Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Tinga Oaxaqueña: Mexican Comfort-Food with a Kick

I'm courting controversy here, because technically the dish should be called tinga poblana, "tinga from Puebla".

(Tinga, btw, means "disorder".)

A lot of traditional wisdom that holds Puebla as the culinary capital of Mexico.

It is the home not only of the tinga, but also of the poblano chile (used in rajas or stuffed to make chiles rellenos and the beloved chiles en nogada) and Mexico's national dish, mole poblano (the famous mole made with chocolate).

Plus lots of other less famous but no less delicious dishes and ingredients.

When you consider that poblano chiles in their dried form end up as chiles anchos (or mulatos, if they ripen to brown instead of red), Puebla's contribution to Mexican cuisine can hardly be overrated.

But for every book, chef or food writer who champions Puebla there is at least one (maybe more) giving the top spot to Oaxaca.

Oaxaca, too, is home to a distinct regional cuisine, including many ingredients that aren't readily available even in other parts of Mexico.

And they have not one but seven moles in a range of colours including black, green, yellow, and two shades of red.

So taking a traditional Pueblan dish and rebranding it as Oaxacan is about as cheeky as making "English" whisky.

The reason I'm tweaking the name of this dish is because I substituted rare pasillas de Oaxaca (purchased from Luchito, the only place to get them in the UK) for the usual chipotles.

Ordinarily, chipotles can trump any other chile in the flavour department, but nothing beats these pasillas de Oaxaca.

Prepping dried chiles does take a bit of work, but of you want to try this at home, you can easily use a tablespoon or two of Gran Luchito salsita de chiles ahumados instead.

A tinga can be made with pork, chicken, vegetables, or a combination. I went with chicken.

As usual with traditional recipes, I had several versions to choose from as a basis. I stayed pretty close to Thomasina Miers's version because she calls for dried chiles, but I added some chorizo to complement the smoky pasillas.

Because I made this in the morning but served it for dinner, I'm going to tell the prep method like a story, but first the

Ingredientes (to serve two)
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • 2 white onions
  • 3 pasillas de Oaxaca (or 2-3 tbsp of Gran Luchito) 
  • 1/2 small cone of piloncillo (or 1 tbsp of dark brown sugar)
  •  Mexican oregano
  • Avocado leaves (or bay leaves, but they don't have the same aniseedy flavour) 
So: in the morning I got up, peeled and quartered one onion, and tossed it in a soup pot. Then I bashed six cloves of garlic (one at a time) with the pestle of my molcajete, peeled the skins off, and tossed them in the pot with the onion.

Then I added my two chicken breasts and a great big avocado leaf.

If I had had any, I would have roughly chopped some carrot and celery, but no dice.

Anyway, I covered it all with water, brought it to a boil, and then turned the heat way down and let it simmer for 20 minutes.

These guys are ready to rock and roll.

In the meantime I cut the stems off three pasillas de Oaxaca , pressed them between my fingers to get the seeds out (but not the veins), and soaked them in just-boiled water for ten minutes.

You have to weigh them down with a plate to make sure they all stay covered with water.

If you use Gran Luchito instead of the dried chiles, you get to skip this step.

While the chiles were soaking and the chicken was poaching I heated up a dry frying pan and asar-roasted the tomatoes and the two remaining cloves of garlic. The garlic should be roasted in its skin to prevent burning, and it only needs a few minutes on each side. The tomatoes take longer.

Tomatoes roasted like this are one of the most characteristic flavours of Mexican cooking. They make the finished dish a world away from an Italian tomato sauce.

By now the chiles were ready. Using tongs, I removed them from the water and placed them in a blender jar with the tomatoes, garlic (minus the skins), a teaspoon of Mexican oregano, and two avocado leaves. A few minutes on high and I had a smooth, delicious tomato and chile sauce for my tinga.

By now it read time to take the chicken off the heat and let it cool in the broth. This keeps the chicken moist.

While it was cooling I sliced the remaining onion thin and chef-like because I totally have mad skills like that. In my mind.

