Sunday, 26 January 2014

Breakfast with MexiGeek: Migas en salsa verde

When I saw that Nigella had basically done a version of migas, I knew it was high time I did one.

(This was before we found out about the cocaine but after her now ex-husband choked her in a public restaurant in broad daylight. She's living the dream.)

Anyway, migas literally means "crumbs", but in the kitchen it means a dish of scrambled eggs and tortilla chips.

That's right: tortilla chips for breakfast.

This dish is pretty simple, and there are many variations, depending on what you have lying around.

Some people fry the tortilla chips first, but I only recommend this if your tortilla chips are homemade. Store-bought ones disintegrate too easily.

I didn't have an onion so I used minced garlic, but as a rule chopped onion is the way to go.

And I had some leftover salsa verde.

I started by heating some oil in a pan and sweating the garlic (use onion if you've got it. This is also where you'd fry your homemade tortilla chips. Remove them once they start to brown.)

Then I tipped in my salsa and fried it until it reduced and most of the water had cooked off. This is kind of like making salsa de huevos.

Then I added the eggs and a couple handfuls of crumbled tortilla chips and scrambled it all up.

¡Y provecho!

I served it with a few more tortilla chips, some sour cream, and chopped coriander or cilantro.

Just so you know, I do have one of these.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Pollo en mole verde

When I first planned this dish, I was going to make the famous pato en pipián, which is duck in a pre-Hispanic mole of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, and green chiles.

But as I continue to adjust to life with an under-one in the house, what I really need are more dishes that can be put together in less than an hour.

It is possible to cook two duck breasts in that time, but it's "fussier". You have to sear the breasts to give them texture (crispy skin) and flavour, then put them in the oven to finish. And you have to keep an eye on them or they will overcook.

By substituting chicken, I just had to poach the breasts in seasoned water for 20 minutes.

If you accidentally poach them longer, the breasts don't dry out as easily as they would in the oven, plus you can let them "cool" in the water once they're done and not only will they not overcook, they will stay moist and just the right temperature, pretty much until you're finished cooking everything else.

The other "cheat" was that I used some pipián I had made previously and frozen.

Some cookbooks tell you not to freeze pipián, but I think they mean the finished dish, with the chicken and rice incorporated. There's nothing "unfreezable" in the sauce itself.

So: pipián or mole verde?

There are seven molesin the legends of Mexican cuisine. The one you probably mean if you just say mole is the dark brown mole poblano, by far the most famous, because it contains chocolate. It also has 26 other ingredients and takes several days to make from scratch (I've tried it).

There is also a (slightly) simpler mole rojo ("red mole"), which has fewer ingredients than the mole poblano (though it still includes a bit of chocolate) and is slightly easier to make.

And there's a green mole, mole verde, which, as Rick Bayless wrote, replaces everything red in the red mole with something green: instead of tomatoes you get tomatillos; instead of dried reddish chiles you get fresh green chiles; instead of dark rich spices you get fresh green herbs.

All three of these are thickened with seeds (the French thicken sauces with flour; Mexicans thicken sauces with ground nuts or seeds).

Sesame seeds are the star of the brown and red moles, but pumpkin seeds (which, again, are green) take the lead in mole verde.

(By the way, the other four moles are mole colorado, which is another red mole; mole amarillo, the yellow mole - though it's actually kind of orange; manchamanteles, which means "tablecloth-stainer" and includes fruit; and the most complex and challenging of them all, the Oaxacan black mole, or mole negro.)

Some people don't believe that mole verde and pipián are the same thing. They may be right, though I say they're basically the same: a rich green sauce of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, and green chiles.

pipián is one of the earliest pre-Hispanic dishes described by the conquistadors. It was served to them when they visited Moctezuma (before all hell broke loose).

Of course, modern mole verde/pipián is embellished with some things the Spanish introduced, not least of which are onions, garlic, and coriander (cilantro).

Because I used my pre-made frozen mole verde, I'm only going to give recap on the recipe here. You can read the full thing in my post on mole verde last year.

