Thursday, 30 May 2013

Pollo en salsa de cacahuates (chicken in peanut sauce)

A peanut-sauce is something most British people associate with Asian cuisine (think of satay, for instance).

But peanuts, like chiles, are a New World crop, and were brought to Asia from Central and South America by Spanish and Portuguese traders.

A sauce like this is equally unfamiliar to Americans, because most Mexican food in the US is based on Northern Mexican cuisine, whereas this sauce seems to be more Central/Southern Mexican.

For example, I got this recipe from Laura, who runs the Meetup group All Things Mexico in London. She was inspired to share it with the group after a visit to her native Veracruz State, where this dish is a local speciality. Diana Kennedy, the Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine, writes of a similar dish in she had in Mexico City.

As soon as I read Laura's recipe, I knew I had to cook this. Apart from being delicious, it's actually quite simple to prepare.

But most importantly it represents an important aspect of Mexican cuisine that doesn't get the attention deserves.

I read once that archaeological evidence suggests that nuts and seeds were what first prompted ancient Mesoamericans to settle in what is now Mexico.

Peanuts were being sold in the markets of Tenochtitlan when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

Laura's recipe was:

  • 2 chicken breasts
  •  150 g peanuts, shelled and skinned (I used salted peanuts and added less salt when seasoning)
  • 120 ml cream (I used single cream)
  • 1 onion (I used half a large onion)
  • 1 chipotle
You can buy dried chipotles from Sainsbury's and sometimes Tesco. Probably the best place to get them is the Cool Chile Company though.

There are also lots of chipotle pastes for sale, but I wouldn't use a bottled chipotle sauce for this dish.

To prepare, put all the ingredients except the chicken into a food predecessor and blend to a smooth sauce. (I ground the peanuts in my molcajete first, because I like to make things harder than they have to be.)

Meanwhile, cook your chicken. I poached mine for about 20 minutes with the rest of the onion, a toasted avocado leaf, and ten black peppercorns.

When your chicken is done, heat some oil in so pan and fry the sauce for a few minutes. It reduces and darkens to a lovely medium brown colour. And it smells delicious.

Now put the chicken on a plate and cover with the sauce.

Laura recommended serving with white rice, but I had just bought some blue masa harina, so I served them with blue corn tortillas instead.

I did NOT turn this into tacos, however. Tacos are antojitos; this is a plato fuerte.

The chicken was tender and juicy from the poaching and the sauce is easily the most delicious thing I've cooked in a long time.

I served the rest of the sauce in a bowl on the side and Mrs MexiGeek and I happily finished it off in one sitting.

There are a couple things in particular I find interesting about this recipe.

First: nothing gets roasted on the comal. It's a very "light" sauce in terms of colour (though, as you can imagine, very rich as well).

Second: only one chipotle. Although I'm an infamous chile-head, one misconception about Mexican food I'd like to set straight is that all Mexican food is blow-your-head-off spicy.

It's not. There are some hot chiles in Mexico, and some very picante dishes; but the role of chiles in Mexican food is to enhance flavour.

This sauce has so nice "afterglow" (to use Diana Kennedy's phrase). The smokiness of the chipotle in particular gives it a depth of flavour and makes it very different from an Asian peanut sauce.

And lastly, this is so quick to make you could have this any night of the week.

If you make the sauce while the chicken and rice are cooking this dish probably represents about 45 minutes from prepping to plating.

And how awesome is it to cook an authentic Mexican meal mid-week, especially one that's a world away from fajitas and other pseudo-Mexican food?

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Breakfast with MexiGeek: egg over-easy on a homemade blue corn tortilla

I'm quite used to blue corn tortillas (though I don't get to eat them much any more), but Mrs MexiGeek's reaction to these reminded me that blue isn't a colour everyone is comfortable with in food.

To Mexican food aficionados, blue corn rocks. It has a very different flavour (and texture) to the white corn used in normal tortillas.

I find it a bit sweeter in an almost floral way (definitely NOT sweet like yellow sweetcorn).

I made these tortillas last night. This morning I took one of the leftovers and fried it lightly on each side.

Then I dropped a few cumin seeds into the hot oil, Indian cuisine style.

Then I fried an egg over-easy, seasoning it with salt, pepper, and epazote.

Then I topped the tortilla with the egg and covered it with chipotle sauce.

The rest of the leftovers will go to make blue corn tortilla chips, which are the epitome of tortilla chips.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Quesadillas con rajas: starring queso fresco from Gringa Dairy

Note the colours of the Mexican flag. Most delicious flag ever.

