Wednesday, 30 January 2013

How I learned to use a tortilla-press

I got a tortilla-press for Christmas. From "Santa". Also called mi suegra. Which means "mother-in-law".

The good news is I will be making more tortillas from now on.

The bad news is this will probably put the kibosh on learning to roll pastry. (Previously I have been rolling out tortillas, pastry-style, inside a ziploc bag).

I've written about tortillas several times before, but this time I took lots of pictures. So let's do this again.

First, a refresher for the uninitiated:

Tortillas are little Mexican flatbreads made of masa, which is white field corn soaked in slaked lime until the hulls of the kernels come off. (This is called being nixtamalized.)

Then you grind the corn into a dough on a metate, which is one of these:

I don't have one of these. Photo from the Simon Fraser University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

If you dry this dough and pulverise it you get masa harina, which looks like wheat flour but smells like corn.

(Flour tortillas, which you can buy anywhere in the UK, are characteristic of Northern Mexico and the United States.)

The first time I ever made tortillas, they were technically panuchos: Yucatecan tortillas stuffed with refried beans.

I made these because I had no tortilla press and panuchos benefit from being a bit thicker than standard tortillas.

I hand-patted the panuchos into shape the way I'd seen in the film El Norte. It worked, but the panuchos weren't very round.

Later I tried rolling my tortillas out with a rolling pin. This just about worked, but I suck at pastry-rolling, so I never managed a regular shape for these ones either.

They tasted great. Which is just as well.

Worse was I never got an even thickness.

And because The Cool Chile Company sells excellent tortillas, I was on the verge of giving up making my own.

Then I got this.

Hecho en Mexico. Hell. Yes.

So the other morning I got up and made some tortilla dough. As you do:

Tortilla dough from masa harina
250 g masa harina
300 ml hand-hot water
A tbsp olive oil
Combine the ingredients in a mixing bowl, knead for ten minutes, then rest at room temperature covered by a damp cloth for 30 minutes.
Once that was done I heated up a dry frying pan to medium-high, took a golf-ball sized chunk of dough and put it on my tortilla press.

First you must always put a clean sheet of plastic over the bottom of the tortilla press. This stops the dough sticking to the plates.

Dig the Turkish coffee in the background. MexiGeek is a man of many tastes.
Then you put the ball of dough down, slightly off-centre (nearer the hinge end), and cover with another sheet of plastic. I used a ziploc bag cut into its two halves.

Now, the trick to flattening your tortilla is applying gentle pressure.

First close the hinge and press down with your hand slowly until it won't give anymore.

Then gently tighten with the bar: just one or two little tugs.

Do not use too much force, as Doug Bell from Lupe Pinto's warned me, or the handle will snap.

Easy does it.

If your dough ball was the right size, you will end up with a perfectly round tortilla about 2 mm thick.


Once your frying-pan comal has heated up, lay your tortilla in the pan and cook for about 30 seconds.

This is a gringo-style comal.

Flip it over with a spatula and cook 12-15 seconds more.

Then flip it one more time, gently press down on the middle with your spatula, and the tortilla should puff up.

If it doesn't puff, it's not the end of the world, but you'll need to master puffing if you want to make panuchos.

Once the tortilla has puffed, wrap it in a clean, dry cloth to keep it warm, then keep making more tortillas until you run out of dough.

I find I can make about 12 tortillas with this recipe.

There are only ten here, because I ate two. Also, no warm cloth. We'll call that a continuity error.

Ideally tortillas should be served right away, but you can make them in advance and reheat them by steaming them in a cloth for one minute. Or by reheating each one individually on the comal until it gets soft and pliable (my preferred way, actually).

Jeez, I need to write some shorter posts!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Breakfast with MexiGeek: egg over easy in homemade salsa verde

I was actually trying to make a coriander (cilantro) vinaigrette, but it ended up more like a salsa.

I took a bunch of coriander (stems and all), a couple cloves of garlic, half a white onion, and a teaspoon of habanero chile paste.

For the acidity I was going use lime juice, but I had a lot of pink citrusy pickling liquid from my pink pickled onions, so I used that instead.

Into the blender it all goes, then check for seasoning.

