James treated us to some mouth-watering Mexican feasts over the Christmas period with a little help from Rick. Here is what he thinks about his road to Mexico.
I can’t help but find Rick Stein fascinating. Growing up, I vaguely remember seeing him on TV as a sort of fish evangelist, preaching the good word about fish, specifically local British fish. I had no idea of his ever-increasing business empire and his slow takeover of Padstow to the point it has been monikered “Padstein”. When he did his programme on India a few years ago, I remember being fascinated and the book itself is probably my favourite ever cookery book. Its pages are well thumbed in our house, stained with turmeric and cumin, splattered with memories of rich sauces and the smell of grinding Kashmiri chillies, bought in bulk through the post, feeling like the thrill of dangerous contraband.
However, recent TV excursions, particularly his Long Weekends, show Rick in a less flattering light. He comes across at times as a Partridge like figure, albeit one that seems to have a well of rage simmering below the surface. Self deprecating asides to camera seem horribly artificial and it’s hard to shake the idea that he’s more enamoured with himself than the places he visits.
Having said that, when I heard he had a new programme on Mexico I was very interested, mainly as I had been to Mexico City fairly recently and absolutely adored the food there. I don’t think I had a single poor meal and the technicolour vibrancy of the food really shone through. I should qualify this by saying I stayed in Polanco, which is one of the safer and up market districts (where the embassies are), which means I was always a bit mindful of not getting any true local cookery, just upscaled versions with the less refined parts ground off at the edges.
Rick’s programme does a good job of introducing you to some of the more rural and domestic cookery at offer, although he does lapse into fawning at some of the more up market and trendy cookery going on, especially when in California at the start. I cannot fault his treatment of some of the more classic taco based dishes, which is ultimately what I had a go at recreating from his book for friends and family this Christmas and New Year.
I opted for a self service taco buffet where I could prepare a range of fillings and accompaniments that should suit the palettes and diets of all attendees. There are several great benefits to doing this:
- So much of the food can be cooked in advance which helps massively when people are over! Less time in the kitchen is better.
- The fillings can be a mixture of meat and vegetable/rice/grains, plus with proper corn tortillas you can cater for Coeliac diets.
- If the main components are mild you can allow guest to add heat as they see fit.
First things first, the tortillas make a significant difference. If you’re used to the huge, flat dinnerplate sized ones (usually used for large burritos) then bypass these and look for the smaller, side plate sized, corn tortillas. These can be bought much more easily now, give a much better taste and the size is much more suitable for a small mix of fillings. When I get a large flour burrito the temptation to fill it to the brim with everything means it all gets jumbled together and individual flavours get lost. Tacos should probably only have 3 or 4 components in and the size helps prevent people going overboard.
You can of course try making your own corn tortillas using masa harina flour. These will ensure they are properly gluten free as you need to check the pre made ones carefully (some may still use a bit of flour to help make them more pliable). I tried making them myself and used shop bought ones too. If I’m honest, although the dough is very easily to mix and knead, the effort required to roll and dry fry them probably wasn’t worth it when the shop bought ones tasted pretty good. It also helped that they were actually round. Mine looked like Salvador Dali clocks!
In terms of the main fillings, I went for four key ones; pork carnitas, marinated chicken thighs, black beans and Mexican red rice.
Pork carnitas are super simple. You get about 1.5kg of pork shoulder and trim excess fat off, cube it and add to a pan with 250g of lard, 150ml of whole milk, the juice of two oranges, a sliced onion, 2 slices cloves of garlic and 2 tsp of oregano. Cover and cook for 45 minutes at medium heat, then without the lid for 90 minutes. Fish out the pork and shred it like pulled pork (with two forks), then drain off the lard (which you can use again), before returning the pork to the pan with the left juices/bits. Keep warm until ready to serve or reheat when required. It is almost impossible to mess this up. I’d recommend adding a small amount of the lard back in at the end with some water, while you keep it warm before serving, as this helps to keep it moist.
The chicken thighs require marinating first. Mix the juice of two limes, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 tsp oregano, 1 tsp chilli flakes (choose the chilli you use based on heat preference, I went for a dried habanero), 1 tsp brown sugar and about 4 tbsp of olive oil. Add 4 decent sized chicken thighs (i.e. not those tiny ones the main supermarkets sell) and marinate for at least two hours. Seal them in a hot oiled pan then cover and cook until cooked through. I liked to cook them until the liquid cooks off so you get some of the more caramelised browning on the chicken. This is at the expense of less succulent meat though. I doubled the quantities for 6 people as well.
The other two fillings are even simpler. Mexican red rice is basically long grain rice, cooked with stock, tomatoes, garlic, chilli and onion. Black beans are black turtle beans cooked in water until soft (but not disintegrating) with bay, onion and garlic. At the end you can turn these into refried beans with some of the cooking liquor, but I’m not a massive fan of refried beans so kept them as they are. The full recipes for these are in Rick’s book, although you could probably have a bash and these and end up close.
So you’ve got your tacos and fillings. Now for the myriad of fillings! This is where the colour and vibrancy of Mexican food really pops. A mixture of the following are good.
- Sour cream.
- Chipotle sour cream (mix Chipotles in Abdo paste with sour cream, mayonnaise and lime).
- Picked Jalapenos. Easily bought in jars.
- Fresh sliced Jalapenos.
- Pink pickled onions. I never saw these in Mexico, but have seen them in lots of pictures of US tacos. It might be more of an Instagram type addition, as the colour makes it look amazing, but if you like pickled onions these are similar, just with a bit of a Mexican tint with lime and orange juice in the pickling process.
- Fresh coriander.
- Hot sauces. Choose carefully as there are seemingly dozens out there now, of various quality and heat.
- Limes slices (to squeeze over)
- Lancashire or Cheshire cheese, crumbled. This is apparently close to the Cojita cheese used in some Mexican tacos. If you ask me I’d go for Lancashire, as it is by far the superior cheese (and county!).
- You can’t go wrong with a basic Pico de Gallo salsa, made fresh, with all the colours of the Mexican flag. The fresher made the better. White onion, chilli, tomato and coriander (plus some lime and salt) is what you need. If you do make it a bit in advance check it hasn’t become a bit watery and drain off any excess. More elaborate salsas are available in Rick’s book.
- Fresh guacamole or fresh avocado. I made the Guacamole from the book, and although good I think the Leith’s one is better. I prefer using shallots of even spring onions in mine. Beyond that you just need chilli (Jalapeno is best) and the avocado itself. Add lime juice, salt and coriander to taste.