  • 6 tomatillos
  • 100 g pumpkin seeds, hulled (I used half pumpkin seeds and half sesame seeds; some recipes even add peanuts)
  • 1/2 a white onion
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • Green chiles to taste (I used 2 chiles serranos, 1 chile jalapeño, and about half of a chile poblano)
  • A bunch of coriander
  • 1tsp of dried epazote
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves
  • A 5 cm stick of Mexican cinnamon
  • A pinch of cumin seeds (say, 1/8 tsp)
  • Stock (homemade if possible)
  • Salt
  • Oil or lard for frying

Basically, prep all the ingredients, put everything but the seeds and spices into a blender and blend to a smooth sauce. Gradually add the seeds and spices and continue blending while the sauce thickens.

Then heat some oil or lard in a pan and fry the sauce until it darkens and thickens some more. Then thin it back out with some stock.

Mole verde is best served on the day, but I froze it and then thawed it in the fridge overnight. That way I just had to gently re-heat it in a pot over the hob, adding some stock when necessary to thin it out.

Where did I get the stock? By poaching my chicken breasts, of course!

Basically just bung the chicken breasts into a pot, add some bits to season (usually chopped onion, garlic, a bay leaf or an avocado leaf, black peppercorns, etc), cover with water and bring to a rapid boil, then turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 20 minutes or so.

Let the chicken "cool" in the broth if you have time. Not only is the chicken cooked beautifully, you now have a basic, though not very strong, chicken stock!

I also served a modified version of arroz a la poblana (Pueblan rice), which is normally white rice with chiles poblanos, but I used green bell peppers and some yellow corn.

Take some diced onion and sweat it in some butter over a medium heat until it gets soft and a bit translucent but not brown.

(I didn't use to use butter for Mexican rice until I read this post by A Mexican Cook in Ireland.)

Then add the rice and fry a few minutes more. Then add the corn and fry a few minutes more (unless you're using tinned corn, in which case add the corn last because it's already cooked). Then add some diced green bell pepper.

After the bell pepper has softened, add some water, bring to a rapid boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low for about 25 minutes or so. When it's done cooking, you can take the rice off the heat and keep it covered. It will stay warm for like an hour.

Nearly done!
The quantities I use, by the way are:

1/2 cup of diced onion
1/2 cup of yellow corn kernels
1 green bell pepper, diced
10 g butter
150 g white rice
300 mL water or stock

You want the uncooked rice to be exactly half the volume of the water, so what I actually do is fill a cup with rice and then put in two measures of the same cup of water. But this time I weighed it out as well and those were the quantities I got.

It works for me every time.

So how this worked out was, at just after 8pm I put the pipián in a pot to heat up, put the chicken on to poach, and started on the rice.

I checked the pipián every now and then to make sure it wasn't burning or anything.

When the chicken was done, I used some of the broth to thin the pipián to the desired consistency. I probably could have thinned it more, actually.

Once the rice was simmering, I used my "free time" to lay the table and whip up a "wintery" salad of watercress, pear, and toasted walnuts with a balsamic vinegar and agave nectar dressing, which was just phenomenal.

Everything about this was awesome
We were eating by 9pm. WIN!

I have warm feelings about this dish, because it was one of the first authentic Mexican dishes I ever cooked, using the recipe from Two Cooks and a Suitcase (where it appears as Pollo Verde).

It blew my mind. On the one hand I had never tasted anything like it (it was completely different from the Americanized Northern Mexican food I grew up on). On the other hand something about it tasted so inimitably and unmistakeably Mexican, as if it could not have come from any other national cuisine.

That was years ago now, and the recipe I currently use is a synthesis of several different recipes from various cookbooks.

It's a very good dish (and quite spicy if you use enough chiles!). If you have never tried it, you really should. Mexicans have been cooking with pumpkin seeds since before they invented the tortilla.

It is a true classic of Mexican cuisine.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Tortas ahogadas: my first attempt at cocina tapatía

Hero Shot! Story below!
One of the things that excites me about this recipe is that it's a torta.

Where I'm from in California, people don't necessarily know there is leavened bread in Mexico. They think everything comes in a tortilla.

