Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A taste of home - part uno

Food always serves as a reminder of home when we are away from what we are accustomed to. It comforts when you are down and it inspires you when you celebrate. It acts as a quick and simple connection to family when we need it. One of the things I find toughest about being away from home is the lack of Mexican food. The proper, hearty, rustic food I grew up with. Although there has been a recent spate of Mexican restaurant opening in London- Green & Red, Mestizo, Taqueria, Daddy Donkey, Mercado - I find it tough to pay £5 for what should really be a $3 burrito at my uncle’s restaurant in San Diego. I’ve decided to make it my mission in the upcoming months to try these places since Mexican friends have recommended a couple of them.

Which brings me to my point. A couple of months ago Johanna, from The Passionate Cook, asking if I was interested in helping her organise a day of Mexican cuisine. Since the only way I get Mexican food here is to make it myself- how could I resist! So Johanna, myself and Iliana- or how I’ve taken to calling us- decaf (Johanna spent a year in Mexico), half caff (I’m the half breed) and full caff (Iliana was the only 100% Mexican there) put together a superbly authentic feast for the group coming over.

Our table of food was massive so I'm breaking this up into a multiple entry feast!

To nibble on we had jicama (pronounced he-ka-ma; top picture)- one of my favourite snacks. I used to always bring some cut pieces back to London when I first moved here but a couple of years ago when in Chinatown I saw my beloved root snack. Jicama is of course its Mexican name, here it goes by the name yam root. When bought in the shops, it is bulbous shaped with light brown skin and usually a bit of dirt on it. It's eaten raw so to prepare it, cut into half or quarters (depending on size) and peel away the brown skin with a paring knife. Cut into sticks or chunks to serve. You can easily use it in salads for a bit of crunch (similar to a water chestnut) but my favourite way to eat it, and how we ate it on Mexi-day, is to cut it into sticks, squeeze a lime over and sprinkle chili powder on top.

A little research on jicama turned up some intersting facts- jicama can weigh up to 50 pounds and a 3.5 ounce serving has 39 calories and 25% RDA of vitamin C. Not bad for a rather unattractive looking tuber.

We also snacked on sopes (pronounced so-pez). This was the start of our "work for your supper" dishes. Fortunately I had some Maseca back from my last trip home so no one had to hand grind corn to make the corn flour that is used to make sopes (and tortillas). Iliana got the masa (dough) ready after which Jenni and Vanessa made dough balls (picture left). I heated up a frying pan and flattened each ball into a 1/4 inch thick disc and cooked both sides in the pan. The gals then had the task of shaping the cooked patties into their final shape by creating a slight ridge along the edge so that the filling would not fall out.

The finished product on this day (picture below right) was filled with beans, lettuce, cheese and a bit of salsa. In this case the cheese was Crumbly Lancashire which I have found to be the closest I'll get to Queso Fresco. Feta can also be used but I find it a bit too tangy for my taste when used in Mexican food. The salsa was my mother's recipe for Salsa de tomatillo (pronounced to-mah-tee-yo)- the recipe is below as well and its uses are not confined to sopes. It can be used for a dip, for enchiladas, for fish- anywhere we you want a tangy sauce.

Tomatillos look like large, green versions of the Cape Gooseberry (also know as Physalis) and add a tart flavour to many Mexican sauces. They are related to tomatoes and are members of the nightshade family (click here for more info on tomatillos).



500 g masa harina (corn flour) – if your masa is very yellow, you may want to mix this with some regular flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 cups warm water
Vegetable oil, for frying

Mix flour, baking powder and salt, then add the warm water. You may need a little more warm water to make moist, smooth dough.

Traditional sopes forming method: Make balls the size of a walnut, a few at a time, and keep the dough in a plastic bag to prevent it from drying out. Moisten a cloth napkin or tea towel and spread out on a flat surface. Roll each ball of dough in moistened palm of you hand until smooth, lay on the damp towel, cover with a plastic bag, and press down with your hand.

To shape the patty, flatten again with a small can or flat-bottomed glass into a perfectly smooth circle 2 to 2 1/2 inches (5 – 7.5 cm) in diameter. It should be about 1/4-inch (5 mm) thick. Peel the plastic bag off the top, then lay the tortilla in your hand and peel off the damp cloth. Smooth any rough edges with your fingers and the tortilla is ready to fry.