I slow-fried the onions in oil for several minutes, until they got nice and translucent. Then I added some diced choizo.

It was Spanish chorizo, as all chorizo in the UK comes from Spain, but I mexed it up a bit by adding some ground chile powder.

When the chorizo was cooked through, I added the tomato and chile sauce, plus the piloncillo, and let it simmer for a few minutes while I shredded the chicken.

I added the shredded chicken to the pan and ladled in the broth I poached it in (which was now a light chicken stock) until their was enough liquid to cover the chicken: not quite 100 mL.

I let this simmer on low for about 15 minutes. Then I turned off the heat, let it cool, covered it, and put it in the fridge, where the flavours matured all the livelong day.

That way when it was time to make dinner, all I had to do was heat the tinga gently on the hob and make some Mexican white rice (arroz blanco).

I used the recipe from A Mexican Cook in Ireland because it includes lots of butter!

Ladle the tinga over the rice, top with some chopped avocado and spring onion y provecho!

Plated up and ready to rock your world.

This dish packs untold depths of flavour, balancing sweetness, acidity (from the tomatoes) and two types of smokiness, plus chile heat.

It's also dead easy to make. The hardest part is actually prepping the chiles, which you can skip if you just use Gran Luchito chile paste.

Also: I say this serves two, but we each got to go back for (eagerly anticipated) seconds.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

"Enchiladas" tultecas: not your abuela's enchiladas

Unless you come from Tamaulipas in the Fifties, you have probably never heard of this dish. It ain't what you normally get when you order enchiladas.

I could be missing something, but I think the name means "Toltec 'enchiladas'" (the inverted commas are necessary), though I'm sure I don't know why. Did the Toltecs really eat this?

Considering these are a kind of quesadilla, I'd have to guess "no". Cheese is a Spanish introduction and not found in prehispanic Mexican cuisine.

Even the Diana Kennedy recipe I took inspiration from, which is light on the cheese, includes Spanish-derived things like chorizo.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible some indigenous Mesoamericans worked chile paste into their tortillas, so who knows?

But enough teasing; let's talk about what these things are.

"Enchiladas" tultecas, as I have made them, are essentially a kind of quesadilla made from chile-infused tortilla dough.

A traditional enchilada is a corn tortilla dipped in chile sauce, fried, and stuffed with a delicious filling.

(Outside Mexico, an enchilada is usually a filled tortilla - corn or flour - covered in chile sauce and then baked in the oven.)

A quesadilla, as most of us know it, is a tortilla filled with cheese (and hopefully something else too), folded over and grilled on a comal or griddle.

But there is another way to make quesadillas. You make some corn tortillas, but before you cook them you fill them with cheese and fold them over. Then you can asar-roast them on the comal or fry them.

I have always wanted to try this, and "enchiladas" tultecas seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The first step is to make the "enchillied" tortilla dough.

Unfortunately, Kennedy is one of these masa purists who don't believe in using masa harina. So she just calls for some masa (that you presumably either ground yourself or bought from your local tortilla factory) "as dry as possible".

The fact that I got mine to work is down to an accident: my kitchen scales just broke. So when I tried measure out my usual 250 g of masa harina, I got somewhat more than that.

I remember thinking "That looks like quite a bit of masa harina. Oh well."

So when I added the 300 ml of hot water, the mixture never quite became a dough. It was just too dry.

Ordinarily I'd be fucked, but in this case it was a stroke of luck, because I had a rather wet chile paste to work into this dough.

Because my scales were broken I don't really know how much masa harina went in. To recreate this I would suggest adding 300 g of masa harina to 300 ml of hot water, then keep adding masa harina a tablespoon at a time until you can no longer incorporate it into the dough.

The chile paste is made from two dried ancho chiles. Anchos are dried chiles poblanos and a staple of Mexican cooking. They look like this:

I get my anchos from The Cool Chile Company
This is them, out of the bag.

If I had peso for every Mexican recipe I've read that calls for ancho chiles, I'd quit my job and open a restaurant. If you have only one kind of dried chile in your store cupboard, it should be chiles anchos.

