Sunday, 28 April 2013

Breakfast with MexiGeek: impromptu grilled halloumi quesadilla with salsa de jitomate y Luchito

This was kind of an "invention test" breakfast.

I came downstairs and find nothing to eat except:

Leftover flour tortillas



Some deli-sliced ham

A jar of Gran Luchito

Plus a limited larder

(Mind, my "limited larder" contains some amazing Mexican herbs and spices.)

You can probably see I watch too much Masterchef.

So I put two tomatoes and a clove of garlic on the comal to dry roast.

(Don't over-roast the garlic.)

Then I removed the skins, popped the garlic and toms into a blender with a teaspoon of Mexican oregano, a dessert spoon of Gran Luchito, and a splash of cider vinegar and blended to a smooth consistency.

Then I grilled some halloumi on the comal and diced it.

Then I put the halloumi and some finely chopped ham on one side of a tortilla, folded it over and grilled on both sides.

Finally, I topped with my sauce y provecho!

The sauce was amazing and the halloumi worked surprisingly well considering it's the wrong kind of cheese for a quesadilla.

If you're making this at home, definitely substitute a melting cheese.

Unless, like me, halloumi is the only cheese you have in the house.

I'm not sure if John and Greg would have let me through to the next round, but I will say if you've got a jar of Luchito handy you'll have to work hard NOT make something delicious.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Gringa Dairy: THE place to get Mexican cheese in Britain

If there's one Mexican ingredient that's nearly impossible to find outside of Mexico it's real Mexican cheese.

(And I haven't found fresh epazote yet.)

That's why London's Gringa Dairy, based in Peckham, is so amazing. They're making real queso fresco right here in the UK!

Cheese is probably the least exported of all Mexican ingredients, and therefore the least familiar to non-Mexicans.

Queso fresco literally means "fresh cheese". It's an unaged white cheese made from cow's milk with a consistency similar to feta.

Recipes aimed at cooks living outside Mexico often suggest substituting feta, ricotta, or even cottage cheese. But none of these are quite right.

Feta for example, is too salty and made from the wrong kind of milk.

Because Gringa Dairy produces its cheese here in the UK, we can now add a level of authenticity to our Mexican food that hasn't previously been possible.

Obviously I have ordered some for myself (you can order yours here).

In the meantime I asked Kristen, the Dairy's founder (and fellow Californian expat) about her journey to becoming to UK's first producer of Mexican-style cheese.

What inspired you to make Mexican cheeses here in the UK?
I have long wanted to be a cheese maker and felt that no one needed another cheddar!

It was clear to me that there was finally an opportunity for this kind of cheesemaking in the UK, based on the rapid and recent increase in the availability of quality Mexican food and the correspondingly rapid maturing supply chain importing ingredients from Mexico, the US and the EU.

However, one of the missing pieces of the puzzle is the supply of goods like cheese that require a cold chain (that is, they must be continuously refrigerated).

It’s expensive to import these kinds of products and a short shelf life and tricky import laws make it even more economically risky.

So, it just really made sense to me that there was an opportunity to make these cheeses in the UK.
Due to Tex-Mex influences, authentic Mexican cheeses are among the least familiar Mexican ingredients outside Mexico. How did you discover them?
Did you know that Mexico exports less than 3% of the cheeses it produces?

As you might guess, 99% of what is exported goes to the USA.

There are some people out there who are committed to increasing the awareness of Mexican cheeses, such as Carlos Yescas at Lactography, but there is a long way to go before these cheeses get the recognition they deserve!

As for me, I am originally from California, living in both the Central Valley and San Francisco.

My teen years were spent at a high school that was primarily Latino and Mexican culture has simply been there most of my life. So, I guess I have always been familiar with the cheeses.

But I agree about the Tex-Mex influence really skewing the role of cheese in the cuisine as a whole and then Monterey Jack somehow became seen as “Mexican” cheese. (Though I admit Monterey Jack is something of a guilty pleasure…kind of like eating Pringles!)
A lot of the recent flowering of interest in Mexican food here is inspired by expats, either from Mexico or parts of the United States, who find they can't do without their favourite cuisine. What brought you to the UK?
Work. My partner got a job here and we thought it would be fun to shake things up a bit and live abroad.
What are your favourite Mexican dishes and is cheese a vital part of them?
This answer could take a very long time, so I will keep it short.

I dearly love the regionalism of the cuisine, so I have a lot of favourite areas.

I really like the traditional food of Oaxaca and will walk miles for good cochinita pibil. Do not get your hand between my mouth and a really fresh tuna taco and I have been dreaming of tres leches cake for the past week.

