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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 »
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.
I served it with a simple pea shoot and avocado salad and followed with Mexican-style coconut paletas. But that’s another post…
When people ask me what I miss from living in the USA, my answer is always Mexican food. It’s a bit of an obnoxious reply, as generally Americans ask this question expecting that I might miss something actually originating from the US. I don’t especially miss crappy chocolate or diner food, although if I’m being honest, I do sometimes crave biscuits and gravy. But it is Mexican food that is the big loss, and I don’t mean it as an insult because I think of Mexican food as more than just an import. It’s a crucial part of the North American culinary landscape, whether in Susan Feniger and Rick Bayless’s fantastic restaurants in Los Angeles and Chicago or in the more everyday influence of Mexican immigration to the farmlands of Iowa. I miss going to the farmer’s market to buy tomatillos and poblanos. I miss the local bodega that sells fresh corn tortillas and nopales by the pound. And oh how I miss hot, greasy carne asada quesadillas for lunch, eaten on the hoof, with the promise of carnitas with crunchy pig ear on Sunday.
The UK doesn’t have a lot of Mexican immigrants and so very few of these ingredients or flavours have seeped into the culture here. There’s no range of dried chilies in the stores, and while you can buy tomatillos in London’s Borough Market, paying £7 for a tiny bag might make you weep. Britain can also seem stuck in a racist vision of Mexico that wouldn’t fly at all if aimed at South Asian cultures – Southern Rail has a shockingly offensive campaign featuring a stupid Mexican who speaks pigeon English and a local taqueria actually has a sign of a “lazy” Mexican sleeping under a cactus!
But recently, things have started to change. The Cool Chile Co. makes fresh tortillas daily and ships them to your door, along with masa harina, spices, and of course chilies. I used some of their ingredients to make my traditional Christmas mole this year and the knowledge that proper tortillas are just a day away by first class post is highly reassuring. And the success of Wahaca, Thomasina Miers’s Mexican street food restaurant in London has spawned a rash of new, ‘authentic’ Mexican eateries, such as the excellent Lupita, which focuses on Mexico City food.
It’s something of a sign that Miers felt the need to spell Oaxaca phonetically, so unfamiliar was this mecca of Mexican cuisine to the demographic she was aiming for, but her food – like the chorizo quesadilla with pickled vegetables above – has won over the crowds. When I first visited, every single table was eating burritos. I ordered the cochinita pibil (pork braised in achiote) and soon had enquiries from my neighbours (the tables are closely packed) about my vibrant dish. Now the place is always jumping, and the Mexican market small plates are the draw.
So when our good friend (and brilliant photographer) J visited from Stockholm this week, we took him to Wahaca. We began with a refreshing hibiscus flower mojito, a delicious combination of sweet and sour. We followed cocktails with a spread of small plates: a highlight was the pork pibil taco, garnished with traditional pickled pink onions, which is the image at the top of the post. Another standout was the smoked mackerel taco, with the lightness of a ceviche, balanced by the punchy flavour of mackerel. This was a new dish, and a real winner.
We also went traditional with guacamole and pork scratchings, entertainingly billed as a ‘healthier’ option. Admittedly, the pork skin was baked rather than fried, but still, let’s face it, there’s not much healthy about pork skins dipped in avocado. Delicious, yes. Healthy, not so much.
The cabbage taquitos with pasilla sauce were also new to the menu (yes, I come here quite often, what of it?) and while the vegetables got a little lost in the deep frying, the robust pasilla flavour nicely cut the richness of crispy tortilla and soft crema.
Wahaca is clearly a very successful restaurant on its own merits, but for me the real story is the slow but discernible growth of a Mexican presence on the London food scene. Having the choice of more than one Mexican place you can take an out-of-town guest to as representative of what’s great about London eating is a pretty good position to be in. Now, if I could just arrange for someone to sell those pig’s ear carnitas in Brighton…