Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Love for Mexico, Part 1

While I continue finishing a post on my recent travels through South East Asia, I wanted to mark my return to the pursuit of deliciousness with some food I prepared earlier. (Thanks to everyone who have been visiting during my hiatus, whether old or new readers, and even if you arrived here by accident, it still fills me with joy when I see my visitor counter going up!)

Slow-braised oxtail stew with carrots, peas and Goose Fat-roasted Sweet Potatoes
(photo courtesy of my brother's Instagram)

While life continues to sort itself out, I've been cooking. And because I'm in the northern hemisphere now, the produce just keeps getting better and better as we approach summer. Of course, at the sight of a full oxtail in the local butcher, I couldn't resist slow-braising it in some red wine and freshly made chicken stock (from the roast a night before) with a bay leaf, some garlic, onions and carrots... but last night, I reaffirmed my love for Mexico.

The inspiration came from seeing corn tortillas in one of the ethnic supermarkets, all the way from Guanajuato, Mexico and complete with the 'Hecho en Mexico' logo. The rest followed: some spare tomatoes in the kitchen, green onions, green peppers and iceberg lettuce on special, a bright leafy bunch of cilantro (coriander) from the Asian grocer, complete with it's roots, ripe avocados, limes, red onion, garlic, a can of tomatoes, a can of refried black beans (found next to the tortillas), and some essential herbs/spices (ground cumin, oregano, ground chilli, smoked paprika). A visit to Dublin's best butchery got me some chicken breasts to give my tacos extra excitement.

Breakfast in Mexico City, 2009

Having travelled* to Mexico for two months previously, I feel I have a really good understanding of Mexican flavours.  (*By now, everyone knows my 'travelling' means eating, right?) Whenever the stars align for some homemade comida mexicana at home, I am brought straight back to memories of eating tacos fresh from one-man food carts, standing around or sitting on plastic chairs with locals on the side of the street.

The best thing about this dish is that if you have made heaps (which you should), leftovers can become huevos rancheros (literally translates to 'ranch eggs') for a brilliant breakfast/brunch/lunch/or light dinner the next day (or day after). For that reason, I recommend making this with the aim of leftovers!

And lastly, before we get into it: two things. First, if you're wondering where the hard-shell crispy corn 'tacos' are, they're not in Mexico. So they're not here. Small-size (between 10-15cm) soft corn tortillas are truly authentic (and gluten free!). But, if you want to go for flour because they're cheaper/more accessible, opt for the smallest size available. I recommend trying soft corn tortillas at least once though, even though they're a little more sensitive (if under- or over-cooked, they can break when you're eating). You may never turn back (I haven't).

Second, this is a dish that requires love. Shortcuts are available (e.g. good-quality jar salsa, flour tortillas) but if you want ultimate satisfaction and enjoyment, the long way is worth it. For a faster meal time, pre-cook your salsa a day or two before, so it is ready for assembly.

Mexican-marinated Chicken Tacos with Homemade Cooked Salsa, Refried Beans and Avocado (this amount served 2 very hungry and excited people... with leftovers for Huevos Rancheros)

Much of this meal comes from the preparation of key elements (chicken, salsa) started an hour or so before serving. If you have the foresight, marinating the chicken the night before would also contribute, but if an hour is all you've got - no worries, it will still taste delicious.

 P.S. The basic ingredient list is above, but I have bolded each component in the instructions below. Where the same item is made useful a second time, I have left it as normal text.

Preparation: - Grill/broil, or over a gas flame, one large pepper/capsicum on all sides until visibly burnt and blistery on all sides. Remove from heat and place straight into a small plastic bag or cover in cling wrap. You want to sweat the pepper so when it cools, the blistered skin comes off easily with the back of a knife. You will be left with a lovely, juicy chargrilled pepper. Remove seeds and stem, chop roughly and set aside.  (By the way, these peppers are delicious on many, many things including a salad or burger, or blended into homemade hummus.)
- Marinate chicken breasts in: a tablespoon each of ground cumin and dried oregano, a teaspoon each of chilli powder and smoked paprika, freshly ground black pepper, two finely chopped/crushed garlic cloves, 1/4 large red onion, grated (to release the juices, and grate this straight off the onion so you have something to hold), and the zest of one lime. Combine with a little olive oil to allow an even coating of the marinade, tossing and turning until you can't see any piece of chicken untouched.