It doesn't need any lime! And it's really more of a salsa verde! And it's hot as hell from the habanero!


The cool thing is you usually need tomatillos in salsa verde to give it some tartness, but the pickled onions replaced it beautifully.

I LOVE salsa verde!

Now for the rest of my breakfast:

Because I'm out of tortillas, I used a bagel.

And because I was using a bagel, I decided to go for a fried egg rather than scrambled.

I always fry eggs over easy because I don't like "sunny side up".

I'm not actually a very "sunny" guy.

I seasoned the egg with salt, pepper, Mexican oregano, and some surprisingly hot Spanish chile powder I used to make patatas bravas once.

(They were pretty fucking "brav"!)

The egg goes onto a toasted bagel.

Then I fried the salsa a bit, because frying salsa is how you get it to reduce, thicken, and concentrate its flavours in Mexican cooking.

Cover the egg in salsa y provecho: a Mexican-American-Jewish fusion breakfast!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Mexican things you can do with a Seville Orange

You know what's freaky about being MexiGeek?

I set out to make something complicated like pollo pibil, and this is my shopping list:
2 chicken breasts
2 onions (1 red, 1 white)
1 head of garlic
Seville oranges
Everything else I already have on hand (with one exception, see below).

I must have a very Mexican store cupboard.

But before I get ahead of myself, let's introduce the star of this post: the Seville Orange.

The Seville orange is famous for two reasons:
  1. No one in Seville eats them; practically the whole crop is shipped to the UK, where...
  2. ...the Brits just use them to make marmalade!
(There are some French dishes that use them too.)

In Europe, including super-hot, practically North Africa Seville, these oranges are only in season in January.

In tropical Yucatán, Mexico, they are available all year round.

In Mexico they are called naranjas agrias ("bitter oranges") and, since being introduced by the Spanish, have become an integral part of Yucatecan cuisine.

So if you're tired of making marmalade, why not try making pollo pibil with cebollas en escabeche?

Pollo Pibil

Pibil means "cooked in a pib" (literally it means "covered"), and a pib (a Mayan word), is a "pit barbecue".

Basically it's a hole in the ground filled with hot ashes or stones. You put your food in it (wrapped in something like a banana leaf), then cover it with more hot ashes or stones and let it cook slowly for a long time.

Before you freak out, I don't expect you to dig a hole in your garden. I sure as hell didn't.

You can cook pibil-style food in an oven, a steamer, or even a slow cooker/crock pot.

What makes a non-pib version of this dish worthy of the name "pibil" is the marinade, a mixture of Seville orange juice with the famous Yucatecan achiote spice paste, recado rojo.

The other thing a pibil dish usually needs is a banana leaf.

I'm sure it is possible to get banana leaves in Edinburgh, but I haven't found out where yet. They are meant to be available from "Asian grocers", but I don't know what "Asian" means in that context.

I went to a Chinese grocer while members of my MexiGeek crew searched Leith Walk's exotic shops, but no dice.

Once upon a time I was going to put off making this dish until I had sourced banana leaves, but when I realized Seville oranges would only be in season until the end of January, I decided to bring my plans forward.

You can always "fake" some Seville orange juice by combining normal orange juice with some grapefruit juice - Seville oranges really do taste like a combination of orange and grapefruit (I ate one raw with my lunch) - but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to use the real thing.

So I had to go "French" and steam my chicken en papillote (i.e. wrapped in baking parchment).

There are actually two famous pibil dishes: chicken (pollo pibil) and pork (cochinita pibil).

Because I wanted to make panuchos (fat tortillas stuffed with refried beans) as well, I was strongly considering the pork.Cochinita pibil is served shredded, and panuchos are usually topped with shredded meat.

Pollo pibil is not served shredded, or on top of panuchos. Instead it is served as a meal in itself, usually in or on the banana leaf, if you've got one.

There is a Yucatecan shredded chicken dish called pollo en escabeche ("pickled" chicken), which I while make some other time.

But in the end I went with the chicken anyway because pork isn't "in season" yet, and chicken doesn't really have a season.

