I've had quite a lot of comments and emails from readers since the first post in the series and the craving for authentic Mexican cuisine is something that seems to spread the world over... so I'll start sharing the recipes now. Apparently, last year's winner of Masterchef UK, Thomasina Miers, is planning to open a Mexican restaurant in London. I know she's spent quite a long time in Mexico, recently to specifically work with chefs and restaurant owners there - now, like her or not, she has a passion for Mexican food which I have experienced first hand. Whether that's enough to run a successful and authentic restaurant, I don't know, but I'll definitely be trying it out.
But let's delve straight into the cooking. (Ingredients or dishes marked in italics have a corresponding recipe either below or in a post to follow.)
We started off making some sopes. Sopes are made of the same stuff as tortillas (look for Masa Harina or Maseca, but make sure it's very fine, unlike what you can buy from CoolChile) but unlike maize tortillas, they're formed into small patties, rather than waferthin rounds. These are then toasted on a comal or, in the absence of one, a regular pan on the stove, topped with frijoles, lettuce, queso fresco (or Lancashire crumbly) and salsa verde (There are a variety of other toppings, incl. shredded chicken and various sauces, but the base, frijoles, lettuce and cheese are pretty much a constant). They (amongst other things) are also personally responsible for my weight gain when I lived in Mexico, as there was a small stall just behind the school I was working at, where a wrinkly old woman with a genuine toothless smile would prepare them all day long - and the smell coming into the classroom would cause me to sneak out at every occasion to tuck into some sopes!
While we all assembled our sopes and discussed the dishes we were going to prepare, we also snacked one something very typically Mexican (picture above): potato chips sprinkled with lime and salsa, and jícama, a vegetable consisting of 90% water, which around here seems to be called yam bean or Mexican turnip. You simply peel it, cut it into sticks and enjoy with lime juice, salt and chile piquín (you can use cayenne pepper as well) - it makes for a very healthy low-calorie snack.
Next up a dish that requires some advance preparation: ceviche. Now this must be one of the most bastardised dishes as it has become a bit of a food fad around the globe in recent years. A modern version of the shrimp cocktail, probably, which in the 70s was also many-a-time converted into something completely and utterly inedible.
Fresh ceviche, though, is such a treat when it's well executed - I adore it so much that it recently featured on my list of 5 things you need to taste before you die... so here's your chance! You can use any type of fish, but white fish gets preference all the time as it doesn't discolour in the curing process. That's right: the fish isn't grilled or baked or poached or fried, it is simply cured in lime juice and this marinating process "cooks" the flesh. I believe it was Xochitl who told us of her father taking them out on a fishing trip somewhere in good ol' Baja and the very first thing he'd do was to catch a fish, preparing it and curing it there and then for them to enjoy a few hours later, while they were catching the rest of their evening meal. After curing, the fish is flaked and mixed with fresh julienned or chopped vegetables and a generous helping of cilantro (fresh coriander), then scooped out of the bowl with tortilla chips.
Another dish that needs to prepared well in advance is frijoles (sorry, no picture, but you can see some served for breakfast here). These refried beans are really a staple food, served with every meal from breakfast to dinner (and certain people will even snack on them in between meals). In the North (where Iliana and Xochitl have their roots), they use pinto beans, whereas in Mexico City (where I lived) and further South, only black beans will do. The preparation is very much the same, though. There's the original, labour-intensive version where you soak your dry beans the night before, then leave them to slowly cook for the day (Xochitl's Mum actually uses a slow cooker for this purpose). There's the intermediate version where you use whole, wet beans from a can (on my last visit to Waitrose I saw that they're now selling them in tins as well ("Epicure" black beans in salted water), though I cannot vouch for the quality or availability across the country - refer to my first post in this series for more reliable shopping addresses) or you can buy them ready-made, again in a can. We tried an old cheat's trick so see if it really helps to mask the flavour that you sometimes get from tinned vegetables: fry some onions until they're brown and fragrant, then add the beans and cook together before mashing them up... this is my preferred way of doing a quick version and even our resident Mexicans had to agree that it works beautifully.
