Hot Food on a Rainy Day

The Christmas tree(s) have been stripped of their decorations, the relatives are back home, and all the turkey is gone, but the celebrations are far from over! Today we had our first fiesta of the year. That's right, Freya asked me to make Mexican food for lunch. Now, I know you're probably asking, "But Paul, why didn't you finish your Cajun Christmas series and why haven't you made any bread for the last fortnight?" Don't worry, I'll get back to both topics soon enough.

Mexican food is beginning to take hold in the UK and I'm a bit surprised that it's taken so long. The British palate is heavily influenced by Asian cooking and Spanish tapas, so why is it so hard to take the logical next step? I suppose it required a combination of British holiday makers visiting resorts in Cancun and, regrettably, Old El Paso importing stale taco shells and heavily salted seasoning packets into the UK. I say regrettably because the food that Old El Paso is trying to pass off as Mexican is actually Tex-Mex and also because the seasonings that are showing up on the shelves are much better, cheaper, and healthier to make from scratch. The other side effect of this being that the only food I can get the in-laws to eat are the things they've seen on TV. I love fajitas and enchiladas as much as the next guy, but equally I like chili rellenos and mole so why can't I serve these up without the obligatory scowls? My favourite example of the general lack of education that I encounter living in the boondocks is the time I made burritos for my assistant at work. A girl asked what they were and we told her they were burritos. She responded in the harshest Essex girl voice, "Oh, you mean a wrap!"

So today we went to Freyas mothers house and I cooked lunch. Rather than present the in-laws with a challenge they weren't up to I stuck to the Tex-Mex fare they're always content with. I was okay with it because I've invited my manager and his wife over for "proper Mexican" later in the month. I don't mind shocking them because what's the worst he can do, fire me? A mother-in-law is for life (not just for Christmas), however, so I had no choice, but rather than use disgusting mixes, jarred salsa, and that fluorescent green guacamole in a tin I prepared everything from scratch. If even one person in this country reads my post, follows my recipes, and subsequently moves on to much more interesting food then I'll consider it a success.

The fajita is a bit of a legend in America. I've spent a lot of time and money trying to find really good ones in restaurants across the country. I'll tell you now not to waste your cash on anything not made in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, or Colorado. And if you're visiting Florida I insist you skip them altogether! The fajita has an interesting history and traces its' roots to the "Cowboys and Indians" period in America (An interesting footnote, Hollywoods love affair with this era lasted nearly three times as long as the real thing!) when massive cattle drives across the Southwest were commonplace. The official story goes that cowboys driving cattle were paid so poorly for their efforts that by the time they reached their destinations the only cut of meat they could afford was the faja (Spanish for girdle) or skirt steak. The meat was so tough that it was difficult to prepare. A method to render the meat edible was developed by slicing it very thinly and marinating it for a long time in a variety of seasonings and citric acid. Served in flatbread or tortillas, these were the progenitors of the modern fajita. If you're a traditionalist, you'll find yourself in lots of arguments about why chicken, pork, shrimp, and mushrooms can't be considered fajitas as the term refers to a specific cut of beef, but if you're like me, you'll eventually cave in because nobody pays you any attention.

On the menu today: home made salsa which is best prepared the night before and refrigerated; guacamole which is best prepared within an hour of serving; cheese and onion enchiladas; and chicken fajitas. If you try these recipes I promise you'll never go back to anything out of a packet. Hopefully you'll have more luck convincing your in-laws that refried beans are not cat food than I have so far....

2 chilies
1 medium onion
3 tablespoons tomato passata
1 tin tomatoes
1 generous bunch coriander (cilantro)
2 tsp salt
Cut 1 chili into 1cm chunks. Loosely chop half of the onion. Put chopped onion, chili, half the coriander, salt, and passata in a food processor or blender and puree (If making enchiladas, reserve one tablespoon of the puree). Finely chop the remaining chilies, onion, and coriander and mix into the puree along with tomatoes. Put in bowl or jar and refrigerate for at least one hour.
-If you don't have a processor or blender, dice all ingredients finely and mix together. Refrigerate over night.
-There are a lot of variations on this recipe. My favourite additions are black beans and sweet corn (sometimes called Southwest Style).

1 fresh ripe avocado (almost impossible to find in Halstead)
1 chili, diced (I use red for effect)
1 pinch sea salt
Juice of 1 lime or half a lemon

Scoop out the pulp of the avocado into a bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mash with a fork. Consistency is based on personal preference.
-There are a lot of variations of guacamole and my version is by no means traditional, but it is simple and good.


Ingredients: (Sauce)
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
125ml water
125ml tomato passata
2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons cumin
1 tablespoon reserved salsa puree (see salsa recipe above) or 2 tablespoons prepared salsa

Ingredients: (Cheese and Onion Enchiladas)
6-10 corn tortillas depending on serving size (make your own if you’re up to it! (2 cups masa harina to 1-1/4 cups water mixed to form a dough. Pinch off a golf ball sized piece and flatten in tortilla press or roll out with a pin. Dry fry in a pan for 30 seconds on one side, 60 seconds on the other, additional 30 seconds on the first side. That’s all!)
500g cheese (Cheddar is fine, but a mixture of Cheddar and Monterey Jack is better)
1 medium onion
2 spring onions

Mix flour and oil in pan over medium heat until a paste is formed. Add water and whisk thoroughly making sure all lumps are dissolved. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes stirring frequently.