Obviously, when cooking Mexican food in the UK, you can only take seasonality so far, but as this meal started with a seasonal ingredient (the oranges), I wanted to keep up the theme.

How to cook pollo pibil

This is one of those multi-day affairs.

Day 1 (Two days before serving)

Make Yucatecan achiote paste (recado rojo).

Ironically, this is kind of inauthentic of me, because if I really lived in the Yucatán, I'd probably just buy some recado rojo from the markets, rather than make my own.

If you want to make this dish, but don't want to make the recado, they do sell pre-made stuff at Lupe Pinto's and from the Cool Chile Company (and some other places).

Some recipes don't even require recado rojo, calling for ground achiote (annatto), which is also available from Lupe Pinto's.

I have even seen some simplified recipes call for turmeric in place of achiote.

Achiote does indeed impart a vaguely "curry" flavour, so this is quite a clever substitution, but keep in mind your sauce will be yellow instead of red.

Being a MexiGeek, I like making my own recado.

As usual, I took the recipe from Rick Bayless, but the basic idea behind Yucatecan recado rojo is 1 tablespoon of achiote plus a bit more than 1 1/2 tablespoons of garlic (say, 5 cloves) and 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar.

To this, add a pinch each of "the usual Yucatecan spices", which are black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, and Mexican oregano, and, if you like, half a pinch each of cumin and coriander seed.

If the paste is too runny, and a teaspoon and a half of white flour.

This needs to sit in the fridge overnight.

Day 2 (The day before serving)

Mix the juice of two Seville oranges with your achiote paste (or just mix achiote, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, and Mexican oregano with the Seville orange juice) and some blitzed habanero to taste.

I used dried habanero, but fresh is also good if you've got it. Be careful, though, cuz it's fecking hot!

If the marinade looks gritty, put it in the blender until it's smooth.

Smear this over two chicken breasts and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

By the way, achiote is a natural dye, so wash or at least rinse everything it touches ASAP, unless you're happy for it to remain that shade of red forever.

Day 3 (The Big day! So exciting!)

Slice some white onion and tomato about 5-7 (no more than 10) mm thick.

Lay two slices of onion and two slices of tomato on each of your banana leaves (or baking parchment, in my case).

Then put one chicken breast in each leaf/sheet, on top of the tomato slices.

Cover the chicken breasts with the remaining marinade.

Top each breast with two more slices of onion and two more slices of tomato.

Wrap the parcels up tightly (I used a "French seam") and steam on high for 30 minutes.

When it was done, I opened the little parcels and carefully placed each chicken breast - onions, tomatoes and all - on top of what I originally meant to be a panucho but ended up being a variation of a tortilla doblada (more on that in a future post).

I swear there's a chicken breast under that tomato!

Then I tipped the remaining sauce into a frying pan, added more Seville orange juice, and fried it until it reduced a bit. (Frying sauce like this is very common in Mexican cooking).

I served the extra sauce in a jug on the side. It was fairly hot from the habanero, but Mrs MexiGeek and I agreed it could have gone a shade hotter.

We're just hard like that.

Cebollas en escabeche

The other thing you can do is make Yucatecan pink pickled onions (cebollas en escabeche).

I've written about these before, but it's worth repeating.

Recently I saw a recipe for these in Good Housekeeping or somewhere, which is amazing in a way, but they left all the seasoning out!

Yes, the basic idea behind pink pickled onions is thinly sliced red onion, boiling water and red wine vinegar. The magazine recipe got that much right.

But once again, you need some Yucatecan spices: allspice, Mexican oregano, and a pinch of cumin, for example.

Also, I would add a habanero, either finely chopped fresh habanero or, to tone down the heat, drop a whole fresh or dried one in as the onions pickle and then take it out before serving.

These flavours impart that special yo no se que (je ne sais quoi) that make food taste Yucatecan. Also, except for the oregano and chiles, these spices are readily available in all British supermarkets, and you can substitute normal oregano for the Mexican variety, and Scotch Bonnet peppers for the habaneros.

The onions should pickle for four hours. Then strain the liquid and cover the onions with a couple tablespoons of Seville orange juice.

I still say this the best condiment in the world ever.
Here they are again on top of a fried tortilla.

