006 - Don’t Call it Independence Day!
Cinco de Mayo, Pulque and a whole host of Mexican recipes.
Thanks for opening this month’s Food Team Monthly. This month we were inspired by the arrival of Cinco De Mayo and all things Mexico. What started as tucking into tacos at Arcade Food Hall (pictured below) ended in picking the brains of a real life expert on Mexican history… It’s fair to say things escalated. Join us for a deep dive on all things Cinco De Mayo and read a little further for a whole host of Mexican recipes you may not have heard of. There are now LOADS of us, which is great to see - but there could be more. Forward this email to your nearest and dearest for great karma.
Slater: Pulque wasn’t on my radar until very recently. It became apparent after falling down a deep Google hole, that it probably isn’t on the radar of many people this side of Mexico either, with a few exceptions. Dr. Deborah Toner is one such exception, she literally wrote the book on it. Or rather the historical importance of alcohol in Mexico, in which Pulque played a starring role. With Cinco De Mayo just a few short weeks away, we made the decision to reach out for a chat that spanned from Taco Bell through to regional sauces and misconceptions surrounding authenticity with the leading historian on Mexican food and drink.
Deborah explained that, each year, sap was first harvested from the flowering stems of agave plants before being fermented over the course of a few hours or days to make Pulque, a “slightly floral, slightly bitter, slightly sweet” drink with an alcohol percentage close to that of beer. She went on to say that although it had been widely produced and locally traded for thousands of years, it was after the Spanish invaded that it started to be consumed in bars and stalls. So much so that Pulquerias were built to specifically serve it. For nearly 300 years, it was the most popular drink in Mexico, until beer took its place in the early 1940’s.
I asked why we knew so little about a drink that held such significance. Her answer was simple - like many other Mexican ingredients, it doesn’t travel well. A matter of days is all it might take to make a good batch of Pulque turn bad thanks to over fermentation. Those willing to wait 8 years for their agave plant to grow in British soil would be sorely disappointed too, Deborah reminded us that agave was yet to be successfully cultivated in Blighty.
We spoke about the reasons that up until very recently, the British impression of such a wide and varied culture could probably be woefully distilled down to fajitas and tequila by so many. Deborah put this down, in part, to education and language, or rather a lack thereof. Latin American history and Spanish are so rarely included in curriculums, especially on this side of the pond. She also cited limited access to quite a specific set of hard-to-find ingredients that are often essential to make great Mexican food. I reflected on Kush’s reaction to me breaking the bank in pursuit of corn husks, corn tortillas and all kinds of dried chillies from my favourite online Mexican supplier all in the name of… Research.
Some misconceptions of my own were brutally unearthed when we started talking about Cinco De Mayo. Deborah explained that while Cinco De Mayo is celebrated pretty much anywhere in the world where there is a Taco Bell, it’s not such a big deal in Mexico. Any confidence that I had built up in the knowledge that it was not a day to commemorate independence, but a day to commemorate victory over the French at the battle of Puebla crumbled like a hard shell taco. There I was, waiting with baited breath, the question of “how are we celebrating it wrong in the UK” on the tip of my tongue. Only to find out that in Mexico, it is rarely treated with much more reverence than St. George’s Day or the death of a very very very distant relative is here.
It was in fact Mexican immigrants to America who made Cinco De Mayo the widely recognised celebration it is today. In the 19th century, it gave them a chance to show solidarity with those still in Mexico who beat the French in a David and Goliath-style battle. Today the date is a chance to celebrate culture and help cushion the Mexican diaspora. While Deborah conceded that beer companies and the like had a big role to play in promoting - and monetising - the celebration, she was keen to point out that the day is a great chance for everyone to either celebrate or learn about Mexico’s rich and varied culture.
Prawn and Smashed Cucumber Aguachile
Provided they are well sourced and super fresh, raw prawns make for great eating, and they do it best in Mexico. Toss them with smashed cucumber and a vibrant, acidic dressing in this very green take on a coastal Mexican classic.
