Saturday, 31 October 2009

Recipe: Sopaipillas

Something I really look forward to eating while I'm in the Southwest USA are sopaipillas, a wonderful light and puffy fried treat similar to Navajo frybread (pictured below). Doused with warm honey, these are often served alongside the main course and provide a great relief to the fiery burn of many a chile-laden dish!While I must admit I haven't tried to recreate these at home (my excuse is that I don't have a deep fat fryer), here's an easy to follow recipe from Lourdes Nichols' book Mexican Cookery.

photo credit: Navin75
Sopaipillas (Puff fritters with honey and rum syrup)
75g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
15 lard
50ml warm water
2 tbsp honey
1tbsp rum
1/2 tsp cinnamon
15g butter

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and rub in the lard until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Slowly add the warm water and bring together to form a dough. Turn this out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth. Roll out the dough and cut into fist sized pieces and refrigerate, covered, for 2 hours.

Make the syrup by heating the honey, rum, cinnamon and butter in a saucepan, stirring constantly until well-mixed.

Heat the oil in a deep fat fryer until 190C or 375F and fry each piece until golden (about 1 min). Ensure that the oil remains at this temperature otherwise they will not puff up. Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm. To serve, you can reheat in a very hot oven.

Pour the syrup over the hot sopaipillas and serve.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Lourdes Nichols: the mother of Mexican food in the UK

Lourdes Nichols is another name which may not ring many bells with the British. However, she was instrumental in bringing Mexican food to the UK and her company, La Mexicana, was the first to produce tortillas in Britain.
Married to an Englishman, Lourdes came to the UK in 1967 and set up her own catering business, which provided traditional Mexican food to the Mexican Embassy, Mexican Tourist Board and the British Mexican Society among many others. She made numerous TV and radio appearances in the Eighties and wrote several cookery books. I have had one of these, Mexican Cookery, in my possession for some time, a rather dog-eared copy that I picked up in a second hand bookstore. It's a great book and has a fantastic range of authentic dishes; these are easy to follow and require relatively straightforward ingredients. First published in 1984, it's really interesting to see how our awareness of Mexican food has grown over the last twenty years...and how the Nahuatl word 'chilpoctli' has been sidelined in favour of the more popular spelling, 'chipotle'. If you want to read more about Lourdes, there's this on the Wahaca website.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

My Mexican bible

The name Rick Bayless doesn't mean much in the UK but ask any American and they'll probably know who you're talking about. Think of him as the Ken Hom of Mexican food. I first came across the "award-winning chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality" when I was given one of his books, Mexican Kitchen, which really inspired me to have a go at cooking Mexican at home. It's not only a great recipe book but also contains a lot of information about the ingredients and regionality of Mexican cuisine. It's the kind of cookery book you read in bed.
Mr Bayless has published several cookery books which are available from In addition, he runs several successul Mexican restaurants stateside, of which I'm yet to visit. For further details, go to Some recipes are available online and you can buy Frontera products from selected stockists in the UK.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Interview with Thomasina Miers

There's no doubt that Wahaca is one of the most successful Mexican restaurants in the UK. With its third site due to open in Canary Wharf next month, I just came across this recent interview with it's co-founder,Thomasina Miers. It's great that she's going to be involved in the British Street Food Awards next year and I look forward to her cookery book hitting the shelves!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Is this the real thing? Mexican Coca-Cola

Photo credit: Nick Burnett
Fun fact for today...did you know that one of the most popular items sold by is Coca-Cola? Apparently, Mexican coke's 'unique' taste is because it's made with cane sugar: folks in the USA are willing to pay $1.99 + shipping for a small bottle of the stuff. They do say you can't beat the feeling...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Day of the Dead at the British Museum

Strolling through the British Museum yesterday, the above flyer caught my eye. It seems that el Dia de los Muertos is finally getting the recognition it deserves in the UK. On Sunday 1st November, the British Museum is hosting a whole range of activities and events in celebration of the Mexican festival. It's all free, from the Uk's only authentic Mariachi band to the children's workshops. For further details, you can download the programme here. I'm intrigued to see what the 'steet food' being served in the Great Hall will be like!

Wahaca are also getting in on the act by offering free shots of tequila (reposado rather than blanco...lovely) on Monday 2nd and Tuesday 3rd November. A special Day of the Dead cocktail will also be available but hey, I'm all about the free stuff (although I couldn't resist buying this sugar skull from the British Museum).

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Essential storecupboard items

A typical Mexican recipe can look quite daunting to the novice. Many dishes have a long list of ingredients or require a lot of preparation. However, if you invest in just a few key items, then it is possible to create a whole range of dishes from scratch. Here are a few suggestions for your storecupboard that will enable you to create an authentic taste of Mexico at home.

