Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico’s first step towards independence and is celebrated throughout Mexico and North America every year on the 5th of May. For more on the back story of that momentous day (click here).
For this year’s Cinco de Mayo I wanted to focus on influences on Mexican cuisine that began with Hernan Cotes’ arrival on the Mexican gulf coast in 1519. There he established the port of Veracruz which was to be his launching point for the conquest of the Mexico. Marching inland Cortes captured the Aztec capital of Tenochttitlan and claimed Mexico for the Spanish crown in 1520.
After a little more than three centuries Spanish rule finally came to an end following a momentous victory in the Franco-Mexican war. A brief French occupation of Mexico followed but ended with a ragtag battle of Puebla on the 5th of May in 1862. The Cinco de Mayo defeat of the French in Puebla has been celebrated every year since.
With Cortes came many culinary influences from Spain, Cuba, as well as from West Africa communities in the Caribbean that forever changed native Mexican cooking. This is particularly apparent in the cuisines of the Gulf coast of Mexico as well as Caribbean coast of the Yucatan.
The recipes that follow reflect the melding of influences that make Mexican food so fascinating. There is a colorful story told with every bite!
- Mexican Citrus Chicken
- Flame Roasted Peppers & Jalapenos
- Yellow Rice
- Black Beans
Mexican Citrus Chicken: serves 4
- 4 chicken legs with thigh attached
- 2 lemons (or 3 limes), zest peeled into large strips and juiced
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 12 garlic cloves peeled and very thinly sliced
- 8 sun dried tomatoes, reconstituted, and thinly sliced into small strips
- fresh marjoram leaves, about 2 tablespoons
- 4 teaspoons capers (optional)
- 2 onions, peeled and cut into thinly sliced rings
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Generously salt and pepper the chicken and press the seasoning onto the chicken and set aside.
Using a deep baking dish, combine the zest strips, lemon (or lime) juice, olive oil, garlic, sun dried tomatoes, marjoram leaves, and capers (if using). Whisk the ingredient together and then add the onions and toss together.
Add the chicken, exposed flesh side down, and using your hands gently massage the chicken in the mixture and arrange the chicken in the dish leaving some of the mixture in the bottom of the dish and covering the chicken with the remaining mixture. Firmly press the chicken into the marinade and cover the dish with cling film. Place in the refrigerator to marinate for up to six hours or overnight. Turn the chicken skin side down after several hours and return it to the refrigerator for several hours more.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 425f/220c
Turn the chicken skin side up. Massage the chicken in the marinade and then arrange the other ingredients around and on top of the chicken. Place in the oven and roast for 30 minutes.
Baste the chicken with the pan juices. Add a little water if needed to ensure there is enough liquid in the bottom of the backing dish. Rotate the baking dish and roast another 30 minutes.
Once again baste the chicken with pan juices. If the surface of the chicken very brown loosely cover with foil and roast another 15 minutes.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow the chicken to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Serving: Plate the chicken along with the other ingredients placed over and around the chicken. Spoon pan juices over all and serve.
Quick Black Beans: Serves 4 to 6
- 2 8 ½ oz/240g cans of black beans
- 2 tablespoons cold pressed peanut oil (or olive oil)
- 1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, coarsley ground
- 2 dried red chillies, whole
- 2 to 3 cups stock or water, hot
- sea salt to taste
Heat a large saucepan over medium low heat. When hot add the oil and then the onions. Cook the onions, stirring now and again, until they are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and the cumin seeds and cook 2 minutes while stirring.
Add the beans including their liquid and stir them into the onion mixture. Then slip in the whole chillies. When nearly boiling add 2 cups of nearly boiling hot stock or water and stir. Once boiling reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Taste the beans. You want them to be quite soft. If they are still a bit firm cook another 1o minutes.
Remove about ¾ of a cup of beans and place them in a bowl. Mash them until fairly smooth and then stir them back into the pot with the beans. At this point you may want to add a little more water if the beans in their broth seem very thick. Cook another 10 minutes while stirring. Add salt to taste and stir to combine. The beans should be very moist but not soupy.
Serve at once or set aside to cool to room temperature before storing in the refrigerator.
Flame Roasted Peppers, Jalapeno chilies:
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 yellow bell peppers
- 6-8 green jalapenos
- 4 large garlic cloves, whole with skin on
- olive oil
- sea salt
For instructions for flame roasting (click here).