Quesadillas are not a complicated dish, but they are good for two things:
  • They're doable when you don't have a lot of time to cook because you have a three-month-old baby
  • They're perfect for testing out the new queso fresco you bought from Gringa Dairy in London
Actually I've been "testing" the cheese since I got it. So has my family. We keep testing it just a little more, to make sure it's still delicious.

It always is.

The cheese has been a major player in my sandwiches all week as well. It even stood up to my homemade chipotle sauce.

For those of you who are whisky drinkers, my favourite single malt is Ardbeg, which should give you an idea of how smoky I make my chipotle sauce.

You might expect a fresh white cheese like queso fresco to get lost when paired with such bold, spicy flavours, but on the contrary it was present in every delicious bite.

My family and I also got through quite a bit of cheese just on its own (pieces of queso fresco are apparently served as botanas - the Mexican equivalent of tapas - in some parts of Mexico).

Until Gringa Dairy started up, you couldn't get queso fresco in this country, so a lot of us won't know what it's like.

Especially confusing to the uninitiated is the variety of substitutes recommended by various recipes, even in the same cookbook. How can one cheese be the equivalent of feta, mozzarella, ricotta, cottage cheese, and halloumi?

Well, there are different styles of queso fresco, which accounts for some of the above, but the cheese does combine several attributes we don't often see together.

Gringa Dairy's queso fresco holds together in a block but can easily be pulled apart into small pieces (not quite the same as crumbling, as it's a bit softer than feta).

It also slices easily.

On the palate it has a gorgeous texture. I've heard some people call it queso fresco creamy; personally I find it has more firmness than that (it's not a soft cheese like brie or Philadelphia), but it does practically melt in your mouth.

It's nowhere near as salty as feta, but slightly more salty than mozzarella, and whereas some mozzarellas are so mild they almost taste of nothing, this cheese has a definite personality.

Best of all for me is the subtle tang it has, sort of like sour cream, that tells your palate "Hey, don't sit down, cuz this is a party!"

So: this cheese is delicious on its own, as a sandwich filling, or as a topping. But what I dying to do was cook with it, and I chose quesadillas con rajas (strips of chile poblano).

(Chiles poblanos aren't in season in Britain yet, so I had to use tinned.)

By far the best way to make quesadillas is to make some tortillas and fill them with cheese before you cook them, but I didn't have that kind of time so I used premade tortillas, filled them and toasted them in a dry pan.

As usual, I recommend the
Cool Chile Company's tortillas if you're not making your own.

And as you can see from the photo, I basically "sandwiched" two tortillas instead of doing the traditional fold-over.

This was purely to fit more cheese into the quesadillas.

I really love this cheese!

And of course an antojito* is nothing without a salsa or two, so I decided to make salsa verde and a red chipotle and tomato salsa cocida (meaning I fried the salsa once more before serving.

For the salsa verde I used tinned tomatillos (fresh ones are not in season here yet), fresh jalapeños, one diced white onion, two cloves of garlic, and lots of chopped coriander.

Everything but the onion goes in the blender.

Pulse-blend until you have a thick, textured salsa (some lime juice wouldn't hurt if you need to loosen it a bit, but you shouldn't need to).

Then add the onions and stir well.

(You can blend the onions too if you don't want a chunky salsa.)

Tinned tomatillos are better than no tomatillos, but because they are less tart than fresh ones, this salsa benefits from frying before serving to intensify the flavour.

("Frying" a sauce to reduce it is one of the most typical Mexican cooking techniques and really makes the difference between a Mexican salsa and a nearly equivalent one from another cuisine.)

I think I've given this chipotle sauce recipe before, but here it is again:
3 tomatoes, roasted on a dry frying pan or comal until they come up in blackened spots

2 cloves of garlic, roasted with the tomatoes

One white onion, roughly chopped

3-6 chipotles en adobo (or to taste)

1-2 (or more) tsp of the adobo sauce
1 tsp Mexican oregano
When you roast the garlic, leave the papery skins on.

It will cook faster than the tomatoes, so keep an eye on it.

When it starts to blacken, turn the cloves over and let them start to blacken on the other side. Then let them cool and the skins should just slip off.

Everything goes into a blender; just like the salsa verde, you're looking for a textured consistency (though you could also strain it for a more "refined" salsa.

I let this chill in the fridge overnight so the flavours could mingle and develop and fried the sauce again before serving.

I served one salsa on each side, with more cheese down the middle, going for the classic Mexican flag theme.

Simple, but delicious! And the cheese makes strings when it "melts", which is another reason people compare it to mozzarella.

I can already see Gringa Dairy is going to change the way I think of cheese in Mexican recipes.