The heart and soul of Mexican cuisine, don't be fooled into thinking that all chillies are the same. Here are my top three:
Jalapeño - has a nice heat and can be used in a variety of dishes.
Chipotle - the hottest chili at the moment in terms of food trends, chipotles en adobo are a great ingredient for the Mexican cook.
Ancho - readily available from select stockists in powder form, this makes a great seasoning paste and is an easy and prep-free ingredient to spice up dishes.
For more info, see my earlier post on types of chillies.

No Mexican meal is complete without a side of tortillas. If you have the time (and patience), try making your own. Nothing beats the smell of fresh dough and a tortilla cooking on a hot griddle. If you just want to grab some from the supermarket, I think Discovery produces some of the best shop-bought flour tortillas but if you want corn, then Old El Paso sell these.

Another common side dish particularly in Tex-Mex cuisine, Mexican rice is usually fried with onion and then simmered in stock and seasonings. It was first introduced to the New World by the Spanish and quickly became part of the country's staple diet. Medium-grain white rice is used in Mexico but difficult to find in the UK so use long-grain instead.

Another staple of the Mexican diet, the type of bean varies depending on the region and. Black beans are widespread while pinto beans are more common in northwest Mexico and southwest USA. The pinto bean is one of the state vegetables of New Mexico and more commonly used to make refried beans (frijoles refritos) but either bean can be used. I love both but if forced to make a decision, I'd choose pinto. Both are becoming more readily available in UK supermarkets, both in tinned and dried form. You can also buy refried beans in a tin but I strongly advise making your own!

Many a Mexican sauce will contain tomatoes. Plum tomatoes have a rich, pulpy texture which results in a thick and flavourful sauce while cherry tomatoes are great for fresh salsas. There's nothing wrong with using tinned but if you want to add extra depth to your dish, buy them fresh. Make sure they are nice and ripe and roast them under the grill under charred and blackened. It's up to you if you want to leave the skins on, but I think little black flecks running through a brick red sauce looks very attractive.

Domesticated by the Aztecs, the tomate verde is NOT a green tomato, and is more closely related to a gooseberry. If you've seen one enclosed in it's thin, papery skin, you'll understand why. I'm yet to find fresh tomatillos for sale in the UK but they can be bought tinned from Mexican food stockists. They have a wonderful flavour and essential if you want to make salsa verde.

News from Mestizo

Mestizo is hosting a special Mole Festival to tie in with their Dia de los Muertos celebrations. A selection of authentic moles from different regions of Mexico will be available from 27th October to 2nd November.  

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

My tortilla factory

Tortillas...the staple of the Mexican diet. While the ones you get in the supermarket are much better than they used to be, nothing beats a fresh corn tortilla.

What you will need:
180g masa harina
50g plain flour
200-300ml warm water
Pinch of salt
A tortilla press*
An old plastic shopping bag/ bin liner (clean, of course)

*Now, if you don't have a tortilla press, don't panic...neither do I! I've come across many hurdles when trying to recreate Mexican classics at home (see making tamales without corn husks) and in this case, I've discovered that a heavy hardback book will long as it's one you don't mind standing on it.

What you do:
Mix the flours together in a large bowl. Gradually add the water, a little at a time, until you have a soft dough that leaves the sides of the bowl clean. If the dough seems a little sticky, add a little more flour until you reach the right consistency. Knead the dough for another 5-10 mins until soft and pliable (if you pinch a little between two fingers, it shouldn't crack at the ages). Divide into 12 balls and cover with a tea towel.

If you have a tortilla press, line each side with a piece of thin plastic bag / bin liner and press down to form the tortilla. It should be about 5" in diameter. If you are using a book, open and lay down the plastic so that it covers the front page and the inside cover. Place a ball of dough on the first page and shut the book, making sure the dough will be sandwiched between the sheets of plastic. Depending on how strong you are, either press down on top of the book with your hands or place the book on the floor and stand on it for 5-10 secs. Personally, the latter works much better for me. Have a peek and apply more pressure if it isn't large enough.

Heat a heavy based pan over a high heat; it will be ready when a drop of water sizzles upon touch. Carefully pick up the tortilla (still in the plastic), peel back one side and using your hand, flip it into the pan. Cook for 20 secs; when the edges begin to curl up, flip over and cook for another 20 secs. If you've got it right, the tortilla will now begin to puff up. Don't worry, if it doesn't, it'll still taste great and the more you practice, the better they'll become! Flip again for a final 20 secs and slide into a folded tea towel while you continue to make the rest.