Once the peppers, jalapenos, and garlic are flame roasted and sweated, remove the skin and cut the peeled peppers and jalapenos in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and any pithy membranes and discard. Slice them into strips (rajas) and place them in a bowl.
Peel off the skin of the garlic cloves and thinly slice the cloves lengthwise and add them to the bowl of rajas. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt to taste. Toss until well combined, cover with cling film, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- 2 cups long grain rice, well rinsed
- water or stock
- ½ teaspoon saffron threads/ 1 teaspoon azafran (dried safflowers)/ or powdered turmeric
- sea salt.
Coloring the rice is optional, but it does add to the aesthetic appeal and well worth trying. True saffron adds a subtle color and flavor to the rice, while azafron (available in Mexican and some Asian markets) adds color only. Turmeric adds a yellow color with a pleasant subdued flavor and is readily available in supermarkets.
Put the rinsed rice in a large pot and cover with an equal part of water or stock. Stir in your seasoning of choice, as well as a pinch of sea salt. Place over medium heat and when boiling reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially cover with a lid, and cook about 15 minutes or until the liquid is nearly absorbed into the rice. Be sure to stir frequently so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Promptly remove the pan from the heat and cover with a tight fitting lid. Set aside for about 20 minutes to steam.
Fluff the rice with a fork just before serving.
While having coffee with my Welsh friend Paul the other day Welsh Cakes (pice ar y maen) wandered into our conversation. I confess I had never heard of Welsh cakes. Being the ever curious cook that I am, we ended up having a long chat about how his mother made her Welsh cakes for the family when they were kids back in Cardiff.
I have to say making these girdled cakes was so intriguing I was up at 6 am the following morning researching recipes and off into the kitchen making Welsh cakes!
The results were a cook’s epiphany. Easily mixed up and onto the griddle in no time. Welsh cakes are scones cooked on a griddle, if you will, but with a lighter billowy center while beautifully browned and slightly crisped on top and bottom. The upside is, unlike scones which are really best eaten right out of the oven, Welsh cakes have staying power. They were often packed into lunch boxes in the old days in Wales, tasting just as griddle fresh throughout the day as well as the following day with a short reheat.
These rustic Welsh gems must be tried! I just love them!
Welsh Cakes: makes 12
This is a basic recipe that makes traditional Welsh cakes that are perfect just as they are. However, feel free to try other dried fruits such as raisins or dried berries. You can also add a pinch or two of spices such as cinnamon or allspice as well as lemon or orange zest.
- 8 oz/225g all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 ½ oz/100g unsalted butter, cold
- 1.8oz/50g fine granulated (caster) sugar + extra for sprinkling
- 1.8oz/50g currants
- 1 organic egg
- 3 tablespoons milk
- a cast iron griddle or cast iron skillet, or heavy bottomed non-stick skillet as an alternative.
- a 2 ½ inch/6 ½cm round biscuit or cookie cutter
Place the flour and salt in a mixing bowl and stir until well combined. Cut the well chilled butter into small cubes and add them to the flour mixture. Using a pastry cutter or, my preference, use your fingers to work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles a course meal, much as you would pastry flour for a pie crust.
Add the sugar and the currants to the flour mixture and stir in with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula until well combined.
Beat together the egg and milk. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and, using the wooden spoon or spatula, work the liquid into the flour mixture until evenly distributed and the dough is starting to come together.
At this point, using your hands, gather the dough into a ball without overworking the dough.
Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and flatten the dough a bit. Dust the top of the dough with some flour and flour the rolling pin.
Begin rolling out the dough, giving the dough a quarter turn as you roll it out. If the dough is sticking to the work surface, lift it up and add a little more flour underneath it. Then roll the dough out to about a ¼ inch/ 2/3 cm thickness.
Cut out your cakes with the cutter and set them aside. Gather together the scraps of dough, reform it into ball, flatten it, and roll it out as before. Cut out the remaining cakes and set aside.
Note: I would recommend cooking one cake first as a test run, adjusting the heat of the griddle accordingly to avoid under or over cooking the remaining cakes.
Heat the griddle or skillet over medium low heat. When hot wipe the surface with a little butter and transfer some cakes to the griddle, arranging them so they are not touching one another. Cook for about 2 to 2 ½ minutes and the cakes have risen slightly. Lift up a cake to see if it is a nice golden brown. If so turn the cakes over and cook for another 2 to 2 ½ minutes. Feel the sides of the cakes which should feel slightly soft. If they need a little more cooking time just flip cakes over and cook another minute, but do not over cook!
