This week, we enter the fabulous world of Mexican cuisine.
I just love Mexican food, and from the number of independent and chain restaurants across the UK, the public seem to agree with me.
Sadly, a good deal of Mexican food here and in the United States is a sort of anaemic, dialled-down version of the real stuff they serve south of the border, but things are changing.
Places like Wahaca in London and the magnificent Empellón in New York (you must check out empellon.com for some of the most mouthwatering photography) are spearheading a new modern Mexican cuisine, reworking traditional recipes, and focusing on quality ingredients and freshness of flavour.
I once went to an incredible Mexican buffet that was so very, well, Mexican, that I didn’t recognise a single dish on offer.
It was amazing. Big bowls of hand-shredded spiced pork – very much like ferociously spicy hot potted meat – served with soft breads and fruit-filled salads. Complex rice and corn dishes, skewers of seafood, slow-braised beef.
It was a million miles away from chili con carne on a bed of rice. Not that I don’t like a good chili, mind! It’s just that there’s so much more to the cuisine of this huge country. That said, the basic ingredients for much of the entire repertoire are few and quite simple. Onions, garlic and chili peppers are key, along with grace notes such as lime and coriander.
There are hundreds of different chili peppers, from big, mild poblano (which becomes the ancho when dried) to the super-explosive habanero. All have their specific uses.
One of my favourites is the chipotle, which starts life as a jalapeño pepper, but which is smoke-dried to give an amazing, intense flavour. Often, the chilis are then steeped in an adobo sauce made of spices and vinegar, and it’s this sloppy, smoky paste that adds unbelievable depth to dishes like chilis and soups. It also makes great salsas, as you’ll see.
Billy Connolly once famously said that all Mexican food is basically the same – it just depends how you fold it – and this is, in a small way, quite true, especially when you talk about street food.
For the base of many Mexican snacks is the simple flour or corn (masa) tortilla. Made in their millions every day, from Yucatan to Monterrey (any songwriters are quite welcome to use that as an opening line to a perky salsa number) these small discs of soft doughy pleasure are crafted into all manner of containers to hold anything from grilled fish to spiced beans or minced pork.
Bigger tortillas are used for making the hefty burrito – a huge stuffed tortilla the size of a baby’s arm – seriously satisfying. Deep-frying the same makes a chimichanga.
Smaller tortillas are loosely folded around cheese to make quesadillas, and around other ingredients to make enchiladas. When these are deep-fried they can make nachos (cut into pieces and served with salsas) or loosely folded in half and fried to make tacos.
Rolled up around fillings they become taquitos and fried flat in one piece they become tostadas. But I love them when flipped straight out of the pan, soft and doughy, brushed with a little butter, and topped with all manner of spicy, tasty things.
This recipe is my interpretation of a photograph of a dish they serve occasionally at Empellón. I had to pretty much work it all out for myself, but I’m pleased with the results.
Tender pork, roasted to give extra crunch, alongside caramelised pineapple and topped with a hefty dose of a tingly salsa made from tomatillos and those smoky chipotles. If nothing else, once you have the basic recipe sorted, the world is your tortilla.
FOR THE PORK:
2.5kg boned pork shoulder
1 onion, chopped roughly
2 sticks celery, chopped roughly
2 carrots, chopped roughly
4 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
Olive oil or lard, for roasting
FOR THE PINEAPPLE:
1 large slightly unripe pineapple, peeled and diced
A little unrefined dark muscovado sugar
A little olive oil
A little butter
FOR THE TORTILLAS:
450g plain flour
1 teaspoon Maldon salt
240ml warm water
For the tomatillo salsa:
10 large tomatillos (fresh or tinned)
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
Olive oil for grilling
150g chopped dried pineapple
1/4 teaspoon salt
Large pinch red chili flakes
2 chipotle chilis in adobo sauce
Coriander or micro-coriander for garnish
Finely-diced white onion or spring onion
First, make up the salsa. Roast the tomatillos in a hot oven for about 25 minutes with a dash of olive oil until they are well-browned on top.
At the same time, chargrill the onion slices until well-browned. Add these two ingredients to the bowl of a food processor along with the pineapple, salt, chili flakes and chipotle. Pulse several times, scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue to whizz until you have a smooth salsa. Next, get the pork underway. Put the pork and vegetables into a large casserole and just cover with water. Bring to the boil over the heat. Skim off the scum, then cover and simmer as gently as possible for 2 hours, until the pork is cooked and very tender. Allow to cool in the liquid and chill overnight.
The next day, start the tortillas; sift the flour into a bowl. Add the lard and work the fat into the flour with your fingertips. Alternatively, whizz it together quickly in a food processor. Dissolve the salt into the water and add it to the bowl. Knead the dough together until it has become smooth and elastic. Divide the dough into 24 pieces and roll the pieces into balls on a work surface using the palm of your hand. Place the dough balls on a lightly greased tray and cover loosely with clingfilm. Let the dough balls rest at room temperature for an hour. To cook, set a lightly oiled, large heavy frying pan (non-stick is ideal) over a medium heat. Take one of the dough balls and flatten it on a lightly floured work surface with the palm of your hand. Using a small rolling pin, roll the dough out into a thin 6-inch circle.
Place the tortilla in the pan and cook on one side for roughly 20 seconds. The tortilla will begin to inflate and become toasty brown in places. Flip the tortilla and cook for about another 10 seconds.
Set aside and continue with the remaining dough. This is where a helper comes in handy. Stack the tortillas up on a plate under a clean teatowel to stop them drying out too much. As the tortilla dough rests, dice the chilled pork, and roll in a baking tray with olive oil or a little melted lard. Season well and roast at 220ºC / Gas 7 until hot and crispy at the edges. At the same time, roast the pineapple in a little oil and butter until tender, then add a little sugar and some seasoning, tossing and roasting until it becomes deep golden and caramelised. Keep warm alongside the pork.
To serve, place a tortilla on each plate, and top with the pork, some pineapple pieces and a good drizzle of the salsa. Garnish with coriander and some chopped onion, fold up the tortilla and eat messily. It’s traditional!