Topping: frijoles, queso fresco (Lancashire crumbly or mild feta), salsa verde

(recipe Iliana Villareal)

Salsa Verde (Green Sauce)


500 g Tomatillos (green tomatoes)
1-2 cloves garlic (crushed)
1 onion (finely chopped)
1-2 jalapeno chiles (depending on how hot you like it)
1 handful fresh coriander (chopped)

Remove husks from the tomatillos and wash to remove any stickiness.

Boil the tomatillos and garlic in a pot, deep enough to cover them completely, for roughly 15 minutes or until the tomatillos change colour slightly.

Put the tomatillos, garlic, jalapenos and half of the chopped onion in a blender or food processor. Blitz until well blended. A little water can be added if the salsa is too thick for your liking.

Pour into a bowl and stir in the cilantro and remaining onion.

(Recipe Xochitl Ireland)

Another dish that I thought was essential for anyone wanting to know more about Mexican cuisine is Ceviche (pronounced see-vee-chay). Even though I'm not big on fish, I make this for parties and it reminds me of family get togethers when I was a kid.

Ceviche is great on a hot summer day as a starter or a light lunch. The fish can be marinated 5-6 hours or overnight (which will give it a more citrussy flavour). Although finely dicing the vegetables is labour intensive, it can be done ahead of time so that the final dish can be quickly assembled.

One important note on ceviche- I recommend buying a few extra lemons/limes as it is essential that there is enough juice to completely submerge the fish. The juice pickles and 'cooks' the fish; any fish that isn't covered in juice will still be raw. This shouldn't put anyone off making ceviche as it is easy to do if prepared properly.


Serves 4-6 (depending on if eaten as a starter or main)


For the fish:
1 white fish fillet, cut into small dice
juice of 6-10 lemons and/or limes

To serve:
1 carrot (finely diced)
1 onion (finely diced)
1 cucumber (deseeded and finely diced)
1 green pepper (finely diced)
½ bunch of fresh coriander (finely chopped)
1 jalapeno chile (finely chopped) (optional)
garlic powder (optional)
salted crackers or unsalted tortilla chips

Place the fish and lemon juice in a glass bowl and leave to marinate for 5-6 hours or overnight in the fridge. There should be enough juice to completely submerge the fish.

About 1 hour before serving, remove the fish from the fridge and break down the chunks of fish using your hands. (Since the fish is served with crackers, the finer the chunks are broken down, the easier it is to serve and eat.) Return to the fridge.

Just before serving, gently stir in all the vegetables. Add salt, pepper and garlic powder (if using) to taste.

Serve with crackers or lightly salted / unsalted tortilla chips.

(Recipe Xochitl Ireland)

I think I'll call it a day for now- this should get you started! The next part will follow shortly and will cover yummy treats like Chiles Rellenos, Tinga de Pollo, Frijoles and Flan.

I'm craving it all again just thinking about it...


CB said...

Wow - this all looks and sounds fantastic. I can't believe that I missed out, especially as even I could eat most of the recipes so far (due to the corn flour).

Can we do a re-run?

Jeri said...

Hi Mija, Your recipes are always wonderful, but can I make an addition to the Ceviche?
Ceviche is always better if made the day before you need it. Leftover ceviche always tastes best, so why not make it the day ahead so it has an opportunity to blend the flavors. Now I'm off to read the rest of your recipes.

Jeri said...

Hi Mija, Your recipes are always wonderful, but can I make an addition to the Ceviche?
Ceviche is always better if made the day before you need it. Leftover ceviche always tastes best, so why not make it the day ahead so it has an opportunity to blend the flavors. Now I'm off to read the rest of your recipes.

Jeri said...

Salsa Verde, make sure you save some of the water from boiling the tomatillos. If you need to add water to the mix in the blender use the flavored water you boiled them in.

Jeanne said...

Hi Xochitl

Aaaah, happy memories of a great day! Thanks again for sharing your expertise with us - it was such a great way to experience the real tastes of Mexico with a great bunch of friends :-)

Grant (Panzon) Winters said...

You need to come south to Brixton and visit my little kitchen. It's at the Dogstar. You can check out my web site on Tell me what you think?
Take care, sincerely.