So these huge Mexican sandwiches are one of the hidden gems of Mexican cuisine.

The torta ahogada ("drowned sandwich") is a special kind of torta, and characteristic of Guadalajara.

My favourite placename in the whole world is Guadalajara. To me, it just sounds like Mexico.

(I was actually shocked to learn there's a Guadalajara in Spain; I'd always taken it for an indigenous name.)

Guadalajara is the second-largest city in Mexico (after DF, of course), and it's the capital of the state of Jalisco. In English, a person or thing from Guadalajara is "Guadalajaran", but in colloquial Mexican Spanish the word is tapatío/a.

Jalisco is the home of many things non-Mexicans think are common throughout Mexico, like tequila, mariachi music, and the Mexican hat dance (called the jarabe tapatía in Spanish).

While these things are internationally known, Guadalajara's distinct torta is not. 

The "drowned" torta is a torta of carnitas, and it's drowned in a super-hot salsa picante made mostly of chiles de árbol.

This dish is fairly easy to make, though it requires time. It has three essential components, two of which are procurable here in the UK.

The one that isn't is the Mexican bread.

The torta ahogada, however, is made from kind of sourdough-ish bread called birote, which is typical of the region. So you could presumably substitute sourdough bread.

(There used to be a Mexican bakery in London called Los Pastelitos, but they've closed. I'm sure they had bolillo, the more common type of Mexican bread, but they may not have had birote.)

The other two components are carnitas and the salsa.

Carnitas means "little meats" in Spanish, and in practice it's usually shredded (or at least diced) pork.

Pork is possibly the most popular meat in Mexico, (though chicken is probably the most commonly eaten). Pigs were introduced by the Spanish, but they're easy to keep, don't need a lot of space, and will eat just about anything, making them much more practical than the fussier, space-hungry beef cattle.

Also: pigs are delicious (sorry, veggies).

Because it's such a common thing, there are about a million recipes for carnitas, varying what seasonings you should use, how precisely to cook it, and even how big the pieces of pork should be.

I prefer to do mine like pulled pork in the slow cooker.


750 g pork shoulder
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch cinnamon stick
10 black peppercorns
1 tsp Mexican oregano (which you can get from Mextrade)
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin
Orange zest
Water to cover

For a Yucatecan twist you can add some El Yucateco achiote paste, which is also available from Mextrade.

If you're not using pre-ground spices or achiote paste, make sure to toast everything separately on a hot dry frying pan or comal and then grind it all down.

Rub your pork with your seasonings and ideally let it sit for an hour (or overnight in the fridge).

Place the pork in the slow-cooker and carefully pour about 300 ml of water down the sides of the chamber. You don't wanna wash off that spice mix.

Then cook on low for ten hours or on low or for two hours on high and then two or three more hours on low (I've actually got better results this way).

When it's done, remove the pork and shred it with fork; it should just fall apart.

The best carnitas fall apart with nothing more than a harsh look.

Now for the salsa picante.

A reader informed me that in Guadalajara you can actually get tortas ahogadas with either the super-hot salsa de chiles de árbol or a not-so-hot tomato sauce.

I definitely prefer the picante sauce, but if you don't, try good quality Mexican salsa roja like this one from La Costeña.

Or, for the super-hot version, try this one from Valentina.

And if you're up for a challenge, you can make it from scratch.

Speaking as someone who adores pipián and is practically obsessed with salsa verde, I must say this is probably the greatest sauce in the world ever.

As far as I know, salsa picante ("hot sauce") is its only name. It is made throughout Mexico with a myriad subtle variations, but apparently always with the fiery chiles de árbol as the star (many people add piquín chiles too, but I don't).

The recipe I use is slightly modified from one by Rick Bayless. It uses a whole bag of chiles de árbol from The Cool Chile Company or Mextrade

Salsa picante

60 g chiles de árbol (plus reserved seeds)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
20 g sesame seeds
20 g pumpkin seeds (hulled)
4 allspice berries
2 cloves
a pinch of cumin seeds (½ tsp or 5 g max)
180 mL cider vinegar

Cut the stems off the chiles and twist them gently between your fingers until the seeds fall out. Save the seeds. There are easily 50 or 60 chiles in the bag, so this takes a while.

