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These are the moments that I love my job. I’ve spent the last few days in Urbana-Champaign, a college town (or two) near Chicago that I had never visited before and about which I had no particular expectations. As it turned out, the conference was excellent and the organisers turned out to be genuinely awesome people that I want to kidnap and bring home with me so that I can admire their fashion, drink their cocktails and dance until the small hours. Conferences don’t have enough dance parties in my view, and the ChamBana crowd know how to have a good time. But what about the food?, you ask. I ate in some pretty decent upscale restaurants but the real highlight was my day off, when I wandered out to Maize, a tiny Mexican gem in the midst of ugly student apartments and parking lots. It is pretty much guaranteed that if you let me loose in the United States, I will find good Mexican food. It’s what I do here.

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red rice plate

Lovely lemur friend M gave us some dried chilies for Christmas and when the cold snap hit, it seemed like the perfect time to use them in something deeply warming and savoury. It turned properly cold here last week and I think everyone had some version of the same idea: comfort cook meats! There was an unprecedented queue at the local butcher and he told me everyone had been buying braising meat to the point that they had actually run out of pork belly. I swithered a bit and decided on a chicken and a few plump house-made chorizos. Nothing makes me feel quite so thrifty as using every part of a chicken and the chorizos reminded me of the Mexican chilies awaiting me at home.

Red rice is a hearty and very unassuming dish. It can be as simple as rice cooked with a tomato-based salsa and as such, you might think of it as a side dish rather than the main event. But it’s a palette made for variations and additions, and I like to add a bit of meaty flavour and a load of dark greens (it absorbs seemingly limitless amounts of them) to turn it into a one-pot meal. Besides, Mr Lemur has a bred-in-the-bone Latin American love for plain rice dishes and, after all, some of the world’s great dishes begin from nothing more than rice and chicken. This is one of those dishes that seem to involve a lot of steps but few of them call for close attention. It takes more time than effort so it’s the perfect thing to make over a weekend and it will feed you happily for days. Read the rest of this entry »

Sometimes, your cooking plans are derailed by ingredients not being available but in the last couple of weeks, mine have been inspired by unusual ingredients turning up in stores. I knew I wanted to make some kind of salsa when a bout of warm weather cut through our rainy Spring, but I hadn’t exactly imagined that it would centre around kumquats. But there they were in a basket at the Taj grocery – wintery fruits that I usually associate with Christmas but that offer an bittersweet citrus punch not dissimilar to Mexican naranja agria. As soon as I saw them I knew I had to include them in my Spring salsa, so I poked around for ingredients to balance their chewy acid pleasures, coming up with plump little radishes, long red chilies and soft avocado. This recipe barely qualifies for the name, but it makes a substantial salsa that could function as the major component of a plate, not just a condiment. We ate it with grilled chicken and tomato rice but it would make a simple supper with just a rice bowl, or a vegetarian meal with Mexican black beans and rice.

Spicy kumquat salsa

  • a large handful of kumquats
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 large spring onion or 3 regular sized ones
  • 6-8 radishes
  • a large handful of ripe cherry tomatoes
  • 5 long red chilies (or 2-3 serranos)
  • bunch of cilantro
  • 2 limes
  • some olive oil

You basically just have to wash and chop everything – avocado into chunks, spring onion, chilies and kumquats thinly sliced, tomatoes halved, radishes diced, leaves pulled off cilantro stems. Salt generously with nice flaky salt, then dress with lime and a little olive oil and mix well.

Et voilà – a not exactly authentic salsa but a nice way to transition from wintery citrus fruits to the promise of summery flavours.

Serves 2.

Lest anyone think I only go to fancy Mexican restaurants, another really huge thing I miss from New York is the kind of taquería one finds in the back of some bodegas. Cheap, hearty and unfailingly delicious, the everyday Mexican lunch is a real madeleine for this former New Yorker. Yes, I know, LA friends will scoff and insist their taquerías are better. Sure, ok, you’re probably right. And it’s definitely the case that when I first moved to New York in the 1990s, you couldn’t find proper Mexican food in as many places as you can today. Puerto Rican food, surely, Cuban food yes, but not so much Mexican. All the same, the porky, fatty, spicy pleasures of really good tacos, tortas and other street foods were a distinctive part of my life in NYC and, it must be said, my life in Iowa City. Anywhere with a Mexican immigrant population is going to make this stuff very well indeed and you can’t really understand the craving for Mexican food until you’ve eaten this way. It’s something L and I discussed as we sat in the slightly chilly back garden of Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli in Boerum Hill: savvy entrepreneurs may have opened up a few chic Mexican restaurants in London, but because most Brits don’t have the everyday experience of cheap and good Mexican fast food to compare to, it’s not quite the same market. They’re selling a new ethnic cuisine, not an upmarket version of something that people already eat frequently.  Read the rest of this entry »

