Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Experimental Mexican Hot Toddy (version 1)

In Scotland we do this thing when the weather gets cold and you discover that you have a sore throat.

We mix whisky, honey, hot water, a dash of lemon juice, and some warming spices and sip it slowly until we completely forget that we were miserable in the first place.

This is called a "hot toddy", and I believe it has caught on in other countries.

A while ago it occurred to me you could probably make a Mexican version by substituting the "Scottish" ingredients for corresponding Mexican ones.

But wait: doesn't Mexico have its own certain already?

Mexico certainly does have its fair share of hot drinks, both with and without alcohol. However, Mexico has a very different climate from Scotland. Even in the dead of winter you're not going to be as desperate to curl up under a blanket with what is essentially a sweetened hot whisky and hide from the freezing rain and the darkness that sets in at 4pm.

So this is purely an experiment; I will doubtless have to refine it and perfect it some more before I call it a success. But here's what I've got so far.

The starting point is a one-to-one substitution of the original ingredients with Mexican ones. I also added some chile, because why not?


Don Agustín añejo almost tastes like whisky anyway
1 tsp agave nectar (instead of honey)
1 shot of tequila, preferably añejo (instead of whisky)
3 allspice berries (taking a cue from the Yucatán) 
Lime juice (instead of lemon juice)
A dash of tajín or a couple piquín chiles
Hot water

Basically, put everything in a mug and give it a stir.

If you're using tajín, sprinkle it on top just before drinking; if you're using the dried chiles, they'll need to be in the mug at the start so they can steep and release their flavour (and heat).


My initial worry was the lime juice: would it clash with the agave and the allspice?

It didn't. In fact, it was such a good addition I used more than I originally intended (about half a lime for one serving).

My second concern was the chile. I was going to make it optional. Turns out it's not optional. It really makes this drink.

You might think it's strange putting chile in a drink that's meant to soothe a sore throat, but as always, you add the chile to taste. If you don't overdo it, you'll get a pleasant tingle in your mouth that won't actually reach your throat.

Also, if you have a sore throat, chances are you have other symptoms of a cold as well. Chiles are full of vitamins and antioxidants to help you get well, and are the best decongestant ever.

What ended up not bringing much to the party was the allspice. I had high hopes for this, but it was undetectable on the palate. This drink was all lime, tequila, and chile.

In that respect, it was somewhat like a warm margarita, which led me to question whether it needs the agave nectar either. But I have decided to keep it in for now because it adds texture as well as flavour, giving the drink a somewhat more silky mouthfeel.

Next steps: try steeping the allspice berries to boost their flavour before I cut them out completely. And maybe up the chile heat as well.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Tamale Pie (no, really)

I still remember when I first got Two Cooks and a Suitcase, the Lupe Pintos cookbook that effectively launched my journey into authentic Mexican food.

Near the beginning Doug Bell and Rhoda Robertson wrote "if you make only one recipe from this book, make tamales or tamale pie". I made both on the same night.

Now, "tamale pie" isn't something I remember eating as a kid. In California we mostly have norteña style tamales with a savoury filling, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed.

But the amazing thing about tamales is that they have about a million variations throughout Mexico.

One of those variations is a kind of tamale pie called Muk-Bil Pollo, typical of the Yucatán.

(The Yucatán is one of the regions where Doug Bell and Rhoda Robertson lived in Mexico; Two Cooks and a Suitcase is teeming with Yucatecan recipes.)

So this year, for día de los muertos, I decided to make a tamale pie as a kind of simplified version of Muk-Bil Pollo.

With limited success.

The main issue with anything tamal-related is time, because you but only have to mix up some tamal dough, but also make a filling, and then the dish will need 45 minutes to an hour's cooking time.

For the pie version, you can dispense with the faff of rolling the tamales into corn husks, but this doesn't save as much time as I'd hoped.

The other issue I had in particular was the filling itself. I read a traditional recipe for Muk-Bil Pollo and found it was another of these achiote-marinated fillings, which I've been eating a lot of recently.

I simplified the dish by omitting the pork (Muk-Bil Pollo is traditionally a combination of chicken and pork) and the banana leaves (again, traditionally you would wrap the pie in a banana leaf before baking it).

Even so, I was cooking for several hours.

The finished dish was good. But it wasn't really great. It was certainly not the best thing I've ever put into a tamal.

However, the kids loved it (I made them a chile-free version); my four-year-old ate about twice as much of it as she usually does of things I cook.

I just kind of ended up wishing it was filled with pollo en salsa verde.

Definitely not pollo en salsa verde
If you want too make this, you'll need to make the filling first.

I poached some chicken breasts with a quartered white onion, 3 cloves of garlic, 10 black peppercorns, and a teaspoon of Mexican oregano.

Then I shredded the chicken and reserved the stock for the tamal dough.

I roasted some red, yellow and green bell peppers on a hot dry frying pan until they blackened a bit, then cut them into strips (rajas).

I made a sauce by reconstituting two chiles guajillos and blending them with one recipe of recado rojo, adding enough of the chiles' soaking water to make it a loose, pourable sauce.

Then I diced half a red onion and sweated it for a few minutes in a frying pan over medium high.

Then I added the rajas and fried them a few minutes more.

Then I added the shredded chicken and fried it until the chicken took on some texture.

Then I added the sauce and continued cooking until everything was heated through.

For the tamal dough, I sifted 300 g of masa harina with 1/3 tsp of baking powder.

Then I poured in 150 g of melted butter (you can also use pork lard) and mixed it gently until it was fully incorporated.
Then I gradually poured in 250 mL of chicken stock, mixing all the time, until I had a soft dough.

Then I greased a casserole dish, lined the bottom and sides with dough about 5 cm thick.

Then I added the filling and covered it with the remaining dough. This is hard, because if you pat the dough down too hard the filling will squidge out.

Cover the dish and bake at 180° C for 45 minutes.

I sold this to my kids as "Mexican cornbread", and it does have a "breadier" texture than steamed tamales, verging on being too dry. It's possible I overbaked it slightly, or perhaps if I'd used the banana leaves I could have preserved some of the moisture.

In any case, I have to admit I still prefer steamed tamales, especially considering that tamale pie isn't much less work.

If you're going to spend three straight hours in the kitchen you might as well have classic tamales.

I served the tamale pie with some salsa verde I got from La Costeña, which was very good and the perfect complement to the richness of the filling.

On the side I whipped up a "winter salad" of watercress, avocado, sliced radish, satsumas, and pomegranates, with a dressing of lime juice, extra virgin olive oil, and minced shallot. Delicious!

This was the highlight of the meal.
Next year I think I'll opt for pumpkin and chorizo tamales. Can't go wrong with that!

By the way: if you wanna have a go at this but don't wanna use the same filling, try poaching the chicken and prepping the rajas as above, but fry them in salsa verde (store-bought or homemade) instead of the achiote sauce. You can even loosen it up with a bit of crema or sour cream. Simple but delicious.

And on a final geeky note, in Spanish, the singular of tamales is tamal, but in English tamale is an acceptable singular.