Toast the chiles in the a hot dry frying pan or comal and gently stir until they just begin to darken and you can smell a chile aroma rising.

They will burn quickly so don't toast them too long!

Put the toasted chiles in a bowl and cover with just-boiled water. Weigh them down with a plate and let them soak for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile toast each kind of seed and spice separately in the hot dry frying pan until they darken slightly and release their aroma. Stir constantly so they don't burn.

Let the pumpkin seeds sit until the first one pops, then stir constantly until they all have popped.

The chile seeds will burn quickly so stir constantly from the start; if one pops, it's time to take them off the heat. Also, they will release capsaicin vapour into the air, so toast them last and keep the extractor fan running.

Put the seeds and spices into a molcajete (mortar and pestle) with the minced garlic and grind down to a paste.

Remove the chiles from the water and put in a blender with the ground garlic, seeds, spices, and vinegar and blend to a smooth texture.

Add up to 200 mL of the chile soaking water, a tablespoon at a time, until the salsa is a thin, pourable consistency, sort of like Tabasco, but with pulpy bits.

Now pour the salsa through a sieve to strain the pulp out. You will have to press the pulp against the sieve with a spoon to make sure you extract every drop of liquid.

(Actually I pass it through a sieve first and then put the remaining pulp through a muslin and squeeze really hard. This stains the muslin - and your hands - something awful, but you don't want to lose any of that precious sauce.)

Put the strained salsa into a sealed container and let it mature in the fridge overnight. It will be a beautiful bright orange colour. It contains enough vinegar that it will literally keep for months in the fridge.

This sauce will hurt so good!

Finishing the torta

After you've done all this, all you really have to do is knock together the tortas.

Slice your bread (a good sourdough bread should do it), fill it with carnitas, and drown the sandwiches in the sauce.

Traditionally some raw white onion is used as a garnish, though I prefer Yucatecan cebollas en escabeche.

Some cheese is also nice: crumbled queso fresco from Gringa Dairy works really well.

In Guadalajara, if you think this sauce might be too much for you, you can order your torta "media ahogada" ("medium-drowned").

Apparently you can also go hotter and ask for "bien ahogada" ("well drowned").

This is actually manchego because Lupe Pintos was sold out of queso fresco.
I had dreams of making mine bien ahogada, but when it came to it, I held back, not because I was afraid of the heat, but because I couldn't bear to use up all that beautiful salsa in one go.

Whenever I make this sauce, I find myself taking a spoonful of it straight before I go to bed. It's that good.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Dos Mil Catorce

Last year when I came back from Christmas vacation I set out some goals for the coming year.

I had started this blog in late 2011, so 2013, was only my second full calendar year of bogging. I wanted it to be the year I took the blog up a notch.

And despite having a drastically curtailed cooking regime due to a new baby, I totally did this. 2013 was pretty much a completely upward trajectory (apart from some dead chile plants).

So what do I want from 2014?

The obvious answer would be to take it up yet another level. Except I don't actually know what that would mean.

Last year I broke 10,000 pageviews, I connected with just about everyone involved with Mexican food in the UK, I got loads of free food. There's actually not a lot more to accomplish.

On the other hand, "keep up the good work" isn't a very exciting goal for the coming year.

So instead of a set of "hard" goals, I'm going to propose a couple of "softer" New Year's Resolutions.

1) Post my backlog, especially all that stuff I cooked last summer.

This should be fairly easy, and should keep me posting regularly while I get to grips with...

2) Cook more

I had a good reason for less cooking last year, and my son is still quite wee, so I'm not going back to my pre-baby schedule for a while yet, but I should be able to do more cooking this year.

Give me at least six months to get this started though.

In addition to these two very achievable things, I would like to make another video and create a map of every Mexican food supplier in the UK so my readers never need to wonder where to get corn husks or achiote seeds.

In the meantime, stay tuned for the first of my "lost" summer posts.