Saturday, 29 January 2011

Mexican food getting simpler

I've made it my new year's resolution to improve my skills in Mexican cooking. This came about following many trips to Wahaca, a fantastic meal in Berlin, and many outstanding burritos about London. The quality of Mexican food you can eat out has come on massively in recent years; yet my cooking had not. I love the fiery spices, the ubiquity of coriander (up there with dill on my herbs top 10), the tangy flavours, the slow cooked meet, the avocados, the limes. I love the ceremony of making up a wrap, the colours, the combinations. But I felt that my cooking of it was stuck in Tex Mex, I was using my own techniques without seeking to understand some of the science and structure of Mexican cooking.

I'd been dropping hints for Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food Made Simple cook book for a long time and when I didn't get it (again) for Christmas (the outrage!) I bought it for myself. It's beautiful, informative and encouraging. 'Simple' is not a cop-out at all; rather, it explains the ideal ingredients and tells you how you can substitute accurately by using combinations of more readily available ingredients, and takes you through how to make some of the larder staples with just a few speciality peppers, for example. Once you've got the basics, you can easily put together some really exciting, authentic dishes at your local shops.

So last weekend I set about making my first Mexican food made simple. It was a Sunday and I had a whole chicken that needed using up. Rather than making a classic roast, I decided I'd make some kind of roast chicken burritos. With a couple of bunches of coriander and a packet of chipotle peppers from Lupe Pintos in Edinburgh, I set about my task.

I'd seen that so many recipes required a chipotle paste, I made that first. The dried chipotles were boiled in water for almost an hour, their steam filling the house and making us all cough at their potency. The smoky smell I recognised from BBQ sauce (love that stuff), so I'd already learned something. After a while I drained the peppers, mixed in white wine vinegar, lots of garlic, onion, salt, sugar and tomato purée and blended down to a paste. The house smelled amazing, although in the end I didn't actually need to use the purée for this meal. Well, at least it's in a jar now and ready for the next one.

I made a 'green rice', where you purée (notice a theme here?) lots of coriander, parsley, spinach together with garlic and onions, a splash of water and a pinch of salt, cook the paste and then mix in rinsed basmati rice before adding a mild stock. It was like cooking a pilav, and ended up very smooth, fragrant and tasty. I also made a smoky salsa, use the chipotle paste I'd just made. And when it came to the guacamole, though I'd made my own a hundred times, I carefully followed the steps set out in the book - a little lime then, a little later, a little chili first, then more in a bit. It was really, really very good. A lot of people don't like recipe books, believing them to stifle creativity and intuition in the kitchen. I agree to an extent, but I think it's always good to be open to learning from others and then build on your intuitive skillz!!

The finished product was delicious - the flavours all so fresh and light, the perfectly roast chicken going excellently with the fragrant green rice, the luscious guacamole, the zingy salsa and the slightly tart sour cream. The best wrap I've ever had. Lots of smiles on the other side of the table too.

Now that I've done that dry run, I should be ready to put on a super Mexican spread when hosting a dinner party in a couple of week's time!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Brunchin' brunchin' #2

Brunch is big business in the yummy liberal enclave of Stoke Newington. So much so, that in a damning critique of the inner city middle classes's hypocrisy, the Independent journo highlighted the almond croissant and latte serving cafes of N16 as the frontline of social divisions that permeate right down to parents at the school gate.

Competition is fierce for brunch on Stoke Newington Church Street. Fierce for restaurants and cafes vying for the refined dollars of N16ers, happy to splash out on the good things in life. Fierce for would-be brunchers, with every table in every eatery hard won through hawking and stalking and opportunist pouncing. The sharp elbowed middle-classes indeed.

My old favourite is the Blue Legume, which does delicious brunch, lunch and dinner. Their brunch menu covers tansatlantic favourites such as eggs benedict, freshly pressed fruit juice combos (celery, apple and mint? YES PLEASE!) with more Mediterranean style dishes - olives, lamb sausage, haloumi all crop up in the cooked breakfast dishes. The prices are very reasonable and so the above-mentioned competition for a good table is tough. We recently even found ourselves brunching at the unfashionable hour of 10am to save us the table sourcing stress. On a bitterly cold, but sunny December morning it did the trick, but by 10.30am people were arriving in droves and by 11am the outlook was pretty bleak. So there you go: early bird, worm, etc.

I usually opt for the eggs benedict, which is always delicious, but most recently I plumped for the Mediterranean breakfast, the big 'un.

It was a delicious mixture of smoky, salty and fresh flavours; much less greasy than its English counterpart. The jam for the toast felt slightly redundant, but I guess some people like to finish on a sweet note. Ben had the fruit salad platter, which is an immense spread of exotic and more local fruit, presented beautifully and great for kidding yourself that it'll help you fighting off a cold.

The opening of Homa on Church Street midway through 2010 sent the N16 twiteratti into a gushing frenzy. A new spot, with beautiful, sleek interiors, a wine bar with a bang on winelist, excellent pizzas, bunch, cakes, locally smoked salmon. Is it too good to be true?!

We had a table late afternoon on Halloween. The surrounding streets looked like the scenes in ET, full of gleeful, screaming children dressed in immaculate scary outfits. The distractions of Halloween and our slightly odd timing made for a quiet and relaxed meal at Homa, with friendly service and tasty food.

Keen to try the N16 smoked salmon, I plumped for the Eggs Benedict. James was super keen and went for a plate full of smoked salmon with capers, cornichons, rocket and lashings of creme friache. Fancy pants. The salmon was really incredible - delicate smoky flavours, tender and very fresh tasting. In the eggs benedict it was served with fresh spinach, poached egg and hollandaise sauce, all of which tasted like they were made from really top ingredients.

Anna opted for a cooked breakfast of sorts, with scrambled eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, mozzarella and sourdough toast. Again, the ingredients were clearly super quality and well sourced, and it totally elevates brunch from being a fun social event with nice food to a proper foodie experience.

Meals at Homa are a good £2 or so more expensive than at Blue Legume and the experience is a little more slick, stylish and sedate. The ingredients at Homa are clearly a cut above the rest, but Blue Legume is still very yummy and has a lively atmosphere and more 'fun' menu in terms of smoothies, cakes, etc. Brunch is clearly a growth industry in Stoke Newington and you're truly spoiled for choice. Lucky me.