I’m in New York now, and staying with Lemur friend L in her lovely Brooklyn apartment with cat and laptop, so I’m hoping to catch up on some blogging. However, I still only have my shonky camera phone and emailing the pics to myself is kind of laborious, so I’m afraid my next few posts will not be awfully pretty. On top of this, I have an insane backlog of meals to write about, plus am gorging on the New York restaurant scene in an unseemly fashion, so there’s going to be more to write about than spare moments in my days. Sorry, but there are DVF dresses to buy, movies to see, and friends to catch up with out there in the city – that said, I simply must take a moment to evoke my extreme happiness at being back in a city with a proper Latin American food culture. New York, I am so very glad to be back… Read the rest of this entry »

Last time in was in Los Angeles, I bought several pounds of dried chilies from a Mexican market. It was kind of hilarious as a pound of chilies is a lot and I ended up with two grocery bags stuffed full to cram into my suitcase. Luckily, I hadn’t brought many clothes since I had sensibly predicted the food shopping potential of LA before I left. I used up the anchos and pasillas relatively quickly, but I still have quite a few chile californias left, partly because I’m never quite sure what to do with them. They’re milder in both spice and flavour than the others and thus they often end up last picked for Mexican chile-oriented meals. But when Mr Lemur brought home a pork loin in one of his many Ready Steady Cook-style shopping excursions, it hit me that the mild flavour of the pork might be nicely matched with a chile california sauce.

I don’t usually (read: ever) cook with pork loin. Regular readers will know that I like longer cooking cuts with succulent meaty flavour. I can honestly say that I’ve cooked more pig cheeks than pork chops in the last year, so I had to do some research on how to cook the loin. That said, while delicacy is not my main focus in the world of meat, pork loin can be delicious if you get enough flavour into it and don’t overcook the damn thing. I started by marinading it in achiote paste and lime juice for a good 8 hours, then served it with a chile california and blood orange sauce and a big bowl of avocado salad. You could almost pretend it wasn’t November…

Chile california pork loin

For the pork:

  • 1 pork loin
  • 1 tbsp achiote powder
  • 1 tsp white or cider vinegar
  • enough water to make a paste
  • juice of 1 lime

For the sauce:

  • 8 chiles california
  • juice of 1 blood orange, or regular orange
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 small tomatoes

To make the marinade, mix the achiote powder with the vinegar and as much water as you need to make a paste, then add the lime juice. It should be thick enough to coat the meat but liquidy enough to spoon out easily. Cover the meat and refrigerate for 8 hours.

When you’re ready to cook, open the chilies out lengthways, remove seeds and membranes, fry them quickly on both sides in a cast-iron skillet and then soak for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to gas mark 7 / 425F / 220C and put in the pork. Cook pork for between 30-45 minutes – your oven will hopefully be different from mine, which is on the crappity side, but in any case it’s hard to predict how long exactly it will take to be juicy and pink rather than grey and dry. An oven thermometer is probably the best way to do it – you want to take it to about 145F. I think we overcooked ours marginally but it was at least still nicely pink.

While the meat is cooking, make the sauce. Take the chilies out of the water and blend them to a paste in a mini-prep. Push the paste through a sieve into a bowl. Put the tomatoes under a grill/broiler until blistered and blackened, then peel and dump them into a food processor and whizz until mushed up but not totally smooth. Chop the onions and sauté in a medium sized pan until turning brown. Turn the heat up to high and add the tomatoes and puréed chilies. Fry on medium-high heat for a couple of minutes till the sauce thickens, then turn the heat down and add orange and lime juice. Salt generously.

Pour the sauce over the pork, and serve with rice and a generous green salad.

Serves 2.