For the crispy tortillas
4 small purple corn tortillas
4 tbsp vegetable oil
For the dressing
3 green chillies
½ bunch coriander
1 garlic clove, peeled
3 limes, zest and juice
400g king prawns, deveined
½ red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 avocado, peeled, destoned and diced
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Cut 4 tortillas into 6 even-sized wedges each, then toss with the oil and a generous pinch of salt on a large baking tray. Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes, until crisp.
To make the dressing, add the chillies, coriander, garlic and lime to a high-powered blender. Cut 1 cucumber in half lengthways, then use a spoon to scrape the watery seeds in the middle straight into the blender - we will use the flesh later.
Blend until smooth, season to taste with salt and set aside ready for later.
Use a rolling pin to flatten and smash the cucumber flesh slightly, then cut it into bite-sized chunks. Cut the prawns through the middle lengthways and open them out like books.
Add the cucumber and prawns to a large mixing bowl along with the dressing, toss to coat and set aside for 5-7 minutes, the acid from the lime will “cook” the prawn flesh slightly in this time.
Crumble the tortillas into the bowl, fold everything together and season to taste with salt.
Tip everything onto a large serving plate. Top with the onion and avocado, then get stuck in before the tortillas get too soggy!
Makes around 1 litre
If you are relatively new to Mexican cuisine but you want something a little off the heavily beaten taco track, mole might be a good place to start. Recipes vary wildly depending on the region of their conception, but generally come in the form of a thick, rich sauce containing chillies, spices and often seeds or nuts. In Oaxaca, a region in Southern Mexico, this specific mole is often eaten with braised chicken.
2 dried ancho chilli, deseeded
3 dried mulato chillies, deseeded
2 dried morita chillies, deseeded
100g dates, de-stoned
2 white onions, peeled and diced
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
5 cloves garlic, peeled
50g whole almonds, blanched
3 tbsp vegetable oil
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
2 tbsp tahini
50g dark chocolate (around 80% cocoa solids)
Preheat the grill/broiler to high.
Rip the dried chillies in half, shake out the seeds and discard the woody stems. Toast in a large frying pan over a high heat, until darkened.
Add the toasted chillies to a large bowl along with the dates and 800ml of boiling water from the kettle. Cover and leave to steep while you get on with the rest of the mole.
Toss the onion, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, garlic and almonds with the oil and a generous pinch of salt in a large roasting tray.
Grill for 5-8 minutes, until blackened in places before giving everything a toss and repeating.
Once ready, transfer to a high powered blender along with the soaked chillies, dates and half the soaking liquid. Blend until the mix is smoothie-like.
Tip the paste into the frying pan from earlier. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg, then reduce by ⅓ over a medium heat. The sauce should darken in this time.
Take the pan off the heat, then stir through the tahini and chocolate. Season to taste with salt and sugar.
You will have probably heard of birria tacos, if you have spent more than 10 minutes on Instagram since 2020 - goat stew-filled tacos griddled with more cheese than you can shake a tortilla at. In this recipe, take birria (the goat stew), mix it with mole (above) and use it to fill soft corn dumplings steamed in husks. If this sounds like a high effort recipe, that’s because it is - but the results are more than worth it.
For the birria
1.5 tbsp cumin seeds
2 ancho chillies, deseeded and ripped into chunks
2 morita chillies, deseeded and ripped into chunks
1.5 tsp salt
800g goat shoulder, diced
1 brown onion, peeled and cut into wedges
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp tomato paste
400g mole coloradito (above)
For the tamales mix
225g masa harina
500ml cooking broth (above)
160g lard, softened
1.5 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
20-25 corn husks
Toast the cumin seeds and chillies in a small frying pan over a medium-high heat, until darkened and fragrant. Blend to a powder in a spice grinder with the salt.
Add the goat to a large mixing bowl and toss with the spice and salt mixture. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for 6-12 hours.
Preheat the oven to 150°C.
Add the meat to a large, deep roasting tray along with the onion, garlic, cinnamon, tomato paste and 1.5l of boiling water from the kettle.
Cover with tin foil and braise in the oven for 3-4 hours, until the meat is tender - you should be able to break it up with a spoon.