1. Chop onions finely and sauté in a pan until just translucent. Set aside and allow to cool.
2. Grate cheese. Mix onions and cheese together.
3. Spread a thin layer of enchilada sauce in a baking dish. Preheat oven to 180°C.
4. It is important that you don’t attempt to roll a corn tortilla; it will crack. If you’re feeling authentic, dip a tortilla in pan of enchilada sauce before rolling. If you want to be a bit less messy, hold the tortilla while spreading sauce from back of wooden spoon on one side. Add a small portion (about 50g) of the cheese and onion mixture in a strip down the centre of the tortilla. Roll the tortilla tightly around the filling and place in the baking dish rolling it in the sauce and leaving it seam side down. Continue until tortillas are used.
5. Cover with reserved sauce and any remaining cheese. Bake for 30 minutes.
-Variations include meat, peppers, etc., but I’ve never met an Englishman who doesn’t like cheese and onion.

Ingredients: To make the marinade:
Juice of 2-3 limes or lemons
2 chilies chopped
1 medium onion chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 small bunch coriander

500g skirt steak or chicken sliced into thin strips
1-2 peppers thinly sliced
1 onion thinly sliced
20 small flour tortillas (The biggest challenge is finding the right ones. Proper tortillas for fajitas should be about half the size of a regular “wrap”. Most supermarkets offer a good flour tortilla, but they’re too big. You can make your own if you want authenticity. (There’s a good recipe here:
Chopped lettuce, tomato, cheese, sour cream, etc. for topping.

Put all marinade ingredients in a blender and puree. Put meat and marinade in a bag and allow to stand at least an hour, preferably over night. Mix in sliced onions and peppers and coat with marinade. Pour contents of bag into a sieve and drain all excess liquid. Cook meat and vegetables in a skillet or wok until just tender. Serve immediately allowing your family or friends to assemble their own with the provided ingredients.


Kathryn said...

I love Mexican food, Paul. I like fajitas and so on and refried beans too! We tend to make fajitas most, plus refried beans, guacamole, salsa. I went to Mexico for a month when I was 21. The food was nothing like Tex-Mex, well not initially - we travelled round Mexico and the food varied tremendously. I went to a village fiesta in Oaxaca and ate deep fried grasshopper etc, and then got sick on some dodgy chicken. A lot of food was quite hard to digest, I found, which might have been thanks to my iffy stomach following its bout of poisoning, but I would say that real Mexican food can be quite heavy. I tend to make quesadillas not enchiladas so yours have inspired me. Predictably now I want some Mexican food! can I come round for a feast???

FreyaE said...

I wish we could go on a trip like that! I'd happily put up with a bit of stomach upset for an exploration of the regional food diversity of Mexico. Did you see the An Italian in Mexico series? Or Bourdains trip culinary tour? My parents are currently housing the brother of a former exchange student from Mazatlan, so I knew my post would be severely criticised back home.
You could come around for a meal, but you have to bring the Mescal. Otherwise, Freya and I would be interested in a food swap.

Kathryn said...

I didn't really appreciate it properly at the time - I'd love to do it again, now...

I did have the mescal...
I haven't tried making tortillas - I usually buy them in the supermarket. Your recipe sounds easy though - I might give it a go.

One thing I do remember from Mexico was we went to Mcdonalds once and they had refried beans in the burgers...

Kathryn x

Shaun said...

Paul - One thing I will certainly miss upon moving back to New Zealand will be the availability of great Mexican food. Of course every country has its version of Mexican food, but it really is never the same. However, I have bought some great cookery books that feature Mexican food and have tested them out while here in the U.S. so I could test their authenticity afterwards. I suppose, then, I will be able to recreate my favourite Mexican meals at home...As for margaritas, that's an entirely different art form.

SollyBear said...

If your looking to buy Mexican Food ingredients such as Chilies, Masa Harina, Pinto Beans & Tamale corn husks. There is a site called that sell a massive range of Mexican food and they are really good value. They've been mentioned on UKTV and have some really good recipes to try at home

Writing At The Kitchen Table said...

When is the move planned for? I've lived in five timezones now and the worst part of moving is memories of food no longer available. You can always make new friends, but try getting a decent tamale in Wisconsin, or a good deep dish pizza in Oregon, or an English sausage in Florida.
I'm happy you're moving personally because we always need contacts to mooch off of on our travels and we're not connected in NZ. (place emoticon here)
Thanks for the heads up! We have purchased a few things on-line, but they tend to come as rusty dented tins. A good source is always appreciated. I really need Hatch Chilies.

Anonymous said...

Fernando Millan Sandoval - From Mazatlan, Mexico. Right now in La Crosse, WI

Hi Paul I read about your Mexican food, and about the TexMex food, this is the thoughts that all the Americans have about the Mexican food, but TexMex are not Mexican food, is like the version of the Americans for Mexican food.

You have to try the real Mexican food, you'll love it.

I've cooking Mexican food since I came here, last night I cooked Pizza Mexicana, it was great. I really remember home when I try that kind of food.
Here the recepee of Pizza Mexicana.

- Chorizo
- Refraid beans
- 2 jalapeno peppers
- 1 Cheesse pizza

How to make

Just add the brouned cook chorizo, the beans and the sliced peppers in the top of the pizza, and follow the instructions of the pizza.
(Your mom says crumbled chorizo on the pizza top)

Anonymous said...

Fernando Millan Sandoval - From Mazatlan, Mexico. Right now in La Crosse, WI

Im sorry about my grammar but my english is not too good yet, but I do my best.

Randi said...

Another thing I miss about living in SoCal, the great mexican food. Canadians have NO clue what Mexican food is. Check out Cook's Illustrated for some really good recipes. I've made their fajitas and red chicken chili enchiladas, I've blogged about the fajitas too. Oh and I grew up in Florida, there is some good authentic mexican food to be found there : )