If you're not eating them straightaway, the tortillas freeze very well. To reheat, defrost thoroughly and either steam them over a pan of boiling water or microwave on high for 20-30 secs.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Mexican longer an 'ethnic' food

According to a new report in the USA, Mexican food has become a mainstay of the American diet and is hardly considered an ethnic cuisine anymore. Here in the UK, curry is "said to be the overall favourite dish" when it come to ethnic eating. It certainly throws up some interesting ideas about the actual meaning of 'ethnic food'.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Recipe: green chile corn soup with dumplings

This is an incredibly quick and easy "all-in-one" soup, with lots of colour and a nice spicy kick! A great way to brighten up those looming winter nights.

1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 green chillies, roasted and diced
1 small tin of sweetcorn, drained
1 medium sized potato, diced
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 pint stock
1/2 pint milk

50g masa harina
125ml hot water
1/2tsp salt

Place all the ingredients (except the milk) into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and leave for 15-20 mins, until the potatoes are cooked.

Using a hand blender, combine until smooth. Add the milk and check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Make the dumplings by adding the hot water to the masa harina and form into a dough. If you like a lighter texture to your dumplings, use 25g masa harina, 25g plain flour. Sprinkle over the salt and knead well. Roll the dough into a long sausage (about 2cm in diameter) and cut into bit-size pieces. Drop these into the soup and allow to simmer for 20 mins. The dumplings should come to the surface.

Serve with some grated cheddar cheese over the top and a sprinkle of cayenne or crushed red chillies.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Cocoa a go-go

So, this post isn't directly related to Mexican food but it is about chocolate. You might have heard of a liquid lunch, but yesterday, mine consisted mostly of a free tasting hosted by Artisan du Chocolat in celebration of the UK's 6th National Chocolate Week.

We're all familiar with the major chocolate brands, but the UK is actually chock-full of independent high-quality chocolatiers producing incredibly elegant and not overly rich chocolate. L'Artisan is a fine example and, unlike many of their competitors, they grind their own cocoa beans (in Kent of all places) to produce an array of mouth-watering chocolate goodies.

Yesterday, along with a number of others (funnily enough, all women) in their chocolateria at Selfridges, I sampled 8 of their luxury bars plus their trademark liquid salted caramels, a favourite of Gordon Ramsey. If you think all cocoa beans taste the same, think again; from the fruity floral undertones of Madagascar to the distinctive smokiness of Java, the 'origin' bars each have a unique flavour and tone. In addition to this range, there are several coffee and tea infused bars and a fusion of other spices, herbs and flowers. We got to sample the Tonka bar, an unsual spice, apparently popular in Mexico but banned in the USA because it contains coumarin, which can be lethal in large doses. All the bars retail for £2.50 and there is a huge array of tantalising truffles, drinking chocolate and other 'novelty' items to burn a hole in your pocket.

I must admit I came away feeling a little sick; high percentage cocoa chocolate (all their bars are 72%) is much more lethal than your standard dairy milk! Probably a good thing, otherwise I would be a much larger (and poorer) woman.

Artisan du Chocolat
0845 270 6996
Stores: Selfridges, Notting Hill and Chelsea plus their Borough Market stall
The factory is located in Ashford, Kent and does offer chocolate tasting tours as well as an atelier pick-up

Monday, 12 October 2009

More shopping? Mexican folk art, jewellery, hammocks...

I keep coming across some really good sites for Mexican non-food items but they do take some finding! If you like silver jewellery, then look no further than Corazon Latino, a great selection of beatiful hand-made bracelets, necklaces and earrings. If you fancy hanging a hammock at home, then Between the Trees on Ebay has a wide selection of Mexican Hammocks, Mexican Blankets, Serapes and Falsa blankets. Papel Picado. Milagros, Frida Kahlo, Day of the Dead, Nichos, Virgin of Guadalupe, Loteria, Retablos, Sugar Skull Moulds, Taxco Silver, Oaxacan tinwork. Now where's my sausage and mash?