Altogether this makes one of those meals that can really open your eyes to the diversity of Mexican food.

We're a million miles away from the rich, earthy cuisine you get further north, and nowhere near stodgy Tex-Mex.

This dish is bright, zesty, citrusy, and surprisingly mild in the chile department (unless you overdo the habaneros). The red colour looks menacing but comes entirely from the achiote, which is not "hot".

I still need to try it with actually banana leaves though.

Maybe I'll do the cochinita pibil when pork comes into season.

The Seville oranges will be off by then. Fortunately we juiced the rest of them and popped it in the freezer!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Breakfast with MexiGeek: spicy egg over easy on toast with leftover pibil sauce

I could have mexed this up more but I'm savings the leftover tortillas dobladas and refried beans for lunch.

The toast it's just toast, and they really do eat toast for desayunos in Mexico.

To add a Mexican touch to the otherwise American egg over easy, I fried it in pork lard I rendered myself.

Before you get grossed out, I needed the lard to make the refried beans authentic, and I'd rather use lard I made myself than but a block of that Tesco value lard, which is probably 29% horse anyway.

Before I flipped the egg I seasoned it with some powdered chile and Mexican oregano. Then I carefully placed it on top of the slice of (buttered) toast.

Then in the same pan I dropped about 1/4 tsp cumin seeds into the hot fat.

After a few seconds I added my leftover sauce from the pollo pibil I made last night (post to follow). This included some onion and tomato.

When it was good and hot I poured it over the egg y provecho!

The best thing about cooking Mexican food for dinner is you get leftovers for breakfast.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Sweet Tamales and Champurrado

Tamales are probably my favourite ever Mexican dish.

Like chiles rellenos, they take forever to make. But they are totally worth it.

Tamales (the singular is tamal) are dumplings made of corn dough (masa) and steamed in a corn husk or a banana leaf.

They are usually filled with something delicious and, especially in restaurants in the United States, can be accompanied by a sauce.

The filling can be savoury or sweet, and they can also have no filling at all. These are called tamales sordos, which means "deaf tamales".

Deaf tamales are the classic accompaniment to mole.

In Mexico you can buy tamal dough (masa para tamales), which is like tortilla dough but more coarsely ground. Here in the UK you have to improvise using masa harina.

I first made tamales from the recipe in Two Cooks and a Suitcase, and this is still the recipe I trust most.

Before this post, I had made tamales twice and "tamale pie" twice, going savoury each time, but I really wanted to give sweet tamales a try for two reasons:
  • I could have tamales for breakfast
  • I could eat them with champurrado (more on that below)
Tamales are at least a two-day affair.

The day before you plan to eat them, put all you corn husks in cold water to soak. Weigh them down with a plate so each one is completely submerged.

You can buy corn husks, masa harina, and everything else you need for tamales at Lupe Pinto's or from the Cool Chile Company, by the way.

Then you need to decide on a filling and make it. For the sweet tamales I just used dried cranberries, so I got to skip this step.

On the day you plan to serve, you need to mix up your tamal dough. This is a combination of masa harina, melted fat, liquid, and a half teaspoon of baking powder to keep the tamales light.

For savoury tamales, you might use melted lard (or butter), and the liquid would be a stock of since kind.

Two Cooks and a Suitcase only gives a recipe for savoury tamal dough, so I had to improvise a sweet version.

I used melted butter for the fat and dissolved a cone of real Mexican piloncillo in some warm water in place of stock.  

Sweet tamal dough


  • 200 g masa harina
  • 100 g melted butter
  • 250 ml water
  • 1 small cone of piloncillo (about one ounce)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder


Put the water into a pan over a very low heat and add the piloncillo. You might want to bash it up in a mortar first so it dissolves more quickly.

Or you could substitute a little less than an ounce of demerara sugar, brown sugar, or caster sugar mixed with molasses.

Also, they sell cones of unrefined sugar in many Jamaican/Caribbean food shops. This is very similar to piloncillo.

Sift the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.

Add the melted butter and water (once the piloncillo has dissolved) and mix into a batter. Two Cooks likens this to cake batter, but I find it's much stiffer and less pourable than that.

