Friday, 22 March 2013

Amateur Chile-Growing (Day 14): chile knowledge

Since my last chile post, all my varieties have sprouted. So far, so good.

In fact, the chinenses are no longer in the lead. The Peruvian Purple has totally overtaken them.

Peruvian Purple in the back row, güeros up front. I'm totally risking cross-breeding.

The güeros aren't doing too badly either. And the jalapeños are bringing up the rear.

Well, one of them is doing all right.

I actually need to start thinking about "potting on" (transferring these little compost plugs to a larger pot) soon.

I never got that far last year, but these babies won't keep growing unless I give them more room.

I'll need good-sized pots and more compost by the time these sprouts get a couple sets of leaves each.

As predicted, my malaguetas have totally slowed down, though there are some fairly big green ones that will taste nice of I can get them to ripen.

So in the meantime I'm going to drop a little chile knowledge on you. I've written previous posts called "The Truth about Chiles", but they didn't have much specialist information about chiles.

Of course, I'm nowhere near a chile expert. But I work with them a lot, and I have a tendency to remember everything I read. So here are some things I know about chiles.

The first thing I want to mention is that the genus name for all true chiles is capsicum. "Capsicum" is also what Australians call bell peppers. Because bell peppers are a chile too.


But one of the weirdest things about chiles is that there are only a handful of distinct species. The exact number is up for debate, but it's probably around five:
  • C. baccatum (the ají pepper family)
  • C. pubescens (the rocoto pepper family)
  • C. frutescens (the tabasco family)
  • C. chinense (the habanero family)
  • C. annuum (the big family that includes jalapeños, poblanos, and most other chiles you'll have heard of. Also bell peppers.)
But how can this be? There are meant to be over 200 varieties of chile in Mexico alone.

The explanation is there are three ways of categorizing chiles: the botanical, the horticultural, and the culinary.

Botany is a hardcore science, and as such it uses the strict scientific definition of "species", which states that two organisms are members of the same species if they can produce healthy, fertile offspring.

Since chile plants are really good at interbreeding and crossbreeding, this approach greatly limits the number of actual chile species.

A horticulturalist, by contrast, will determine species by examining the physical characteristics of the plants. Unfortunately for chileheads, they are interested in the leaves and flowers, not the fruit (the chiles themselves).

Since a lot of chile plants have the same leaf and flower shape, this once again limits the number of species.

But in the kitchen none of that matters, just like it doesn't matter that tomatoes are technically fruit.

For example, the poblano plant yields three different chiles, from a culinary perspective.

Chiles poblanos are the large, fresh green chiles used for rajas and chiles rellenos among other things. As with pretty much all green chiles, they are the immature or underripe state of the fruit.

They usually ripen to red, at which point they are dried (in order to preserve them) and they become chiles anchos ("wide chiles"), used in more chile sauces, moles, and other dishes than I can name in one blog post.

But some poblanos ripen to brown instead of red. When these are picked and dried they are called chiles mulatos. And though they would have been interchangeable in their fresh green state, you cannot substitute mulatos for anchos. They just don't taste the same.

In fact, the famous mole poblano requires you two have both kinds; not one or the other: both. Or it ain't mole poblano.

And of course don't even think about substituting anchos or mulatos for fresh green poblanos.

But all three chiles come from the same plant (which just happens to be the same species as a jalapeño and a bell pepper).

Horticulture isn't blind to these variations. The many different chile-pod types of a given species are called "cultivars". (Of course, poblanos and anchos are the same cultivar.)

So when you read about the 200+ varieties of chile used in Mexico, it's because cooks and chefs are interested in how the chiles taste and how best to cook (with) them. If two cultivars of the same species have different uses in the kitchen, they are de facto different chiles to us.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Sweet and Spicy: Habaneros' Hot Sauce review

Photo from

The last time I was in Birmingham Habaneros didn't exist. If it had, I would have forced the entire crew of the Times Spelling Bee to have lunch there.

One of the things I love about being MexiGeek is discovering new Mexican food products and suppliers here in the UK.

So when Habaneros offered to send me a bottle of their homemade sauce, I was like "Sí, claro!"

But first a little background on these guys.

Habaneros define their cuisine as "Mexican Street Food". The menu sticks to a handful of Mexican classics, with a focus on fresh, locally and sustainably sourced produce.

They import chiles and other speciality ingredients from Mexico; everything else comes from the local area.

The emphasis on local suppliers and short, traceable supply chains has always been a mark of quality in the food industry, but in light of recent events it has become pretty much essential.

Habaneros name the local farm that supplies their meats, and even their vegetable dishes are used with seasonal produce, so your veggie taco will have slightly different veg in spring than in Autumn.