The burrito bites backs: the rise of British street food

Ever heard of the Vendys awards? No, me neither. Now in their 5th year, the contest celebrates the best street food vendor in New York and this year, was won by the The Country Boys Taco Truck, a husband and wife duo who feed the hundreds who flock to the public fields in Brooklynn's Red Hook district at the weekend.
So, it's no surprise then that us Londoners are not to be outdone by hosting our own British Street Food Awards from 2010. Got a stand/stall that outshines the rest? You can now enter your nominations online. Categories are as follows:

1.        Best Pie
2.        Best Dessert
3.        Best Cold Drink
4.        Best Hot Drink
5.        Best Main Dish
6.        Best Sandwich
7.        Best Looking Mobiler
8.        Best of the Best

Day of the Dead (Dia de la Muertos) 31st Oct - 2nd Nov

It's just a few weeks away from the most important festival in the Mexican calendar, el Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, a time when families come together to celebrate and remember those who have passed away.
The Day of the Dead has been celebrated since Atzec times and nowadays, it's a strange mix of Catholic and indigenous beliefs, and traditions vary from place to place. The festival culminates on 2nd November, the day when deceased adults are honoured (on 1st November, children are remembered). Earlier this year, the BBC broadcast a series called 'Feasts' where Stefan Gates 'immersed' himself into various world cultures and their festivals. If you want an insight into this festival, it's certainly worth watching if it happens to be broadcast again. This year, I'm planning to try out a few traditional recipes although I don't think I'll be making my own sugar skulls! Milagros in East London sells a few appropriately morbid bits and pieces for the home.

Mexican food evening at the British Museum

I haven't made it yet to the Moctezuma/Montezuma exhibition at the British Museum but I have got tickets for for the Mexican Food evening event on Thursday 5th November. Lured by promises of Mexican food, there's going to be a panel discussion chaired by the restaurant critic Fay Maschler, and featuring the following experts on Mexican cuisine:

Thomasina Miers, co-owner of restaurant group Wahaca
Diana Kennedy, food writer and authority on Mexican cooking
Fiona Dunlop, author of Viva la Revolución! New food from Mexico
Enrique Olvera, key participant in the Mexican culinary avant-garde as leading chef and restaurateur of Restaurante Pujol in Mexico City

Tickets are £5 each and the event begins at 6.30pm.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

London Restaurant Week: 8-13 October 2009

Today marks the start of London Restaurant Week, with an array of top restaurants across the capital offering some great fixed priced menus. One such establishment is Mestizo, which is still (in my humble opinion) the most authentic Mexican restaurant in London. The special menu is available at lunch and dinner and on Sunday, they are offering diners a Mexican Big Brunch Roast for £19 including a Corona or a Margarita.

Montezuma's chocolate

One of the first chocolatiers in the UK to mass produce chilli chocolate, Montezuma's now have an array of chocolatey products all spiced up with a hint of chilli. I can highly recommend 'Montezuma's Revenge', a dark truffle filled with lime, chilli and tequila. I can only hope that the name does not refer to any unwanted side effects.

Chile and chocolate

If you're tempted to try the Dorset Naga, a good introduction is the 'Pleasure & Pain' organic dark chocolate from It's 73% cocoa solids and 0.3% Naga; that might not sound like much, but with a Scoville rating of 923,000, it's more than plenty! P&P also produce several other chocolate bars with chillies.

A beginners guide to chillies

Chillies are at the heart of Mexican cuisine and over a hundred vareties grow in Mexico, eaching having it's own distinctive colour, taste and of course, heat. With regards to spelling, chilli pepper, chilli, chillie, chili, and chile are all acceptable although the latter is the Spanish word so arguably, the most 'authentic'.
Unless you buy chillies from a specialist stockist, it's hard to know exactly what variety you are buying from the supermarket. While habaneros are becoming more readily available, if you want other fresh chillies typical of Mexican cuisine, you will have to order them online.


So what type of chillies can you find at the supermarket? There are two main types:
- small, thin chillies which are extrememly hot and used in Asian cuisine.
- slightly larger chillies, usually imported from Kenyan - these are a little less hot but can vary wildly (as experience has taught me)
The latter are more suited to Mexican dishes and you can always introduce some of the hotter variety for that extra kick. The hottest part are the seeds and vein so be careful when preparing them for cooking and wash you hands well after wards. To keep them as fresh as possible, remove the stems and place in a paper bag inside a plastic bag in the fridge where they will keep for about 2 weeks.

Many Mexican dishes use dried chillies (such as ancho, guajillo, cascabel, pasilla) and there are several stockists in the UK where you can buy these. Stored in a cool place, they will keep for a long time and make a great storecupboard standby. One increasingly common chilli sold in this form is the chipotle, a smoked and dried jalapeño. This can also be bought as  powder or en adobo (in a sauce in a can), which is another great base for many dishes.