This is stuff you can scoop up with a spoon and spread with a knife.

Which is basically what you have to do next.

Spread a corn husk on a plate, wide side facing away from you.

Take a tablespoon or so of the dough and spread it over the husk in a square-ish shape like this:

Put a spoonful of you filling on the dough (how much filling depends on how big your tamales are).

Fold them up so that the filing is completely enclosed by the dough and the dough is completely enclosed by the husk.

You will find some husks have holes or rips or are otherwise unusable. Tear these ones into thin strips. They tear easily along the grain.

Use these strips to tie up the tamales into little parcels.

Traditionally you leave the wide end of the husks open, but I usually tie them at both ends if I can. Don't ask me why. It's just the way my mother taught me. Presumably she learned it from her grandmother.

Once all your tamales are wrapped, place them in a steamer, wide side facing up (especially if it's open at that side).

Put the lid on the steamer (not pictured).

These need to steam for an hour, 45 minutes of which has to be on full steam. So while you're waiting, make some champurrado.

Champurrado is atole flavoured with chocolate.

Atole is a traditional Mexican hot drink thickened with masa. It is the classic drink to have with tamales.

I stole this champurrado recipe from Rick Bayless so the measurements are in American.  



  • 1/2 cup masa 
  • 2 cups milk 
  • 3 ounces Mexican chocolate 
  • 2 ounces piloncillo 
  • Some aniseed (I used a star anise) 


If you live in Britain, you have to make your own masa.

Mix 1/2 cup masa harina with 1/4 cup hand-hot water and you're done. No resting or kneading like when you make tortillas.

Put the milk in a pan and add the masa. Stir it up. Little darlin'. Stir it up.

Next add the piloncillo. About two small cones will do, but weigh them first to make sure.

You'll also need to chop or grind them up so they dissolve better.

Two cones of piloncillo waiting to get bashed to fuck.

Then add the chocolate. I used half a block of Willy's Cacao, ground up with 20 g of toasted almonds and a 5 mm cinnamon stick.

Pop in your aniseed, if you're using it, and bring the whole thing to a simmer, whisking whisking frequently.

When the chocolate and piloncillo have dissolved and the champurrado is nice and thick, it's done. It will look like this:

By the way, the longer you cook it, the thicker it gets. Eventually you will be eating chocolate porridge.

Now your tamales should be done. Remove them to a serving plate so people can help themselves.

A pile of sweet tamales.

Ladle some champurrado into mugs and serve.

The champurrado was so thick we often dipped our tamales into it, sort of like chcolate con churros.

But the tamales were so fecking delicious they didn't really need any accompaniment. The cranberries had gone all plump and moist, and the sweetened tamal dough was delicious even before it was cooked.

An unwrapped tamal. Don't eat the corn husk, whatever you do.
I had been nervous about the tamales, because a friend of mine had recently made them and reported that they fell apart, even though she used the same recipe.

I did some research and found this is one of the ways tamales often go wrong. Another is that the dough is too dense and stodgy.

My friend is an excellent cook, better than me, in fact. So now I was really worried.

But once again, my tamales were perfect. Having now made tamales or a variation of them five times, I can report that they have never gone wrong for me.

I have no idea why. It ain't pure talent, I can tell you. And it ain't because tamales are easy to make (they aren't). It must be luck. Or maybe the spirit of my great grandmother Eva guiding me or something.

If you have a half-Mexican great grandmother, you should really try this; in fact, even if you don't you should. Tamales are one of the culinary wonders of the world.

Hell, if you're afraid of all the work. I'll come over and make them for you. One of my New Year's Resolutions is to make more tamales.

As for the champurrado, it was absolutely delicious. The only thing is, it tasted a helluva lot like Mexican hot chocolate, which is much easier to make.

Therefore I doubt I will make champurrado again. In the very near future I will make a more basic atole to see if I like it (starting with a variation probably wasn't the best introduction to this drink, but I found the concept of masa-thickened hot chocolate impossible to resist).

Once again, you can get everything you need to make tamales from Lupe Pinto's or the Cool Chile Company (if you don't live in Edinburgh or Glasgow).