Transfer the finished cakes to a cooling rack and dust with sugar if you like.
Serve warm just as they are or with preserves and clotted cream (or Greek yogurt)
Store leftovers in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. To reheat, just pop them in the toaster!
Maiale al Latte is a traditional northern Italian dish that has been passed on for generations by everyone’s Nonna (grandmother), and where their collective cookery savvy is all gloriously revealed. By slowly braising the pork in milk, not only is the meat tenderized, but the milk is transformed into a beguiling lemony caramelized sauce that defies everything you thought you knew about sauces. This is truly Italian comfort food at its very best!
The dish originates from the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy that is considered by Italians to be where you will find the best food in all of Italy. The region’s products are a testament to its reputation and known the world over including, Balsamic vinegar from Medona and Reggio Emalia, cured hams from Parma, and of course Parmigiano Reggiano.
This all came to mind while reading a New York Times article The Secrets of Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk by Sam Sifton. Jamie Oliver’s recipe was inspired by a Maiale al Latte that he tasted while on a trip to Tuscany. His Chicken in milk recipe, published in his cookbook Happy Days with the Naked Chef in 2002, went viral and has since inspired home cooks around the globe.
Maiale al Lette is simple in concept, relatively easy to prepare, although a little time consuming, but well worth the effort. I have to say this is a recipe that is down right exciting to cook as the dish transitions into unfamiliar territory as it braises.
This is a dish that you are unlikely to find on any restaurant menu anywhere unless you happen to be traveling through the northern Italian countryside. This is, in Jamie Oliver’s own words, “a slightly odd but really fantastic combination that must be tried”.
Maiale al Latte serves 6
- 5 pounds/2 kilo pork loin with some fat attached, shoulder, or rib roast (ribs removed)
- flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
- 12 garlic cloves with skin on
- a handful of fresh young sage leaves (20-30)
- 2 ½ liters/2.6 quarts whole milk, heated to a near boil
- zest of 2 lemons cut into long strips with a vegetable peeler
- a small knob of nutmeg or ½ teaspoon grated
In the recipe that follows I have started the braising on the stove top and finished the braising in the oven. However, braising entirely on the stove top at a gentle simmer will essentially produce nearly the same results less a crusty finish on the top of the pork.
Equipment: cast iron Dutch oven or heavy bottomed casserole dish with lid
Bring the pork to room temperature. Season generously with salt and pepper on all sides.
Place the casserole on the stove top over medium high heat. When hot add the olive oil. When the oil is hot add the butter and stir until the butter is melted. Promptly add the pork and sear until nicely browned on all sides; about 2 ½ minutes per side. Transfer the seared pork to a plate.
Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the fat out of the casserole and discard. Don’t worry about the brown bits sticking to the bottom of the casserole. They will add a nice caramel flavor to the dish as it cooks.
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
Return the casserole to the stove top set over medium low heat. Add the onions and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Then add the garlic cloves and about a third of the sage leaves. Saute for several minutes until the garlic begins to color and the sage is wilted and dark green.
Move the onion mixture to the sides of the casserole and place the seared pork in the center. Then add enough hot milk to come about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the pork. Turn the heat up to medium and once the milk is boiling lower the heat to a simmer. Add the nutmeg, lemon zest, and the remaining sage leaves and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Then turn the pork over, give the sauce a stir, and transfer the casserole to the preheated oven. Partially cover the casserole and braise for 30 minutes.
Note: Braising times in the oven will vary depending on the cut of pork you are using. Pork loin will take about 1 hour braising time, while shoulder or rib roast will take up to 2 hours.
Remove the casserole from the oven, turn the pork once again, and give the sauce a stir. Add a little more hot milk if the sauce is looking rather depleted. Return to the oven and braise without the lid another 30 minutes.
Once again, remove the casserole from the oven and turn the pork over. You will notice the milk has reduced with a light caramel color, and the sauce may have started to curdle, looking like caramelized ricotta. This is what this sauce is supposed to do, so don’t be alarmed thinking things have all gone terribly wrong.
If using pork loin, at this point the pork will need about another 20 minutes in the oven. Add a little more hot milk if the caramelized sauce is looking a bit thick.