Another busy weekend for the lemurs began with blogging chum Thrifty Gal popping down from London on Friday night. She’s an old friend and a famously easy house guest – she tends to arrive with champagne, and she is completely happy to watch me cook, pour me wine, and then slob on the sofa with the cat. She is, however, a mildly challenging person to cook for as she’s both vegetarian and deathly allergic to nuts. It’s not really a problem – despite my porky qualities, I cook vegetarian as often as not, as I think all meat eaters should do. Just because we eat meat doesn’t mean we eat only meat and I am perplexed by those who expect hunks of flesh to show up on every plate. So the challenge of cooking for Thrifty Gal is more self-imposed: I like making her the things she’d never usually order because she’s afraid of stealth nuts. She rarely eats in ethnic restaurants as she is never sure if peanut oil or ground nuts might have been used. As a result, she ends up eating the boring crap that fancy European restaurants offer to veggies (why hello again mushroom risotto) and doesn’t get to experience the joys of Indian, Southeast Asian or Mexican cuisines. This is where I come in…

Over the years, I’ve cooked her Thai food that won’t kill her, Indian food that won’t kill her and Malaysian food that won’t kill her. (Er, we’ll draw a veil over the bowl of shrimp paste sambal I thought I could sneak in for myself, only to discover that the smell actually sent her running for the front door in horror. Oops-ee.) This weekend, I thought I’d take advantage of the summer corn to make her some Mexican food that won’t kill her.

Ever since I lived in the midwest, I’ve made some version of corn enchiladas every summer. The corn in Iowa is amazing and to be honest spoils you for all other corn. Especially the dried out pathetic husks in the UK that are, to add insult to injury, 69p each. Yes, Iowans, go ahead and laugh. I know. Trust me, I know. But not-quite-farm-fresh corn notwithstanding, I love the combination of sweet corn with good cheese and a zesty tomatillo sauce. I’ve made this dish with corn tortillas or flour tortillas, with goat cheese or sheep cheese, with all manner of summer vegetables or with a mix of corn and black beans. It truly cannot go wrong so long as you keep the filling seasonal and the sauce good and flavourful. This version is altered for what’s available in the UK. Thrifty Gal still pronounced it a triumph.

Corn and zucchini enchiladas

  • 2 ears of corn, kernels stripped off with a sharp knife
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 2 red peppers, diced
  • oregano, preferably Mexican (fresh or dried)
  • 1 tuma dla paja cheese (or other soft goat or sheep’s milk cheese)
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 large green chilies
  • a handful of cilantro
  • 2 tins of tomatillos or 8-10 fresh tomatillos
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • salt to taste
  • vegetable oil
  • 9 flour tortillas or 12 corn tortillas
  • a little Mexican queso añejo or parmesan

First roast the tomatoes (and tomatillos if fresh) under a grill/broiler until split and slightly charred. Turn once to do both sides. Meanwhile, toast the garlic cloves (still in skins) and chilies in a dry skillet for about 10 mins, turning often. Peel all when cool. At the same time, sauté the onions in oil until lightly browned.

Put the peeled tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies, garlic and onions in a food processor along with cilantro and pulse till saucy but not totally smooth. Heat some more oil (I use the same pot I did for the onions) and, when hot, empty in the sauce and fry on medium high heat for 10 minutes, till thickened and a bit reduced.

While the sauce cooks, prepare the filling. Sauté zucchini, peppers and corn in a large frying pan until softened and slightly browned. Season with salt, pepper and a generous pinch of oregano. If you’re using corn tortillas, you’re going to want to fry them in advance (ideally in oil which isn’t so healthy but hey, the rest of the dish is pretty good for you). Flour tortillas can be used direct.

Assemble the dish: for each tortilla add a big spoon of corn mixture, top with a slice of cheese, roll tightly and place in a lasagna pan. When the pan is full, pour the sauce over the top, top with a grating of queso añejo or parmesan and put in a medium oven for about 30-45 minutes, or until bubbling and browned.

Serves 3-4

I served it with a simple pea shoot and avocado salad and followed with Mexican-style coconut paletas. But that’s another post…

My inability to resist pork products is pretty well documented at this stage, so when Mr Lemur makes a run to the local shops to pick up some things for dinner, Ready Steady Cook-style, he knows he can’t go wrong with a chunk of pig. This time he returned bearing organic pork shoulder from the Nice Butcher and peas, asparagus and tomatoes from the Overpriced Greengrocer. Keeping things simple, I decided on a Mexican spice-rub for the pork and red rice with vegetables as an accompaniment. They can all go into the same oven and don’t need too much attention. Lovely!

