Ever since I spent a sunny afternoon in Elephant, jamming dribbly tacos into my tequila hole with no concern for public image, staining my clothes or indeed the basic physical function known as breathing, I’ve had Mexican on my mind. Until that day, I just didn’t find a whole heap to get excited about. Let’s face it, most Mexican restaurants in this country are simply depressing; as if the prospect of ’10 ways with grey, sludgy mystery mince and molten cheese’ wasn’t bad enough, you have to face it in a place called something like ‘El Paso’, perched between two MDF cacti.
There are exceptions (Wahaca, Green and Red), but they are thin on the ground and for me, of course, the most pleasure comes from cooking at home. I’ve recently found myself with a copy of Thomasina Miers’ Mexican Food Made Simple and I want to tell you how much I’m loving it, while also trying my darnedest to stray away from clichéd adjectives like ‘fresh’ and ‘colourful’ but I just can’t because, well, it is those things and sod it, while I’m here I might as well just throw ‘vibrant’ into the mix as well.
Sorry. Anyway, the point is I just can’t stop cooking from it. My flat smells permanently of smoked jalapeños and blistered tomatoes. What was I thinking all this time, making salsa without blackening my toms, chillies and garlic in a dry pan first? Idiot. I couldn’t resist squeezing in some Peckham flavour with a bit of habanero action although TM isn’t shy of them herself. Why the fajita was I always charring my habaneros in the oven when I could have just been scorching them in a hot pan for 10 minutes the whole time? Again – idiot.
And then there’s the chipotles en adobo. Wrinkled smoked jalapenos, softened and cooked up with herb, spice, sweet and sour, into a smouldering auburn brew which you want to suck up by the tablespoon-full but seriously, don’t – if it goes the wrong way you’re in for a nasty ten minutes. I’ve added it to sandwiches, salsas, mayo and I’ve plans to smother it all over a hunk of pork, slow-cook it, pull it apart and then stuff it inside rolls and serve it up at my Big Lunch. I know this is going to be good so I’ll practice it several times in the hope that when the day arrives, there will be a chance I’m able to actually give it away to other people.
Maybe I’m slow on the uptake here, but it seems Mexican is only just really taking off in the UK. How many times have you heard a hungry American moan about the lack of anything ‘proper’? For years we’ve faced the grizzly options of ‘Tex-Mex’ or one of those sad little kits from the supermarket: dusty spice meets sweaty, clotted salsa – a congealed slimy lump from a foil-lined envelope. I don’t know, perhaps you’ve all been perfecting your magnificent mole since 1980; your guacamole may be the stuff of legend and whisper; your carnitas once killed a man with pure pleasure. For me though, this is the very beginning of my Mexican wave.
Roast Scotch Bonnet Salsa
(adapted from Mexican Food Made Simple by Thomasina Miers)
6 ripe tomatoes
1 scotch bonnet chilli
1 red onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 handful coriander, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper
In a dry pan, cook the tomatoes, chilli and garlic until blackened and blistered. The tomatoes will take longer than the chilli and garlic cloves. De-seed the chilli and then smash it with the garlic in a pestle and mortar. De-seed the tomatoes and do the same. Finally, sitr in all the other ingredients. If you think it needs a pinch of sugar, add it. Thomasina points out that you can make a salsa like this one in a blender but you lose the rough texture, which personally, I prefer.
To make tostadas, cut circles from tortillas and toast, then fill with meat or fish, plus salsa, avocado, lettuce and sour cream. Chipotle mayo makes a greta combo with smoked mackerel.
Chipotles en Adobo
(from the very same)
200g chipotle chillies
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
1 head of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons fresh oregano or a few pinches of dried
1/2 tablespoons thyme leaves
2 fresh bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed
4 tablespoons olive oil
350ml good quality white wine vinegar
50ml good quality balsamic
3 tablespoons tomato puree
7 tablespoons palm or demerara sugar
2 tablespoons sea salt
Wash the chipotles in cold water and drain. Snip of the very tips at the stalk end so that the water can penetrate them more easily. Cover them with water and simmer for 30-40 minutes until soft. Drain and rinse off any excess seeds. (I saved the cooking water here and used it in the next step). Put the onion, garlic, herbs, 200ml of water and the cumin into a blender and bled to a paste.
Heat the oil in a heavy based pan until smoking. Fry the chilli paste for a few minutes stirring all the time. Add the tomato puree, vinegars, sugar, salt and 100ml water and cook for about 5 mins then add the rest of the chillies and cook for a further 15. Test for seasoning (salt and sugar), cool and then pour into sterilised jars.