Before, I would think "What's the best substitute for this type of cheese?" Now ink starting to think "Maybe we can get this cheese in Britain soon!"

(Gringa Dairy is planning to introduce more varieties in the near future.)

And finally, I served the quesadillas with fried plátanos machos ("macho bananas" ie plantains).

These were Caribbean style, rather than Mexican style, meaning the skins were still slightly green (in Mexico, they usually wait until the skins turn black before cooking plantains).

Of you've never had fried plantains before, these were kind of like potatoes, only denser, with just the faintest hint of banana flavour.

Next time I'll wait for them to ripen. Maybe.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Breakfast with MexiGeek: Salsa de huevos con queso fresco

One of my cookbooks claims this is a traditional Oaxacan dish, but I know it as the way my mother made scrambled eggs for egg burritos.

Basically you fry some leftover salsa on a pan until it just starts to reduce and thicken.

(I used my chipotle and tomato salsa.)

Then you scramble the eggs into the salsa until they're just combined.

I seasoned the eggs with salt,  pepper, and dried epazote.

Then I put the eggs on a fried tortilla, topped with salsa verde and some crumbled up queso fresco from Gringa Dairy, and put it under the grill to let the cheese melt.

When queso fresco melts it "hace hebras" ("makes strings") like mozzarella!

¡Y provecho!

The queso fresco is the perfect complement to the bold, sweet chipotle sauce.

One of the things I love about Mexican cuisine is that there are literally hundreds of ways of preparing eggs, nearly all of which involve chiles.

Thursday, 9 May 2013 This is what tamales are meant to taste like

Note the expert wrapping.

If there are two universal truths about tamales, they are:
1) tamales are delicious

2) tamales take forever to make

(The third truth is that the singular of tamales is tamal.)
In Mexico, when tamales are on the menu, the whole family comes together to make an assembly-line and share the workload.

But what do you do in Britain, when you really want tamales but don't have the time to make them yourself (or an army of expert helpers)?

Order them from!

Unlike some companies who import ready-made tamales from Mexico (which is a lot of food miles for a finished dish), make their tamales freshly to order, right here in Britain.

I was very keen to try them because I'm a firm believer in tamales as one of the great dishes of Mexican cuisine.

They have topped my list of favourite foods since I was a kid, and as they're still relatively unknown in fajita-ruled Britannia, I believe they can turn a lot of people around about Mexican food.

However, they are not easy to make, and they demand specialist ingredients like masa harina and corn husks (to say nothing of the fillings).

So is important to me in my quest to get everyone eating tamales. Because, honestly, we can't all make our own.

For our test-drive, we ordered a selection of savoury tamales:
Pork in red chile sauce (for me, the classic filling)

Chicken in salsa verde (another favourite)

Chicken in mole poblano (a decadent choice!)

Rajas con queso (green chile strips and cheese)
And for dessert we got two strawberry tamales. Because sweet tamales are awesome!

The tamales can be steamed from frozen but I defrosted mine in the fridge overnight.

(There are also microwaving instructions if you don't have a steamer.)

The tamales themselves were expertly wrapped in their corn husks and absolutely perfect in texture and flavour.

The fillings were uniformly delicious. Of particular note for me were the pork in red chile sauce, which really brought back memories, and the chicken in mole (as soon as they started cooking, my kitchen was filled with the lovely, complex aroma of mole).

The runaway star, though, was the tamal de rajas con queso.

I love rajas anyway, but the cheese was amazing (either real queso de Oaxaca or a very close substitute, and there was a delicious (and quite spicy) tomato and chile sauce.

Then we tried the strawberry tamales.




Anyone who doesn't try these is doing themselves a major disservice.

I've written about making tamales a couple times before, but for anyone who finds the workload a bit daunting or who just isn't sure what tamales are meant to taste like (not having grown up eating them), is the option for you.

This is exactly what tamales are meant to taste like.
Tamales all look alike, so they arrive with handy labels.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Breakfast with MexiGeek: huevos a la mexicana for cinco de mayo

Of all the hundreds of egg dishes in Mexico, this is the only one that gets called "Mexican-style eggs".

It's a simple dish of scrambled eggs with chopped tomato, chopped green chiles, and chopped white onion.

The colours are important because they represent the Mexican flag. So you can't use red chiles or dried chiles.

Basically, chop the chiles, onions, and tomatoes, and fry for a minute (you still want a bite on the onions).

I fried mine in home-rendered bacon fat.

Then season your eggs and scramble them with the chopped ingredients until just done.

I served mine on a warm tortilla with some Gran Luchito.

I would happily eat this for breakfast every day of my life.