Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Tortas ahogadas: my first attempt at cocina tapatía

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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.