After a longish break from my workshops, it was a pleasure to dip a toe in the water again this month – not least because the group who signed up requested Mexican. Any excuse to get out my tortilla press and my big wooden mole spoon again and I’m right there, panting at the start line. Besides, the weather’s just turned cooler and Mexican feels like the kind of food I want to cook and eat.
As mentioned on Basel’s The English Show recently, probably the best Mexican food you’re going to get in our neighbourhood (Alsace/Switzerland/Black Forest) is the kind you’re going to cook yourself. To my knowledge, there’s only one genuine Mexican resto in Basel (La Piratita), and a few Tex-Mex joints, which in my book don’t count – maybe you’re luckier where you live, with plenty of restaurants serving the real McCoy.
For us locals, El Sol, a warehouse/shop in Allschwil has lots of what’s needed to brew up your own Mexican feast (canned jalapeños, serranos, chipotles en adobo (mmmmmm); dried chiles such as ancho, guajillo, habanero, pasilla, arbol, piquin; black beans, tortilla flour, tortilla presses AND the best fresh and frozen corn tortillas you’ll find in our ‘hood (bar those you’re going to make for yourself, below). Please, please don’t buy those packets of corn tortillas on sale in supermarkets. Trust me, they taste like wallpaper (or at least how I imagine wallpaper would taste, the rough, textured kind.)
The rest – limes, avocados, fresh corn, flour tortillas, fresh chiles – you’ll find in most supermarkets on both sides of our border(s). For the wonderful, sharp Mexican green tomatoes (tomatillos, tomates verdes), you’ll need to grow your own. I sowed some ages ago and have never needed to do so again as they faithfully (promiscuously?) pop up all over the compost heap and veggie garden each year.
Here are some of the recipes we did together at the workshop. I reckon they give a pretty good approximation of the real thing (any Mexican readers, feel free to protest/disagree!)
SWEETCORN AND BUTTERNUT SOUP WITH CHILES POBLANOS
Sopa de elote y calabaza con chiles poblanos
25g butter + 1 tbsp oil
1 onion or ½ a leek, sliced
500g butternut squash, skinned, cut in cubes
2 canned chiles poblanos
A 300g can of sweetcorn
1.2 litres chicken stock (or water + 2 chicken stock cubes)
Salt and pepper
A handful of tortilla chips, crumbled
A handful of toasted pumpkinseeds
Sour cream or crème fraiche
- Heat the butter and oil in a large pan and soften the leek or onion and butternut gently without allowing them to take colour, stirring occasionally – about 10 minutes.
- Rinse the chiles poblanos thoroughly, remove any black bits and seeds and chop roughly.
- Rinse the sweetcorn in cold water and drain. Stir them both into the soup, pour on the stock (or water + crumbled stock cubes), season to taste, bring to a boil, lower the heat a bit, cover the pan and simmer for about 15 minutes or until butternut is tender (taste a bit to see!)
- Draw pan aside and let it cool a little, then blend in the pan till smooth, using a stalk blender (or tip into a blender). Check the seasoning, adjusting if necessary. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.
- Place the pumpkinseeds in a small heavy pan without any oil and toast for a few minutes till they begin to pop about and turn colour – don’t let them burn!
- Reheat the soup to serve, pour into bowls or cups, spoon a little sour cream or crème fraiche in the centre, place crumbled tortilla chips on top and scatter with toasted pumpkinseeds.
LIME-MARINATED FISH WITH AVOCADO, TOMATO AND SPRING ONIONS
600g skinless, boneless fillets of salmon, mackerel or sea bass
Juice of 2 limes
1-2 fresh green or red chiles, de-seeded and finely chopped
1-2 spring onions
1 packet of dill or mint
6 tbsp olive oil
6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
Salt and pepper
Salad and herb leaves to garnish
- Cut the fish in small dice, about the size of your little fingernail, place in a bowl, add lemon or lime juice and leave to marinate for a couple of hours at least (or overnight if it suits you better) Drain the fish through a strainer and put it back in the bowl; reserve the juice in another small bowl.
- Whisk the oil into the juice to emulsify, add salt and pepper to taste.
- Brush out 6 ramekins with a little oil if using; alternatively, place some crisp lettuce leaves in the bottom of 6 glasses.
- Add the chopped chiles, spring onions and herbs to the fish.
- Skin and stone the avocados and cut them in dice the same size as the fish. Mix the avocado and quartered tomatoes into the fish and stir in the dressing.
- Divide the fish between the oiled ramekins, press down firmly and cover with clingfilm. Press it right into the surface of the ceviche to prevent the avocado blackening. If using glasses, fill them with ceviche and cover with clingfilm. Refrigerate till serving time.