But I do tend towards dishes that are best finished with a sprinkle of Queso Fresco or Cotija as I like cheese as an accent.

I think it is because so many Mexican dishes are created through “layering” flavour.

Meat, veggies, moles and cheese really come together to make some amazing dishes.

Oh, and let’s not forget LARD - there is a town an hour from where I grew up named Manteca!

Okay, and another admission - I do love a good burrito. I am from California after all! I prefer Chihuahua for these.
Is Mexican cheese (in particular) or Mexican food (in general) bound up with any specific memory or experience?
After 5 years in London, I will say “being warm”!

I do have lovely memories of the places I have been and the people I have met, but I think if I trace it back to the start of it all, it was my neighbour’s abuela teaching us how to make refried beans when I was about 12 years old.

Life changing stuff, that.

The motto of MexiGeek is All Mexican Food is Local, which means two things:
  • Mexican food has incredible regional variation and is always made with local produce and according to local traditions (even ubiquitous dishes like tamales vary greatly from one region to the next)

  • When you cook Mexican food outside of Mexico, you inevitably have to make some local substitutions, effectively creating your own new "local" Mexican cuisine

  • Thanks to Gringa Dairy, we now have a local version of an authentic Mexican cheese!

    Five years ago - or even five months ago - I never would hadn't imagined this would be possible.

    The New Mexican Revolution rolls on!

    Saturday, 20 April 2013

    Atole blanco (plain atole)

    Well, all my chile plants are dead, so I found a half-hour to get back into the kitchen. I decided to cook plain atole, or atole blanco, for three reasons:
    • It's quick
    • I'm running low on masa harina (can't get out to Lupe Pinto's until baby can stay quiet for more than ten minutes)
    • I wasn't that impressed by the chocolate-flavoured atole I made over Christmas, so I wanted to try the more basic version
    First a recap: atole is a traditional Mexican hot drink made of white corn (surprise).

    The name comes from Nahuatl atolli, which probably means "corn and water", the main ingredients. You can think of it as a drinkable corn porridge, and it's very comforting and delicious.

    Originally prehispanic (it was described in the writings of the conquistadors), it has modernized considerably and evolved into many variations.

    The most famous is probably champurrado, the chocolate version. When I say I wasn't impressed with it, it's because champurrado tastes like Mexican hot chocolate, which is easier to make than atole, since you don't have to add masa harina.

    There are also any number of fruit-flavoured versions, and even some savoury, spicy ones. I'm particularly keen to try one with epazote and serrano chiles.

    But this time I made a simple sweet atole lightly flavoured with star anise.

    The most traditional recipes say you have to make atole from white corn slowly cooked in water until it gets soft.

    This is as opposed to nixtamalized corn, which is corn soaked in slaked lime until the outer hulls come off.

    On the other hand, some modern recipes and blogs suggest people are making atole with corn flour (cornstarch to North Americans) now.

    I went in between and used a simple corn tortilla dough made from equal quantities masa harina and hand-hot water. It's a great thing to make when you haven't got quite enough masa harina left to make a batch of tortillas.
    Atole blanco
    600 ml hot water
    70 g masa (70 g masa harina and 70 ml hot water)
    A one-ounce cone of piloncillo (you can substitute dark brown sugar, molasses or treacle, or even plain white caster sugar)
    A star anise
    Put the hot water in a pot with the piloncillo and anise.
    Simmer gently until the piloncillo has melted.
    Add 70 g masa harina to 70 ml hot water and mix until just combined.
    Then put the masa dough into a blender with a couple ladlefuls of the sweetened water and blend until smooth.
    Add the masa mixture to the pot and stir it up.
    Now just let it cook over the lowest possible heat for about five minutes until it thickens.
    ¡Y provecho!
    A lot of flavoured atoles are made with milk. I used water for a more prehispanic touch, but milk would definitely work in this recipe.

    I only used one cone of piloncillo because I just wanted a hint of sweetness, but you could up the sugar if you want to.

    And if you're not keen on aniseed you can season your atole with anything you want (within reason). Cinnamon and/or vanilla are the classic choices.

    Or just leave the beautiful white corn flavour to speak for itself.

    Atole is the traditional accompaniment to tamales, but I could go a steaming hot cup of this on any cold morning (and we had a lot of those until recently).

    I would also rather eat this than normal porridge or oatmeal any day of the week. But that's what makes me MexiGeek.

    Now, I didn't take any photos of this atole, but I did make a video.

    It's not quite the video I set out to make (the audio sucked so I had to reinvent it as a silent movie), but it's pretty good for something I edited mostly between 23.30 and 0.59 with a six-week-old baby in one arm.