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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.

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.

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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