to begin with. The shallots should still have some "bite" when you finally eat the relish.

A spoonful of this hot shit will help the medicine go down!

From the photo, it probably looks like too much shallot, but that's intentional. A little naga goes a long way.

I put this on nearly everything I ate for an entire week. It really is searingly hot, but definitely in a good way.

Despite my seasonings, it tasted more Indian than Mexican, though I don't know if that was psychological, because I know naga chillies are Indian, or perhaps because Mexican and Indian cuisine really do have a lot in common.

But now a word on chile safety. See, I never wear rubber gloves, even though I know I should. I'm usually not daft enough to touch my eyes when I've been handling chiles, and though my hands usually hurt for a while afterwards, I don't find the pain severe or unmanageable. Until now. This really made my skin burn. I was in quite a lot of pain for about twenty-four hours after preparing the relish. Also, I did manage to get some in my eye. If there's no law against using this in police pepper spray, there should be.

I didn't panic, I knew I'd survive, but it did inspire me to get some rubber gloves for next time, and I've advise you to do the same, even if, like me, you can handle habaneros with your bare hands. Nagas are just in another league.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Review of Old El Paso store-bought tortillas

One of my readers recently informed me that corn tortillas are available in Lidl in Edinburgh. Though flour tortilla "wraps" have been in all British supermarkets for as long as I've lived here, the only corn tortillas I was aware of were in prepackaged "taco kits", and they were usually those (American) U-shaped hard-shell things. You didn't used to get proper corn tortillas at all.

And, for the most part, you still don't.

This info about Lidl inspired me to do something I've long wanted to do: review a Mexican food product (or restaurant).

I don't get over to Lidl much now that I don't live in the city centre, but I decided to see of my local super-chain grocery store had anything posing as corn tortillas. Whereas flour tortillas are mainstream enough to be kept in the bread aisle, what they pass off as corn tortillas lurked in the "World Foods" section.

As I expected, they had two brands: Discovery and Old El Paso.

For my British readers, let me tell you about Mexican food brands in the US. We do have Old El Paso, but they mostly sell jarred salsas and spice powders, etc. I never saw Old El Paso tortillas until I moved to the UK.

In America, you buy Mission brand tortillas (they sell both flour and corn). There's even a Mission tortilla factory in the California Adventure park at Disneyland. They'll give you free corn tortillas if it's your birthday. And for commercially produced sauces and seasonings, we tend to go for La Preferida, which is made by and for Mexican-Americans. We don't have Discovery products at all.

Having said that, I have usually gone for Discovery brand products here in the UK, because of the bizarre combination of my mistrust of the familiar (even when I have no reason to trust a non-Mexican brand of Mexican foods) and because I've never rated Old El Paso, even back in the US.

When we couldn't be bothered making our own salsa, my family always bought Pace brand picante sauce, which isn't available in Britain. Pace is made in San Antonio, by folks who know what picante sauce is supposed to taste like. Old El Paso, despite the name, is made in New York City, and that really chaps my hide, as explained in this advert:

Notice that both Pace and Old El Paso are trying to associate themselves with Texas, rather than Mexico. 

However, there is a more serious reason I didn't sample Discovery corn tortillas, despite Isabel Hood's belief that they are better than Old El Paso.

When I got to the "World Foods" section of the giant Morrainsburysco near my suburb, I found that the Old El Paso brand said "now with less fat." Immediately red flags were flying. Why was there any significant amount of fat in the first place?

There are basically two recipes for corn tortillas. The first is the über-traditional (or shall I say "sobre-tradicional") method.

1) Take some white Mexican field corn.
2) Soak it in slaked lime (the same stuff you use to make stucco).
3) Rinse it clean. The tough outer hulls will slip off.
4) Grind it on a metate until it becomes a dough called masa. Shape it into tortillas and cook them on a comal.