Amazing! That alone would be reason enough to support them, but there are a couple other things that earn Habaneros a place on my "must-visit" list.

The burrito/taco fillings include barbacoa and chcken tinga!

The tinga is especially exciting for me. So many places would just dust some grilled chicken with chile powder and call it "Mexican". That Habaneros is offering a true classic of Mexican street/market food puts a big MexiGeek smile on my face.

Also, carnitas, barbacoa, and tinga all come with some significant time investments. These are marinaded, slow-cooked meals. So this menu shows that Habaneros are willing to put the time in.

Pickled Red Onions, aka cebollas en escabeche are my favourite condiment ever! I can never get enough of these.

And of course there are the homemade sauces.

All Habaneros' sauces are homemade right in the restaurant. This includes not only the one I tried, but its mild, medium, and extra-hot cousins, and of course Mexico's sine qua non sauces guacamole and fresh tomato salsa.

I tried the "Hot Sauce", which is their second-hottest sauce and the hottest one they generally offer to customers (the "Habanero XXX" sauce is apparently only available by request).

This is a smooth pouring sauce, rather than a chunky diping salsa.

Before I even opened the bottle the ingredients had me intrigued: habanero chiles came first (nice), plus there were some classic Yucatecan spices like allspice, black pepper, and cumin. And peaches!

For me, the peaches are the true genius-stroke of this sauce. Sweet and spicy is one of the world's great culinary pairings. You could easily achieve that with just sugar. But using fruit also boosts flavour, and since habaneros themselves have a fruity taste, it's an excellent match.

Fruit and chile go hand-in-hand in Mexican cuisine. A simple fruit salad will invariably be topped with chile and lime powder called tajín. Fresh and dried fruits feature in most of the moles. They even add fresh fruit or fruit juices to guacamole and salsa in the Yucatán.

It's an instantly addictive combination, and I've been putting this sauce on nearly everything I eat for the past couple days.

I've even been tempted to drink it straight from the bottle.

But be careful though. The sauce is made from habanero chiles, so it has a pretty healthy kick. It's nothing I can't handle, but if you don't eat chiles literally every day of your life like I do, you may want to use it sparingly. A little habanero goes a long way.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Amateur Chile-Growing (day 7)

MexiGeek is many things. "Gardener" is not one of them.

But I love chiles so much I'm actually attempting to grow my own.

I tried this last year too. I eventually got some green shoots in my propagator. But then I went on holiday for two weeks and when I came back they were nearly dead.

I managed to revive them, sort of, but they never flowered and certainly never set fruit.

Then a few weeks ago I came home to find that Mrs MexiGeek had bought me a chile plant already setting fruit. I don't know exactly which kind of chile because the label typically doesn't say.

(This is a common problem with commercially-bought fresh chiles in the UK.)

They are definitely a kind of capsicum frutescens, possibly malaguetas, a Brazilian relative of the tabasco chile.

The chile pods have the long, thin, tapered look of tabascos, and they remain upright rather than hanging (pendant), which is apparently typical of capsicum frutescens.

However, true tabascos are meant to ripen first to yellow or orange before turning red, while these go straight from green to red.

The other reason I think they might be a tabasco relative is that they are pretty fucking hot.

I don't know how much longer this plant will continue setting fruit, but in the meantime it inspired me to plant more chiles of my own.

Last year I planted jalapeños, güeros (Hungarian wax peppers), and something I've never heard of called the "Peruvian Purple". I'm trying all three again this year, but I've got a new chile as well.

A friend of my mother-in-law's grows her own chiles and gave me some; I saved the seeds and planted them along with the other varieties.

These chiles were yellow, but very hot, and clearly a kind of capsicum chinense (the habanero family).

They had the characteristic "chinese lantern" shape you get from habaneros and Scotch Bonnets except that they were longer, like a Naga (which is a chinense/frutescens hybrid), but even more so.

They also had the fruity sweetness you often get with ripe C. chinense chiles.

(Of course, these chiles tend to be so hot many people don't notice they actually have a flavour. But you should really try tasting past the heat. You'd be very impressed.)

At Day 7 after planting, the chinenses are the only chiles to have begun sprouting.

Look hard. There's definitely a green shoot in there.

If they continue to do well I'm curious to find out a couple more things about them.

  • Is yellow their fully ripe colour or do they turn orange and red?
  • Do they taste better when fully ripe or immature (green)?

While the new baby keeps me from having time to cook elaborate food, I'll be periodically updating you on my chiles and writing about other Mexican food topics.