They are also the main ingredient in enchilada sauce, so they are the classic flavour of enchiladas.

My recipe called for two chiles to be worked into the tortilla dough, plus I used one for the filling.

Ancho chile paste

Take the stems off two ancho chiles, then tear the chiles into flat pieces.

Put the chile pieces on a hot, dry frying pan and toast them for a few seconds on each side. As these are wrinkly-skinned chiles, you'll have to press down with your spatula.

After a few seconds they should release their aroma and you'll see the skin start to blister. The red colour of the flesh will be more apparent then before toasting.

(Some books call this a "tobacco colour" but I don't smoke. It looks pretty red to me.)

Once all the chiles are toasted, put them in a bowl, cover with just-boiled water, weigh them down with a plate, and let them soak for about ten minutes.

Remove the chiles with tongs and blend to a paste, adding a bit of the soaking water as necessary to keep the blades from sticking. I use a hand blender because two chiles doesn't make a lot of paste and you don't want it trapped in the bottom of your blender jar.

Now work this paste into your very dry tortilla dough. It magically becomes the consistency of normal tortilla dough.

Keep the chile soaking water handy (never pour it down the drain!), and if your masa is still too dry, add the water a spoonful at a time until it's right.

This is normal tortilla dough from masa harina:

And this is my "enchillied" tortilla dough:

Now you need a filling.

Kennedy's filling was quite complicated, calling for chorizo, chayote, and potatoes and chicken (both precooked), but I decided to simplify.

I crumbled some feta (as a substitute for queso fresco) and mixed in some Mexican oregano, olive oil, and the remaining ancho chile.

I tried to dice the chile, but it was so soft it turned into so paste anyway.

Ancho chile cheese

  • 125 g feta cheese (or use ricotta, cottage cheese, or even mozzarella)
  • 1 chile ancho
  • 1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Prepare the chile as for a normal chile paste.

Crumble the cheese into a mixing bowl.

Add the olive oil, oregano, and chile paste, and mix until fully combined. Use your hands!

Refrigerate until needed.

To finish the "enchiladas", begin the same way you would as if making tortillas, but before you cook the tortilla, put a dessert spoon of your filling on one half of it, fold it over, and press down to seal, sort of like an empanada:

Then you can cook them on a hot dry pan (asar-roasting on a comal) or shallow-fry them.

I tried both; I found the shape of the "enchiladas" made it hard to cook the tortillas through with just a dry pan.

As the "enchiladas" are dry, I served them with a bit of homemade guacamole.

It was blender guacamole, not molcajete guacamole, meaning I blitzed it to a smooth texture instead of mashing it to a traditional chunky texture.

Hey, I was in a hurry. It still tasted great.

We had a side salad too.

And about the enchiladas themselves...

The chile-infused tortillas: delicious.

The ancho-chile cheese filling. Also delicious. However a bit much all together. I think it would work better as a filling for a normal quesadilla.

Other observations: although everything tasted great, I'm not sure it was actually better than the easy way of making quesadillas, which is to take a ready-made tortilla, fill it with cheese and things, and grill it.

Similarly, I'm not sure this was an improvement on traditional enchiladas. In fact, I kind of missed the sauce (even with the guacamole, it was a pretty dry dish).

Still, I'm glad I made it. Now I know I don't need to feel guilty about quick-and-easy quesadillas, plus it was a successful first try at making flavoured tortillas.

I still don't get the "toltec" thing though.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Tortillas dobladas, or How NOT to puff a panucho

So the other week, when I made pollo pibil, I intended to serve the chicken breast on top of a panucho.

A panucho is a thick corn tortilla stuffed with refried beans, a speciality of Yucatecan cuisine. It was the first type of tortilla I ever made and I was inspired to have another go when I heard my amigo Freddy made them for a dinner party.

In general, corn tortillas should puff during cooking, so they should all have a stuffable pocket. While making this latest batch of panuchos (the first time using my new tortilla press), I paid particular attention to the puffing.

