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Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Queen of Mexican condiments

They are reminiscent of our ancestors cooking, and can be: Fresh, zesty and spicy; sometimes fiery, tangy, smoky and complex in flavors, and of different textures and colors. It is the most common condiment throughout Mexico; I am talking of course about the ubiquitous salsa found in every household, every restaurant, every fonda and every taco stand from the North to the South of Mexico. Some of them have had some slight changes to them, some are from the sixteenth century and still remain the same. Salsa will always be there sitting patiently on the tables adorning them with their earthy colors and aromas, waiting to be degustated by the humblest of diners to the proudest connoisseurs. There are two types of salsas in Mexican cooking salsas made with fresh chiles and salsas made with dried chiles, and those are divided in four basic salsas. Salsa cruda (raw salsa), where the ingredients are blended or mashed in a molcajete and served like that. The fresh chopped tomato-chile-cilantro "relish" known as pico de gallo or "salsa Mexicana"; the thin vinegary very spicy chile sauces, and the ones that are typically made with cooked tomatoes or green tomatoes also known as green tomatillos and fresh or dried chiles. My preference are the cooked salsas, because they are the more versatile of the three. I compare them to cooking with fish, the possibilities are endless, these salsas use the great variety of chiles and have a wide range of flavours. They keep well. This salsa is the perfect condiment when added to a freshly made tortilla with a piece of roasted pork and a thick slice of avocado.

Cooked or roasted salsas are divided in two categories

The first are based on fresh chiles and roasted tomatoes these salsas are specifically developed for small fresh chiles (serranos or jalapenos), or for large fresh chiles (poblanos)

On second place we have the salsas based on dried chiles. All these salsas rely on tomatoes or tomatillos and sometimes a combination of the two

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

To brown or not to brown. That is the question.

Enzymic or (Enzymatic) browning is a chemical process involving, poliphenol oxidase or other enzymes that create melanins, resulting in a brown color. Enzymic Browning is an important color reaction in food, vegetables and seafood.

Enzymic browning is beneficial for:

Developing flavor in tea (Here the reaction is incorrectly called "fermentation")
Developing color and flavor in fruits such as figs and raisins

Enzymic browning is detrimental to:

Fresh fruits and vegetables, in particular apples and potatoes
Seafood such as shrimp

Enzymic browning is usually controlled with chemicals, or by destroying the responsible chemicals with heat. Blanching to destroy the enzymes is commonly used to preserve color in vegetables. Lemon juice and other acids are used to preserve color in fruits, particularly apples, by lowering the ph and removing the coper cofactor necessary for the enzyme to function

Non-enzymic browning

Non-enzymatic browning, or oxidative, browning is a chemical process that produces a brown color in foods without the activity of enzymes. Melanins and other chemicals are responsible for the brown color. The two main forms of non-enzymatic browning are caramelizing and the Maillard reaction. Both vary in reaction rate as a function of water activity.

Caramelizing is the oxidation of sugar. it is used extensively in cooking for the result of nutty flavor and brown color. as the process occurs, volatile chemicals are released producing the characteristic brown color

The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring the addition of heat. The sugar interacts with the amino acid, producing a variety of odours and flavors. The Maillard reaction is the basis of the flavouring industry, since the type of amino acid involved determines the resulting flavor. It also produces toast

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A hot Mexican

You might think I am talking about me, but this is not the right site for that so I rather talk about a real "hot Mexican" I know. El chile (chili pepper)

Here in Toronto, Canada. The popularity of Mexican cuisine is flourishing rapidly and so is the arrival to Kensington Market of more and more Mexican produce and products, mainly from the states. We can now find a variety of chiles both frescos and secos (fresh and dry)as well as many other goodies. The Mexican market is still growing here and so is the Mexican community. Soon we will be able to find a greater selection of hard or impossible to find ingredients

I will be giving a brief description of the chiles as I include them in my recipes.

Make sure that there is no deterioration in the form of wrinkles, dark patches, mold or softness.
if you are not going to use them right away, wrap them in two layers of paper towel and then in a plastic bap; in this way they will not dry out. Even then they will not last long, a week in average without loosing flavour and texture.

I believe that jalapenos are perhaps the best-known chile outside of Mexico since much of the crop is pickled and canned. there is a great variety of this chile, but their shape is unmistakable; like an elongated, blunt triangle varying from mid to dark green, some with dark patches on them, other with a vertical brown line as if they were wearing striped pants. The chile jalapeno is called by different names depending on the type and season in which they are harvested or just the local usage: chile gordo in Veracruz, chilchote in the Sierra de Puebla, or tomachile in old cookbooks, cuaresmeno in Central Mexico. An average chile jalapeno is 2 1/2 inches long and just under 1 inch wide; it can range from hot to very hot it measures 2,500- 10,00 Scoville units, it is used either in its mature but green stage or when fully ripened and red in color.

Good-quality jalapeno pepper should be firm to the touch, smooth-skinned and have green solid coloring, the stem should be bright green. Dry lines they are not a blemish. They are sings of mature pepper and indicate hotness.

Avoid product that is soft, bruised, has wrinkled skin or spots of mold. When dull and wrinkled, they have lost their fresh flavor or crisp texture

Jalapeno peppers are available year-round

The jalapeno gets its name from Xalapa, a town in Veracruz Mexico, where it has been grown for centuries.

A chipotle, is just a jalapeno that has been smoked and cooked in adobo sauce

If you don`t like the heat in peppers but like the raw taste of them. Remove the veins and the seeds will take away some of the heat

The name serrano or verde for this chile seems to be in general use throughout Mexico with the minor exception of the Sierra de Puebla, where it is often referred to as tampiqueno.