Also, the restaurant Mestizo in London has tamales on the menu, and as Mestizo is easily the best Mexican restaurant in the UK, I'm sure they are delicious. Have some chiles rellenos for a starter.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

MexiGoals for 2013

Oaxacan pasilla chiles were among my Christmas gifts. Photo courtesy of Luchito.

I'm taking time out from writing about my sweet tamales to say Feliz año nuevo to my readers and set out my plans for 2013.

Last year was my second year of blogging and it greatly exceeded my expectations.

I went from a few hundred pageviews to more than 2700, and got 129 likes for my Facebook page.

Also I cooked some great food, went to a tequila tasting at Lupe Pinto's, and discovered  Gran Luchito salsa made with the coveted Oaxacan pasilla chiles!

2013 has its work cut out to top that, but here are a few things I want to accomplish by the end of this year.

  • Make another mole
My posts on making the famous mole poblano have led many readers to my blog, but there are actually seven kinds of mole, and I want to cook them all.

Plus, as Mrs MexiGeek got me smoked pasillas Oaxaqueñas from Luchito, I have the means to make Oaxacan black mole.

However, I may make a less challenging one, like the green mole or manchamanteles.
  • Put up an ofrenda for Day of the Dead
An ofrenda is a little altar to your deceased relatives that you put up for el día de los muertos.

I didn't make one last year, but I'd like to have one for my grandfathers this year. I'll probably pay an e-visit to Between the Trees when Autumn comes round again.
  • Cook for someone else
Last year my wife cooked a 1950s-style dinner for her food blog Cooking the History Books and we invited a friend to share it.

This year I'd like to cook a set meal for company as well.

My idea is actually to do three courses of non-spicy Mexican food, to counter the misconception that all Mexican food is hotter than hell.

Let me know if you'd like to come along, by the way.
  • Do restaurant reviews
It's been a while since I've been to a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh, so I'd like to see what they're serving and tell you what I think of it.
  • Sell t-shirts
Yes, we have t-shirts now. Also mugs, notebooks, and other stuff. I'll be launching this by the end of January.
  • Shoot a video
I'm overwhelmed by how my blog traffic has grown, but I feel the next step in developing MexiGeek is to add video.

I don't intend to stop writing and switch to vlogging, but I would like to document some of my adventures in a more live-action format.

I'm not sure what form a MexiGeek video would take, especially as I don't know if I'm presenter material, but I'm sure I'll think of something.

If you're into filming or editing and you live in Edinburgh (and will work for tequila), give me a shout.
Then there are some things I might not get around to this year, but I'll try to do in the near future.

  • Interact with you guys
One of my favourite bloggers, Tiffany of Kitchen Conversations, does a Mexican supper club in London.

This inspired me to do some kind of direct interaction with my Edinburgh- and Glasgow-based readers.

I was thinking of calling it Fajitas Anonymous.

The idea is that if you want to cook some more adventurous Mexican food but don't really know where to start, I'll come over and help you.

I guess it would kind of be like doing my blog live from your kitchen.

Impress your friends with your mastery of regional Mexican cuisine. Or not.

Probably need to put some more thought into this one.
  • Meet up with other Mexican-food bloggers
Besides me and Kitchen Conversations (based in London), I've recently discovered A Mexican Cook in Ireland (based in Dublin).

What do we all have in common?

We're all expats (a Mexican, an Arizonan, and a Californian).

We all cook Mexican food and blog about it.

We all are an hour's air travel from each other.

So we should totally get together and do some kind of event or something.

Obviously I'll need to ask them about this, but in the meantime check out their blogs and other activities, if you haven't already. 
  • Write a book
This blog first started as research for a novel, believe it or not, but since the cooking had taken over I've been thinking I should write a different kind of book.

I doubt this would be a cookbook. There are already plenty of good Mexican cookbooks out there.

I was thinking something more like cooking memoirs or a Mexican cook's travel guide to Scotland (where to get ingredients, where the best restaurants are, etc.).

Again, this needs more thought, but it's something I'd like to get into.

Beyond that, we're expecting a visit from the stork next month, so if I suddenly stop blogging for a bit, you'll know why.

Now back to the tamales...