Some guajillo chilles

Here are a few of my favourite chillies that you find in Mexican cooking:
Ancho - a dried poblano chilli, dark brown with a red hue, often sold as a powder. Scoville rating of 1,000-2,000. 
Chipotle - the trendiest of the chillies currently available (see above), often has a little more kick than a fresh jalapeño.
Guajillo - a larger and milder chilli, which makes a rich, flavourful red sauce. Between 2,500 and 5,000 on the Scoville scale. 
Jalapeño- the most famous of Mexican chillies, a jalapeño measures 2,500 - 10,000 Scoville units (the habanero measures between 80,00 to 150,000) 
Pasilla - a dried chliaca chilli which is little hotter than ancho and often comes in a powder. 
Poblano - a larger chilli, suitable for stuffing or roasted and peeled before cooking. Has a mellow flavour and similar heat rating to ancho.
Serrano - hotter and smaller than a jalapeño, these chaps often come pickled (en escabeche).

Too hot? Sussing out the Scoville scale

You've probably heard of the Scoville scale and know that it refers to the heat of a chilli but how is it actually measured? Named after its creator, Wilbur Scoville, the test takes an amount of chilli extract which is then diluted in sugar water until the heat is no longer detectable.
If something has no capsaicin (the bit in the chilli that's responsible for the searing heat), then its Scoville rating is 0. A Habanero, on the other hand, can have a rating as high as 300,000, which means it needs diluting 300,000 times over before no heat can be detected.
Even the same variety of chillie can vary wildly; it all depends on the plant's growing temperature, hours of sunlight, moisture, soil chemistry, as well as the kind (and amount) of fertilizer used. The infamous Dorset Naga (available from Peppers by Post), a relative of the Scotch Bonnet, boasts a Scoville rating of 923,000 units. Wow.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Como se dice? A guide to Mexican dishes

I cringe everytime I hear someone ask for "pie-ella"; ll is pronounced as a y in Spanish, so paella is "pie-ay-ya". Here's a quick explanation and pronounciation guide to some other popular dishes and food-related terms frequently used in Mexican cuisine.

Achiote (annatto or roucou) a-chee-OH-tay
Adobado (in chilli sauce) a-do-BA-do
Ajo (garlic) a-ho
Albondigas (meatballs) al-BON-di-gas
Almendra (almond) al-MEN-dra
Antojito (appetizer) an-to-HEE-to
Arroz (rice) a-ROS
Buñelo (Mexican biscuit) boon-NWE-lo

Calabacita (courgette) ca-la-ba-SEE-ta
Calabaza (pumpkin) ca-la-BA-sa
Canela (cinnamon) ca-NE-la
Carñitas (braised and roasted pulled pork) car-NEE-tass
Cazuela (pot) ca-SWE-la
Cebolla (onion) se-BOY-ya
Ceviche (fish marinated in lime) say-BIS-chay
Chayote (root vegetable like squash) chai-YO-te
Chipotle (smoked jalapeño pepper) chee-POT-le
Cilantro (coriander) see-LAN-tro

Empañada (turnover) em-pan-NY-da
Enchilada (stuffed and rolled tortillas served in a sauce) en-chi-LA-da
Ensalada (salad) en-sa-la-da
Epazote (pungent mexican herb) e-PA-so-tay
Escabeche (marinated) es-ka-BE-chay
Espinacas (spinach) es-pee-NA-cas

Flan (Mexican crème caramel)
Frijoles (beans) free-HO-les

Galleta (biscuit) ga-YE-ta
Guacamole (avocado dip) gwa-ca-MO-le

Harina (flour) ha-REE-na
Helado (ice-cream) e-LA-do
Horno (oven) OR-no
Huevo (egg) WAY-bo

Jalapeño (type of chilli pepper) ha-la-PEN-yo
Jicama (Mexican tuber) HEE-ca-ma
Marisco (shellfish) ma-RIS-ko
Mole (traditional sauce, often made with chilli and chocolate) MO-le
Nopales (cactus paddles) no-PA-les

Olla (pot) O-ya

Pavo (turkey) PA-bo
Pepitas (pumpkin seeds) pe-PEE-tas
Pescado (fish) pes-CAR-do
Pibil (annatto seasoning) pi-BEEL
Picante (spicy) pee-CAN-te
Piñones (pine nuts) pee-NYO-nes
Pipian (ground pumpkin seeds) pee-PI-yan
Pollo (chicken) po-YO
Pozole (Mexican soup with corn kernels) po-SO-le
Puerco (pork) PWER-co
Pulque (native drink) POOL-ke

Quesadilla (tortilla folded in half with filling) ke-sa-DEE-ya
Queso (cheese) ke-SO

Raja (strips of chilli) RA-ha
Ranchero (ranch-style) ran-CHE-ro
Refrito (refried) re-FREE-to
Relleno (stuffed) re-YE-no