- To serve from ramekins, arrange salad leaves on serving plates, run a knife around the inside edge and invert ceviche over the leaves. Or serve direct from the glasses.
CHICKEN BREASTS WITH ALMOND AND SESAME SEED SAUCE
Pollo en almendrado
3 tbsp oil
2 tbsp peeled almonds
3 tbsp sesame seeds
1 thick slice country bread, crusts removed
A pinch of cinnamon
3-4 peppercorns, 2 cloves
500ml/2 cups chicken stock (or 2 stock cubes + 500ml/2 cups water)
3 cloves garlic, mashed
1 onion, chopped
2 fresh red chiles, de-seeded, chopped
OR 1-2 canned chiles chipotles en adobo
2 tbsp raisins
1 x 400g can peeled tomatoes
A pinch of dried thyme (or 1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves only)
A pinch of sugar
6 chicken breasts
Salt and pepper
- For the sauce, heat 1 tablespoon of oil gently in a large frying pan and fry the almonds, sesame seeds, bread cubes and spices until golden and fragrant, shaking and stirring the pan often so they brown evenly, about 5-10 minutes – they should take a little colour to give them extra flavour but be careful they don’t burn!
- Scrape into a blender, add about a cupful of stock and blend till smooth.
- In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil, soften the prepared garlic, onion, chiles and raisins, till lightly golden. Add the tomatoes, thyme, sugar and salt to taste, and fry for about 10 minutes till thick and concentrated.
- Tip the pan contents into the blender with remaining stock and blend till perfectly smooth.
- Rinse out the pan and heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Keep a lid ready, tip in the blended sauce, clap on the lid to avoid splashback and when the worst of the explosions have died down, remove the lid and cook the sauce, stirring, for a few minutes. Reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Check the seasoning and adjust if needed. (Sauce can be prepared ahead – will keep for a week in the fridge, and freezes well.)
- About an hour before serving, heat the oven to 80oC and put in an ovenproof dish (large enough to take all the chicken breasts in one layer) and 6 plates.
- Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large frying pan and sear them all over till evenly golden, then put them in the ovenproof dish and bake for 30-40 minutes or until firm when pressed and the juices in the dish are clear.
- Add any cooking juices to the pan, reheat sauce to boiling and spoon it over the chicken.
GREEN RICE WITH SWEETCORN
Arroz verde con elote
300g untreated long-grain rice (e.g. Carolina)
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 canned chiles poblanos
500ml/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 small can sweetcorn
Salt and pepper
- Soak the rice in hot water to cover for 10 minutes to remove some of the starch. Tip into a strainer and shake it dry.
- Remove seeds from the chiles poblanos and rinse off any black bits. Chop the flesh roughly and place in the blender. Add the stock and blend till smooth. OR if using fresh green chiles, de-seed, cut in strips and chop finely.
- In a heavy pan or casserole heat the oil and fry the onion and garlic (and chopped chiles, if using) till they take a little colour.
- Add the rice and fry, stirring, till glistening, then add the blended stock and poblanos (or stock alone) and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, lower the heat and leave to cook undisturbed over low heat for about 15 minutes or until holes appear in the surface and almost all the liquid is absorbed.
- Stir the corn kernels into the rice, cook for 5 minutes more (about 20 minutes in total) till the stock is absorbed and the rice just al dente.
- Fork the rice up and serve.
CORN (MAIZE) TORTILLAS – Tortillas de maíz
Makes about 15 tortillas
300g masa harina (tortilla flour)
about 375ml lukewarm water
- Mix together the tortilla flour and water in a bowl to give a fairly firm but not sticky dough –adjust if needed either with more flour or more water.
- Cut two discs of plastic from a plastic bag and lay one on the press.
- Heat a heavy, ungreased frying pan or griddle.
- Take a piece of dough the size of a ping-pong ball, roll it round in your hands to form a ball, put dough ball in the centre of the press, cover with the second piece of plastic, close the press, press down firmly. [If you don’t have a press, sandwich the ball of dough between the two plastic discs and roll them out with a rolling pin, turning the plastic with each roll to get an even circle of dough]
- Peel the plastic off the top of the tortilla, transfer tortilla onto your hand, leaving about half of it hanging down over the outer edge of your palm.
- Carefully peel away the second plastic, making sure the tortilla is not stuck to your hand and gently lay (don’t throw) the tortilla onto the pan or griddle – as the overhanging part makes contact with the pan/griddle, use your other hand to guide the tortilla so it lies flat and doesn’t fold over or wrinkle up.
- Cook the first side till small brown spots appear, turn tortilla over and cook the second side, pressing down – don’t cook too long or the tortillas will be hard, not supple.
- Stack the tortillas up as they are ready, and wrap in a napkin so they don’t dry out.
- Store in the fridge or freezer.