Unfortunately, though the tortillas puffed beautifully, the pockets were to thin and fragile to be stuffed.

They were still tortillas, not panuchos.

Automatic FAIL, right?


I just changed the menu to "tortillas dobladas"!

Tortillas dobladas ("doubled tortillas") is something I came across in Diana Kennedy's Essential Cuisines of Mexico, which is currently my bedtime reading.

Kennedy's recipe, based on a snack she ate on a picnic in Mexico, is basically to spread salsa (either red or green) on a tortilla, fold it over and fry it on both sides.

The result would be a simple but delicious snack in the shape of a half-moon.

Taking inspiration from this, I spread the refried black beans over a tortilla, topped it with another tortilla (I wanted to keep the disc shape), and fried that on each side.

The result was perfect, and so much easier than panuchos that I may just switch to these from now on.

It's as good as a panucho, right?

Holy frijoles!

One of the posts I meant to write last year was about beans. Beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine and pretty much have been since pre-Hispanic times.

In fact, when my fellow food blogger Leslie Limon interviewed prominent Mexican chef Aquiles Chávez, he defined his nation's cuisine as "corn plus beans multiplied by chiles".

And yet beans are so ubiquitous you can easily take them for granted, passing them over for more complicated dishes.

It was Isabel Hood's Chilli and Chocolate that inspired me to cook my own beans (frijoles) from scratch, because she puts bean recipes first - giving them the place they actually deserve.

So last Summer, instead of just buying a tin of beans, I got a half kilo of dried black turtle beans (my favourite kind; I must have Yucatecan ancestry) and made some homemade frijoles de olla (pot-cooked beans: the classic Mexican bean recipe).

Although this took all day, I didn't get any photos. Lame, I know.

Luckily, another fellow food blogger, Lily Ramirez-Foran, has recently done a post about beans.

I basically did what she did, except I didn't use a pressure-cooker. Instead I brought the beans from cold to a vigorous boil on high heat and then reduced the heat and let them simmer for hours and hours.

Like Lily, I recommend making a huge batch and dividing it into several portions for use in other recipes. They freeze and defrost very well.

Right away I used one portion to make pumpkin and black bean soup. Another portion went into a tortilla casserole that even my three-year-old daughter loved.

And one portion got "refried" and went into my tortillas dobladas.

By the way refrito in Spanish means "thoroughly cooked", not "fried again".

In practise you often do make frijoles refritos by cooking them twice, though you can go straight to refried beans from frijoles de olla if you want to.

Either way, they're still only fried once.

I fried my beans in pork lard for an authentic flavour. One of my earliest memories of beans is asking my mother why some cans of beans were labelled "vegetarian" and finding out that beans are traditionally fried in lard in Mexico.

I have one batch of beans left: the batch with the most cooking liquid still in it. My plan is to turn it into a bean sauce and make enfrijoladas, which are like enchiladas but with bean sauce instead of chile sauce.

I'll definitely get pics of that.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Breakfast with MexiGeek: Quesadilla enchilada

I had some leftover "en-chillied" tortillas: tortillas which had ancho-chile paste worked into the dough.

I decided to make a quick quesadilla.

First I spread some chipotle paste over one tortilla.

Then I added the cheese. Ideally it would be queso fresco, something crumbly like feta, or maybe ricotta, but all I had left was white cheddar.

I topped it with some surprisingly good pickled red jalapenos.

Then I put another tortilla over it (instead of folding the tortilla over, which is the usual method).

I fried the quesadilla in butter, just to make it more healthy.

Typically you would fry your quesadilla in pork lard, but any oil would do. A flavourless one like sunflower or rapeseed works perfectly.

The chipotle and jalapenos really "made" this dish in terms of the filling. Both brought a beautiful mix of chile heat and sweetness to contrast the saltiness of the cheese.

But I also love these "en-chillied" tortillas. Ancho is the classic flavour of enchiladas, and it's running all through the tortilla dough.

Quite a faff to make, but so delicious!

(Traditional enchiladas are much easier.)