Thursday, 14 April 2011

Vanilla Vanity

There's nothing plain about vanilla. From baking cakes to making ice cream, it can add a subtle depth of flavour that we often take for granted.

I have to admit that I knew very little about the spice until I did some research the other day. While I knew that the majority of vanilla flavouring is a synthetic chemical (vanillin), I didn't know it was derived from wood pulp in paper mills. The bulk of this is used in the manufacture of mass produced ice cream and, of course, chocolate.

If you think vanilla is boring, it's more than likely that vanillin is to blame. Real vanilla is complex; it has over 200 compounds while the fake stuff has only one. The vanilla orchid is a fickle plant and requires a lot of careful cultivation to pollinate and harvest. If you think the pods are expensive, their price reflects the time and effort that goes into their production.

Nowadays, there are three main types of vanilla available; Madagascan, Mexican and Tahitian. Until the mid 19th century, Mexico was the main producer of vanilla but as colonial cultivation spread, it's the Madagascan bean that appears in most of our supermarket products. Madagascan or Bourbon vanilla is possibly the finest and most versatile form of the spice while Tahitian beans are the strongest, their complex aromatics most suited to perfumes and such-like.

However, a lot has to be said for the Mexican variety which is reputed to have a stronger, smoother and richer flavour. There are plenty of shops online selling pods and paste, the latter of which I would strongly recommend, particularly for ice cream and custard recipes. A little goes a long way and the little black flecks make any dessert look gourmet.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Free Mexican Food!

The best things in life are definitely a big thumbs up to Chilango who are giving away burritos at the opening of their Chancery Lane restaurant on 5th May, which also happens to be Cinco de Mayo. There's going to be an all day fiesta with live music so make sure you get down there early as I'm sure this will be a popular event.

In addition, if you're off to watch the London Marathon this Sunday 17th April, Wahaca are giving away chips and salsa to spectators at their Canary Wharf restaurant, a great place to watch the runners go by.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Mexican Food? It's easy as 1, 2, 3

There's no denying that Mexican food is continuing to captivate us Brits: you only have to visit your local supermarket to see how demand is being met. Last year, Mexican food sales grew by a whopping 8.5% on 2009, exceeding just over £139M. While El Paso and Discovery dominate the market, many of the supermarkets are catching up, offering their own branded products for Mexican dishes. From Marks & Spencer's Chipotle Ketchup (which I can highly recommend) to Tesco Enchiladas, there's no shortage of choice.

The latest testament to our growing demand for Mexican food at home is the announcement that Santa Maria (aka Discovery) is investing £500,000 in the Milton Keynes plant. The company is also launching new concepts, including 'Mexican 3-Step', a way to prepare dishes from a few base ingredients. If you've ever cooked authentic Mexican food from scratch, you'll know how time consuming and ingredient-laden it can be so it will be interesting to see how this compares.

If you're more of a 'hands-on' cook, then how about trying our a couple of recipes from Eva Longoria's new cookbook. Eva is one of those celebrities who has time to dabble in the kitchen as well as owning a couple of restaurants. Inspired by her Texas/Mexican roots, her book is available now at

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Easy Chipotle Coffee Sauce

Having cracked open a can of chipotle chilles in adobo the other week, I'm always left wondering what to do with the rest. They're incredibly hot so one or two is all you need per recipe, which means there's plenty left over for another day.

I didn't have much time yesterday evening but wanted to make a tasty sauce using the ingredients I had to hand in the kitchen. Inspired by other coffee and chilli combinations in various Mexican and South-Western cookbooks, I cobbled together the following. It's a lovely, rich sauce with a tangy kick, ideal for for shredded turkey or pork.

Chipotle Coffee Sauce (serves 2)

1 chipotle in adobo
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
1 tsp garlic
1 tsp ancho powder
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp agave syrup (or honey)
1 tbsp tomato paste
250ml freshly brewed coffee
50ml stock (or water)

Blitz together the chipotle, onion, garlic, ancho powder, lime juice and syrup, until smooth. Heat a tbsp of oil in a saucepan and when it begins to smoke, add the puree and the tomato paste to the pan, stirring frequently so that it doesn't burn.

As soon as it has reduced to a thick, glossy sauce (about 5 mins), pour in the coffee and stock and bring to the boil before allowing it to simmer for 5-10 mins. Add the cooked meat and serve with tortillas and rice.