Strain the cooking broth into a measuring jug through a sieve, we will need this later. Discard the cinnamon stick, then break the meat up in the roasting tray. Add the mole and fold everything together - this will be your tamales filling.
Add the still-warm broth to the masa harina in a large mixing bowl. Mix well then set aside for half an hour or so, the masa harina will absorb the broth in this time and firm up.
Beat the lard, baking powder and salt until smooth. Once the masa harina has rested, work it into the fat with your hands. We are looking for a thick, paste-like texture. When the mix is pressed with a clean palm, it should come away clean.
Set the tamales mix aside to cool completely to room temperature. Soak the corn husks in a bowl of cold water while you wait. Once the tamales filling and tamales dough have cooled and the corn husks are pliable. You are ready to construct!
The corn husks should have one smooth side and one ridged side. Position a corn husk, smooth-side down on a clean work surface. Spread around 2 tbsp of the tamales dough onto the husk avoiding the bottom third where it starts to taper to a point.
Add around 1 tbsp of the goat filling to the centre and bring the sides of the husk up around everything. Fold the bottom, filling-less third up to seal the bottom. Repeat with the remaining corn husks.
Add a metal steamer basket to the bottom of a large saucepan that you have a tight-fitting lid for, then add enough water to come up just under the basket.
Position the tamales with their open ends facing upwards in the pan, it can help to arrange them around a small, heatproof bowl in the centre of the pan. We are looking for a campfire-like formation.
Top the tamales with a damp cloth, or any unused soaked corn husks in the pan. Cover with the lid and place the pan over a medium-high heat. Steam for 1-1 ½ hours, top the water up every now and then to ensure it doesn’t boil dry. Once ready, the tamales should come away from the husks easily when unwrapped.
Serve with salsa.
While it might not be worth making mole specifically for topping fries, we would be lying if we said you shouldn’t make a little extra and keep it in the freezer for that exact purpose.
For the pickled onion
1 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 limes, juice only
1 tbsp caster sugar
For the fries
1.5L vegetable oil
700g maris piper potatoes, washed
Mole, hot (see above)
100g feta cheese
Add the onion, lime juice and sugar to a small bowl. Season with 1 tsp salt and massage everything together - set aside ready for serving later.
Heat 1.5L of oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, or fire up your deep fat fryer. We are looking for a temperature of 160°C initially.
While the oil heats up, cut the potatoes into 0.5cm thick slices and cut those slices into 0.5cm thick french fry-like batons. Rinse well under cold running water through a colander until the water that drains from them runs clear. This will help with consistency of colour later.
Shake off any excess water from the potatoes, then carefully lower them into the oil. The temperature should drop to 140°C, fry them at this temperature until they start to become just-golden in places.
Once ready, transfer to a kitchen cloth-lined tray. Bring the oil temperature up to 190°C and fry again until golden and crisp.
Transfer back to the kitchen cloth-lined tray and season with salt.
Tip the fries into a serving bowl and top with the mole. Finish with the pickled onions and feta.
No celebration in Mexico is complete without some sort of Michelada derivative, and this is ours. Beer mixed with what feels like the contents of that cupboard just to the side of your stove might seem slightly left-field to the un-inducted. But for those willing to take the leap, your new favourite Summer cocktail awaits.
For the rim
1.5 tbsp Tajín seasoning
For the drink
1 lime, cut into wedges
1 tbsp Worcester sauce
1 tbsp hot sauce
75ml clamato or tomato juice
5-8 ice cubes
Lager, Corona works well
Squeeze agave syrup onto a small plate and dip in the rim of a pint glass. Tip the Tajín seasoning onto another small plate, and dip the syrup-rimmed pint glass into that. Ensure the rim has a thick coating of the seasoning.
Drop the lime wedges into the bottom of the glass, then add the Worcester and hot sauce. Crush everything together with a cocktail muddler or a rolling pin to release the juice from the wedges.
Add the clamato juice, then add the ice. Pour in enough beer to fill the glass completely, give everything a good stir and enjoy!
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