The spice-rub idea came to mind because my good friend K is coming to stay, and last time he visited he brought a wonderful recipe for Mexican pork. That one was a bit more complicated and involved cooking the pork covered, at the very bottom of the oven, for several hours. It was sublime but more of a weekend project. This dish is a bit more practical, so long as you shove the pork in the oven as soon as you get home and don’t mind eating at mildly continental hours. I’m generally happy to eat at 9pm, but if you skip lunch as we tend to you can get more than a bit peckish. On this occasion I had both Mr Lemur and the cat basically wailing at me by the end, but the pork was worth it. Although there’s no sauce with this dish, it isn’t dry because the shoulder should be really moist, the spice flavours imbue the meat, and tomato rice is basically cooked with its own salsa.

Ancho roast pork shoulder

  • 1 pork shoulder
  • 2 tsp ancho powder
  • 1 heaping tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 heaping tsp Mexican cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin seeds
  • a pinch of cloves
  • 1 tsp salt (plus extra for skin)

Heat oven to 350 F / 180 C / gas mark 4. Mix the spices in a small bowl and then rub thoroughly all over the pork. You want to work the spice rub into all its crevices, leaving the skin free of course. Make sure the skin is scored (your butcher will probably have done this), rub it dry and rub in a bit more salt. Place pork in a small oven dish and stick it in the oven.

Cook for three hours, turning occasionally but keeping the skin facing up. When it’s done, let rest for ten minutes then slice and serve with rice and vegetables.

Serves 4-6

Our local food co-op has some amazing spring greens right now and so this dinner began with me clogging up their rather poky vegetable section pondering what to make with the giant bunches of beautifully colourful rainbow chard. Having just had Asian greens for the previous couple of days, I wanted something different, plus the selection of fresh herbs and spices at the co-op isn’t really conducive to Asian cooking. Then it struck me that I had enough peripherals in the freezer and store cupboard to make a quick and appealing set of taco fillings. There are still several pots of Oaxacan mole negro in the freezer from Christmas – I make mole for Christmas most years and there is always a bucket of the stuff – and I have several tins of salsa verde that American friends keep me supplied with when they visit. Tinned tomatillos are one of those compromises that cooking Mexican in the UK seems to demand: I’ve blogged before about the difficulty in finding fresh tomatillos, nopales, and poblanos here and until I learn to grow them myself, I am doomed to the canned stuff. But some brands of salsa verde are actually quite good, containing just tomatillos with a bit of serrano and cilantro. Others have the alarming green colour of cheap limeade and taste like the dip in bad Mexican restaurants. I like Herdez brand, but look for a lack of additives in the ingredients list and you should be ok.

Anyway, with these store cupboard ingredients in mind, I planned two types of taco: Oaxacan mole with sweet potato, red pepper, and goat cheese and rainbow chard in tomatillo sauce. The chard wants to be topped with grated hard cheese, and since the co-op has a good selection of Sussex goat cheeses, I decided on two kinds: one soft with peppercorns and one aged.

The mole tacos couldn’t be simpler, though of course they do depend on having mole to hand. You could replace the mole with a much quicker chipotle or ancho sauce, both of which would work with these ingredients. In any case, all I did was chop and steam the sweet potato then serve with fresh peppers, a bowl of sauce and cubes of goat cheese to be assembled at the table. The chard tacos are barely more complex: for a dinner that looks quite involved, this was all very easy.

Rainbow chard tacos

  • 1 large bunch of chard
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 garlic cloves
  • 1 tin of tomatillos / salsa verde
  • a handful of cilantro
  • 3 serrano chilies
  • a lump of hard goat or sheep’s cheese
  • corn tortillas

Wash and chop the chard, saving the stalks for another purpose. Chop the onion and fry in a little oil till beginning to brown. Add the crushed garlic and chopped serranos and fry for another minute or two. Dump the contents of the pan into a food processor, add the tomatillos and process till relatively smooth. Reheat the same pan and when hot, pour in the sauce. It should bubble rapidly and then settle down a bit. Cook for 5 minutes or so, till the sauce darkens and thickens.

Add the chard and stir as it wilts. Cook for another 5 minutes, adding a little water if necessary. (Not too much as the greens will give out quite a bit of their own liquid.) Salt to taste.

Serve with tortillas warmed in a steamer or on a skillet, and top each taco with a handful of grated cheese.

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