Before I sign off for this week, though, here's my chile wish-list (chiles I'd like to grow at home in an ideal world):

True habaneros: when I need fresh habaneros I usually get Scotch Bonnets. Some books say they're the same thing; some say they're not. Just in case, I'd like to have my own supply of the real McCoy.

Chocolate habaneros: they don't taste of chocolate, but I want them anyway.

Chiles de árbol: the second-hottest chile in Mexico. If I had these on tap I'd make salsa picante every week!

Chiles serranos: the jalapeño is the one fresh Mexican chile you can usually buy from a UK supermarket, but god help you if you need serranos.

Oddly, there a few chiles I don't want to grow:

Jalapeños: I know I am trying to grow them right now, but that's just because they're there. These are too readily available to need to grow your own.

Poblanos: one of my favourites, and very hard to get in Britain. So why don't I want to grow them?
Because making chiles rellenos or even rajas is such a faff, I actually like having their limited availability as an excuse not to make them more frequently.

Pasillas de Oaxaca: This is my new favourite chile, but it's a smoked chile, and don't see myself smoking chiles at home. So there's no point in growing them.
Hasta luego!

Monday, 4 March 2013

¡Viva la Revolución! or no quiero Taco Bell

I am not on vacation. I am on my Babymoon. (It's totally a word; look it up.)

I haven't been doing much elaborate cooking since the arrival of Baby MexiGeek número dos, but this is a good opportunity to talk about something that's been happening in the UK over the past few years. Some people are calling it the New Mexican Revolution.

I actually have a bad association with the phrase "Mexican Revolution" as applied to food, thanks to crap like this:

Once at Open Mic Night at the Mercury Café (which is the coolest place in Denver), a Hispanic poet summed up his opinion of this ad with the lines
Your revolución is not my revolución.
Fuck that dog.
And for the record, in 21 years of living in the US, I never once saw a Mexican eat at Taco Bell.

This UK "New Mexican Revolution" is essentially a growing interest in and awareness of Mexican cuisine in the UK. And this time it's legit. I've seen it myself.

When I first moved here, it was still a novelty to get flour tortillas in supermarkets, and they were invariably called "wraps".

Every "Mexican" restaurant seemed to be a fajita factory, and no one I met had ever heard of enchiladas.

I once got excited because I found a jar labelled "guacamole" at Tesco. It turned out to be avocado-flavoured mushy peas.

What is it with you Brits and your mushy peas? Seriously.

Of course, even back then there were some early pioneers.

Lupe Pinto's in Edinburgh has been importing and selling Mexican ingredients for over 20 years. They also make hella good guacamole and salsa.

And the Cool Chile Company in London have been importing dried chiles from Mexico since 1995.

I moved to Edinburgh in 2001, and if it weren't for Lupe Pinto's I wouldn't have survived. I got everything from them: tortillas, beans, spices and seasonings, tomatillos, even my favourite Mexican beer, Negra Modelo.

This one time I got a can of chipotles en adobo and made these awesome burritos. But I used the whole can (plus some other chiles) and they were so hot Mrs MexiGeek could literally see through time, like Lisa Simpson when Apu cooked Indian food.

Good times!

But in 2005 Thomasina Miers won Masterchef. Her cooking had a huge influence from her time in Mexico, and she went on to found the Wahaca restaurant chain and write two excellent Mexican cookbooks.

And in the past few years especially there seems to have been an explosion of Mexican products, restaurants, and suppliers, from chipotles in major supermarkets to recipes for Yucatecan pickled onions in Good Housekeeping to the rare and coveted pasillas Oaxaquenas being available on British soil thanks to Luchito.

The thing is, London is getting a disproportionate share of this New Mexican Revolution, especially regarding restaurants.

The majority of the UK quality Mexican restaurants are in London. They even had the UK's only Mexican bakery, Los Pastelitos, until it closed recently. ;(

As the UK's capital and largest city, you'd expect London to have more of everything, and to get everything first. But I'd still like to see a bit of that action up here in Scotland.

There's a Wagamama on Lothian Road; why isn't there a Wahaca as well?

Obviously, this has to be a two-way street. A browse of the menus of Auld Reekie's existing Mexican restaurants still yields a helluva lot of fajitas. But I'm starting to suspect that, at least in some cases, this has more to do with what the clientele demand than what the chefs want to make.

We, as a nation, need to put down the fajitas and try something new.

(Ironically, this "something new" would likely be a very old dish, like pato en pipián, which is duck in a delicious sauce made from pumpkinseeds.)

As soon as Baby MexiGeek can go on a plane, I need to arrange a trip to London to tour some of these places (Mestizo and Taquería are topping the must-see list so far).

Until then, let's all keep spreading the word about Mexican cuisine and see if we can make this a Permanent Revolution.