It is a small mid to dark green chile, depending on the variety of seed used, that ripens to bright red. The new varieties tend toward a lighter color and larger size about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. while the chile serrano tends to be a darker green, more pointed at the tip, and smaller in size, an average one being 1 to 1 1/2 inches long and 1/4 inch wide
they all have shinny smooth skin and can range from hot to very hot. They are generally preferred for fresh or cooked sauces in their mature but green stage, they are still used when very ripe and red.

Because you don`t have to char, steam or core this thin-skinned chile, just cut it into thin slices and mince it, it is the fastest one to use for salsas. The flavor is bright and biting with a delayed fuse

Serrano chile is smaller and hotter than jalapeno. The serrano life`s cycle resembles a leaf`s: these small, skinny, pointy chiles are about five times hotter than jalapenos

Thick flesh do not dry well. Crisp, fresh flavor. It is one of the hottest peppers commonly available here in Toronto, with a Scoville heat units of 7,000-25,000

Most common uses are table sauces, guacamole, relishes, vegetable dishes, seasoning and garnish

The word serrano comes from the Spanish "serranias" meaning "foothills", the serrano is believed to have originated in the foothills of Puebla in Mexico.

tips for making the best guacamole

Guacamole was made by the Aztecs as early as the 15oos. The name comes from the Aztec dialect via Nahuatl ahuacamolli, from ahuacatl (avocado) plus molli (sauce).

Tips for preparing guacamole
I highly recommend using a molcajete and tejolote (Mexican Spanish, from Nahuatl mulcazitl). The traditional Mexican version of mortar and pestle.

Molcajetes were used by pre-hispanic Mesoamerican cultures including the Aztec and the Maya. it is carved from vesicular basalt, molcajetes are typically round in shape and supported by three short legs, they are frequently decorated with the carved head of an animal on the outside edge of the bowl, giving the molcajete the appearance of a short, three legged animal. The pig is the most common animal head used for decoration. the matching hand-held tool know as tejolote (Mexican Spanish, from Nahuatl texolotl), is also made of the same basalt material.

In Mexican cooking we use the molcajete to crush and grind spices or to make chile pastes or salsas or the popular guacamole because the rough surface of the stone creates a superb grinding surface that maintains itself over time as tiny bubbles in the basalt are ground down, replenishing the textured surface.
Salsas and guacamole prepared in molcajetes are known to have a distinctive texture, and some also carry a subtle difference in flavor, from those prepared in blenders. I also recommend serving the prepared guacamole in the molcajete, using it as serving dish it makes it taste earthier

Preparing guacamole
Always make a fine paste with the chile, garlic, coriander* and salt, this paste will greatly enhance the flavor of your guacamole.

*Always wash coriander thoroughly and in lots of water. Spin the coriander dry; removing the stems of the coriander is not necessary since these are not bitter nor tough.

Rough chop your coriander, due to its high water content it bruises easily and looses its color and texture

Eat guacamole right after it has being prepared and always serve at room temperature. It does not keep well in the fridge

Stir in tomatoes, never mash them in since doing this will give your dip an undesirable color

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

It is fatty with a distinctive and subtle flavor, smooth and has a creamy texture...

A sumptuous description like this, can only fit the description of one of my top ten favourite fruits. I am of course talking about the avocado, an amazing fruit native to Mexico
The avocado (Persea Gratissima or Persea Americana), originated in the state of Puebla, Mexico. The oldest evidence of avocado use was found in a cave located in Coxcatlan, Puebla, Mexico that dates around 10,000 BC. The avocado tree also has a long history of cultivation in Central and South America, a water jar shaped like an avocado, dating to AD 900, was discovered in the pre-incan city of chan-chan
The word "avocado" comes from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl ("testicle", a reference to its shape)Avocados were known by the Aztecs as the "fertility fruit". In some countries of South America, the avocado is known by its Quechua name,Palta. The Nahuatl ahuacatl can be compounded with other words, as in ahuacamolli, meaning "avocado soup or sauce", from which the Mexican Spanish word guacamole derives.
The Spanish brought this fruit to the English. The early Spanish explorers discovered the Aztecs enjoying avocados, but it was long considered a tasteless food.
Avocados can not only be tossed in salads or mashed for dips like the popular guacamole, but are also used alongside a variety of breads, desserts, main dishes and non-culinary creams.

Although the prime season for avocados is late winter/early spring. They are readily available in markets year round

How to choose avocados
A ripe avocado will yield to a gentle pressure when held in the palm of the hand and squeezed. The flesh is typically greenish yellow to golden yellow when ripe. The flesh is prone to enzymatic browning and turns brown quickly after exposure to air. To prevent this, lime or lemon juice can be added to avocados after they are peeled, but a good advice is to use them right before eating them because nothing will stop them from deteriorating

Most common types are:
Bacon, Fuerte, Gwen, Hass, Pinkerton, Reed, and Zutano, with many chefs having particular preference for the Hass variety

Interesting facts of avocados
Avocados are generally served raw, mostly because heat makes the avocado turn bitter so the suggestion is, if you need to cook an avocado do it for a brief period of time only. Prolonged cooking induces a chemical reaction in all the different varieties of avocados that renders the flesh inedible

Both green and dried leaves of the avocado tree can be used for wrapping tamales, or seasoning for barbecues and stews. Dry leaves will keep for several months on a tightly-closed container

The avocado plant was introduced to Indonesia in 1750, Brazil in 1809, the Levant in 1908, and South Africa and Australia in the late 19th century. Since the 15th century the largest producer is Mexico, particularly in Uruapan in the state of Michoacan

Avocados did not become a commercial crop until the early 1900s