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
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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  

Ingredients

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)  

Preparation 

 WEAR RUBBER GLOVES!

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.