Marinating the chicken overnight, or for at least a few hours, is ideal but not essential.
Salsa prep: finely chopped garlic, cilantro root and red onion. 

- For the salsa: roughly dice 1/2 whole red onion (the same one from the marinade) and saute in a swirl of oil over low heat in a medium pot, with two finely chopped/crushed garlic cloves and the washed stems of your cilantro (e.g. the bottom 4 cm after you've sliced off the roots), and a teaspoon each of ground cumin and smoked paprika. If you want extra heat, add a finely chopped deseeded chilli pepper of your chosen heat here as well. Stir. Meanwhile, deseed and roughly chop two ripe tomatoes (I cut the tomato into six segments and removed the seeds then, see photo below). When the onion and garlic has softened and become fragrant, bring heat up to medium and add the chopped tomatoes and chargrilled pepper as prepared earlier. Combine and add a can of whole tomatoes, smashing the tomatoes with the back of your spoon. Bring up to boil and reduce back to a simmer. Add a teaspoon of sugar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer for as long as you can, to reduce the salsa down, for up to an hour, checking regularly. Roughly chop three green onions (including the whites) and a healthy handful of cilantro (wow, the feeling and sound of a sharp knife cutting through a rolled bunch of cilantro has got to be one of my favourite kitchen sensations...) - this and the juice of half a juicy lime (the one you zested for the chicken) goes into the salsa just before serving.

Salsa prep - deseeding tomatoes, and chopped green onion & cilantro.

- Wash and dry as many lettuce leaves as you desire. Roll and slice finely. Set aside.  (I swear lettuce would be eaten much more in every household if it was shredded. Whole/partial leaves are too hard to deal with! Unless you're serving lettuce cups, of course.)
- Prepare avocado as you wish - I simply slice, season with cracked pepper and serve.
- Finely chop remainder of red onion and another handful of cilantro. Combine and set aside.

The main event: - Heat a swirl of cooking oil (e.g. grapeseed) in a pan large enough to fit the chicken in a single layer. When hot, add chicken breast and sear on both sides. Season with salt. Reduce heat to medium and cover with a lid to cook the chicken through, 4-5 minutes on each side. Remove the thickest piece of chicken onto chopping board and slice through to test doneness. When completely cooked, remove lid and move away from heat to rest for 5 minutes.
- While cooking chicken, heat your refried beans in a small pot, stirring regularly until warmed through. Taste for seasoning (it may not need any depending on your can of beans).
- Heat a large dry pan/skillet to medium and gently warm through tortillas. Flip as it warms each side. They're ready when they are soft and easily malleable.  Keep warm in a low oven with a dry, clean teatowel over it.
- While tortillas are heating through, add the spring onion, cilantro and lime to the salsa and combine. Finally, roughly slice chicken, spooning over any juices left in the pan.

Presentation: There are two ways of doing this. Serve components separately and let everyone assemble their tacos themselves. Great for a crowd or for a more casual approach. This time, I prepared a plate in its entirety. Lettuce, topped with avocado and red onion/cilantro mix, next to three tortillas smeared down the centre with beans, topped with chicken and homemade cooked salsa. Lime wedges are essential to complete the look and create that unmistakeable Mexican flavour.

A humble meal with a grand mix of flavours and textures

I like to add some of the lettuce/avocado 'salad' to my tacos for a full textural/taste explosion, but beware of taco overloading! (All part of it.) To be eaten with your hands and enjoyed with pleasure. Have some napkins ready though - you're going to need them.

If you're starting to feel full and happily satisfied, try to refrain from polishing it all off: next day-huevos rancheros, coming up!

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