White Mexican field corn is hard to come by in Britain, and I don't really endorse using a highly caustic substance like slaked lime in the kitchen. But they do sell masa harina here. I get Maseca, the standard Mexican brand, from Lupe Pinto's. The Cool Chile Company sells it as well, and MexGrocer even sells blue masa harina!. All three suppliers ship throughout the UK.

In case you haven't read my other posts on tortillas, masa harina is white Mexican field corn ground into flour. It is NOT cornflour, cornstarch, cornmeal, or polenta. If you try to make tortillas with any of these things, you will fail. But since you can get real masa harina in Britain, you can make tortillas the modern way, which is:
1) Combine masa harina and hand-hot water and knead it into a dough
2) Let it rest ten minutes, covered with a damp cloth (don't chill it. Mexico is a hot country).
3) Shape the dough into tortillas and cook them on a comal.

In either recipe, there's really only one ingredient: corn. So apart from any naturally occurring fat in the corn itself, there should have been no fat to speak of.

I turned over the package and read the ingredients. I was prepared to see some kind of preservative listed, but I was not expecting to find wheat flour. And, of course, there was vegetable oil as well, because flour tortillas do require some kind of fat to help them bind (traditionally you would use lard).

I checked the Discovery brand. They, too, had a mixture of corn and wheat flour, but Old El Paso listed corn first,  while Discovery listed it second. So I went with Old El Paso.

Appearance. If you look closely at these so-called corn tortillas, you can see tiny flecks of yellow. It wouldn't surprise me if these guys are just mixing polenta in with their flour tortilla ingredients. The ingredients claim it is 29% corn flour, but that could mean anything. I'm guess it doesn't mean masa harina. And it probably does mean they're using the wrong kind of corn.

Do not eat this at home. Or anywhere else.

Taste. Too sweet, and not in a good way, which once again probably means they used the wrong kind of corn: common yellow corn or "sweetcorn" as it's called in Britain. We all love sweetcorn; it rocks. But it does have a pretty high sugar content. White field corn has bigger kernels and is much higher in starch. I haven't tried it, but apparently soup made from this corn has the consistency of potato soup. Tortillas, whether corn or flour, should not be sweet. In fact, you should have to add sugar to the masa harina if you're making sweet tamales.

Texture. Gritty, and somewhat fragile. Partly this is due to the polenta, which is too coarse to mix into a proper dough, and partly this is due to the fact that, since it is basically a corn-flavoured flour tortilla and they reduced the fat, there wasn't enough fat to bind the tortillas properly. Sweetcorn, being less starchy than field corn, cannot pick up the slack.

Usefulness. I don't think anyone, even people relatively unfamiliar with Mexican food, would expect Old El Paso corn tortillas to be very high quality. But can they get the job done?

Well, I ate these all week. I wouldn't recommend them for traditional "soft" tacos, as the flavour is just not there. The package actually recommends you use them for enchiladas, but they mean American-style baked enchiladas, where you fill the tortillas, fold them, put them in a baking dish and cover them with jarred enchilada sauce (they recommend Old El Paso brand; I do not) and bake them until the tortillas get hard and unpleasant.

This probably would work, but the more authentic way to make enchiladas is take the tortilla, dip it in home-made red chile sauce, quick-fry it in some fat, and then fill it and fold it. Messy, but worth it.

When I tried to do this with one of  these, the damn thing disintegrated on me. However, I did manage to quick-fry one in butter, cover it in home-made chile sauce, top it with scrambled eggs and poblano chile strips (huevos revueltos con rajas) and some grated parmesan, which was a very good breakfast, except for the tortilla.

The rajas were fecking awesome. The tortilla, not so much.
Bottom line. My expectations were already low, and yet Old El Paso still managed to fall short. I am a firm believer that we can all make our own corn tortillas, and yet even I have sometimes been put off making tacos because I couldn't be bothered going to all that trouble. So quality store-bought tortillas are a must. But these are not them. If this is really the only thing you can get your hands on, buy some Mission flour tortillas and switch to burritos.