So, this should get you started - and by the time you've got the ceviche and frijoles ready, I might have another post for you, including recipes for various taco fillings, a variety of home-made sauces and a divine and indulging dessert!
(original recipe Iliana Villareal)
500 g masa harina (corn flour) – if your masa is very yellow and coarse, you may want to mix this with some regular flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 cups warm water
Vegetable oil (for frying)
Mix flour, baking powder and salt, then add the warm water. You may need a little more warm water to make a moist, smooth dough.
Traditional sopes forming method: Make balls the size of a walnut, a few at a time, and keep the dough in a plastic bag to prevent it from drying out. Moisten a cloth napkin or tea towel and spread out on a flat surface. Roll each ball of dough in moistened palm of you hand until smooth, lay on the damp towel, cover with a plastic bag, and press down with your hand to. To shape the patty, flatten again with a small can or flat-bottomed glass into a perfectly smooth circle 2 to 2 1/2 inches (5 – 7.5 cm) in diameter. It should be about 1/4-inch (5 mm) thick.
Peel the plastic bag off the top, then lay the tortilla in your hand and peel off the damp cloth. Smooth any rough edges with your fingers and the tortilla is ready to fry. Cook in only very little oil (if you must use it at all) until it's cooked through and browning on the outside. Then lay it in the palm of your hand and roll the edges upwards a bit to form a mini-rim. Keep warm until serving.
Topping: frijoles, queso fresco (Lancashire crumbly or mild feta), salsa verde
(Recipe Xochitl Ireland)
Ceviche is great on a hot summer day as a starter or a light lunch. The fish can be marinated 5-6 hours or overnight (which will give it a more citrussy flavour). Although finely dicing the vegetables is labour intensive, it can be done ahead of time so that the final dish can be quickly assembled.
For the fish:
1 white fish fillet, cut into small chunks
juice of 6-10 lemons and/or limes
1 carrot (finely diced)
1 onion (finely diced)
1 cucumber (deseeded and finely diced)
1 green pepper (finely diced)
½ bunch of fresh coriander (finely chopped)
1 jalapeño chilli (finely chopped) (optional)
salt, pepper, garlic powder (optional)
salted crackers or unsalted tortilla chips
Place the fish and lemon juice in a glass bowl and leave to marinate for 5-6 hours or overnight in the fridge. There should be enough juice to completely submerge the fish. About 1 hour before serving, remove the fish from the fridge and break down the chunks of fish using your hands. (Since the fish is served with crackers, the finer chunks it is broken down to, the easier it is to serve and eat.) Return to the fridge. Just before serving, gently stir in all the vegetables. Add salt, pepper and garlic powder (if using) to taste. Serve with crackers or tortilla chips.
(recipe Xochitl Ireland)
Pinto (or black) beans
Rinse beans, cover with water and soak overnight, or do this in the morning before work and let it soak during the day. Remove any floating beans (they are said to contain bugs or be otherwise inedible) and bring to a boil and cover, cook over low heat so water does not come out the top. You will cook for 2-3 hours until beans are soft when squeezed between your fingers. About once an hour check water level so it doesn’t dry out. When done, add salt to taste, better to under salt. If you have added too much salt, peel a potato, add it to the beans and cook for half an hour, remove potato. Store in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for a week if desired. When cooking beans, every time you put a spoon in the beans make sure it’s clean or beans will spoil faster.
Frijoles refritos (Refried Beans)
(recipe Jo Wagner)
cooked beans or tinned beans
1 onion (finely chopped)
cheese (Lancashire Crumbly is a good alternative for queso fresco)
Heat oil in frying pan. Tip in the onions and fry until soft, brown and fragrant.
Add desired amount of beans and heat through. Mash with a potato masher, add enough water to make it really creamy and let it keep cooking over low heat until you see the beans pulling away from the sides of pan.