If you are using pork shoulder or rib roast you will have to repeat the turning process two more times and adding hot milk as needed at 30 minutes intervals.
When the pork is cooked to perfection remove the casserole from the oven and transfer the pork to a plate to rest.
Spoon off as much fat as you can from the surface of the sauce and discard.
Return the sauce to the stove top over medium low heat. If the sauce is a bit soupy reduce until the sauce holds together. Or, if the sauce is too dry stir a little hot milk into the sauce to loosen it up a bit.
Slice the pork loin into ½ inch slices across the roast. Fan out on a platter or individual plates and spoon the sauce generously over the pork and garnish with fresh sage leaves.
If you have used shoulder or rib roast simply pull the meat apart and serve topped with the sauce and garnish with fresh sage leaves.
Turning left over baked potatoes into a potato salad is one thing, but I have Nigella Lawson to thank for her unfettered intuitiveness in including a recipe for purpose baked potato salad that was published in her Forever Summer cookbook years ago. I’ve been making variations of baked potato salads ever since!
Why use baked rather than the standard practice of boiled potatoes for potato salad? Well, I am not a bonafide food sleuth, but logic would have it that baking potatoes modifies the starch content of the potatoes as water is absorbed into the flesh during the baking process. The results are a fluffier, sweeter, and more flavorsome flesh.
Another tip for intensifying baked potato’s flavor, which I gleaned from my father in law long before I ever took cooking seriously, is to beard (salt) the potatoes before baking. The salt draws out additional moisture during baking, crisps the skin, and further sweetens the flesh.
Baking potatoes in the oven is the preferred method for maximum flavor, but if you are concerned about your carbon footprint or you’re just in a hurry, using the microwave is not a sin! The results are nearly indiscernible in the finished salad.
In the recipe that follows I have used Yukon gold potatoes, but by all means use your baking potato of choice. This is a potato salad I like to pair with seafood. It is decidedly lighter with a crisp flavor spike that mirrors a tarter sauce, if you will, but without being clawing and overly rich, and compliments seafood beautifully.
Ideally make this salad a day in advance. Doing so allows an exchange of flavors that are absorbed into the potatoes.
Baked Potato Salad makes 4 servings
- 4 large baking potatoes
- flaked sea salt for dredging
- 1 onion, peeled and diced, about 1 cup
- 1 cup finely diced young celery
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish (or more to taste), or wasabi to taste if you are feeling adventurous
- 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons fresh minced dill leaves or minced broad leaf parsley leaves
- flaked sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Baking the potatoes:
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
Spread a good amount of flaked sea salt on a plate or in a shallow bowl.
Rinse the potatoes under cold running water. Using a skewer, poke holes in the potatoes to allow steam to escape during baking. Re moisten the potatoes, shake off excess water and promptly roll the potatoes in the salt to coat evenly. Place the salted potatoes on a baking tray.
Transfer the tray of “bearded” potatoes to the preheated oven and bake for between 1 and 1 ½ hours. The finished potatoes should be a little firmer than a baked potatoes you would intend to serve from oven to table.
For microwave baking, microwave the potatoes for about 8 to 10 minutes. Again the potatoes should be a little firmer than potatoes you intend to serve from microwave to table.
When the potatoes are baked set them aside to cool. When cool enough to handle peel off the skin by hand. No need to be too meticulous as a little skin left intact will add some flavor to the salad.
Transfer the peeled potatoes to a bowl and refrigerate until well chilled.
While the potatoes are chilling you can go ahead and make the dressing.
For the dressing:
In a small bowl combine the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, horseradish (or wasabi), and the vinegar and mix together. Then stir in the yogurt and mix vigorously until well incorporated. Stir in salt, pepper and taste, making adjustments as needed. Chill the dressing until you are ready to finish the salad.
Once the potatoes are chilled remove from the refrigerator and cut the potatoes into bite size cubes and return them to the bowl. Add the onions, celery, and minced dill or parsley and toss until well combined.
Spoon the dressing over the tossed ingredients and fold the salad together being sure the potatoes are evenly coated. Taste the salad and adjust seasonings if needed.
Cover and Refrigerate the salad until you are ready to serve.
Remove the potato salad from the fridge and give it a good stir. Transfer the salad to a serving platter or individual plates and garnish with minced dill or broad leafy parsley and serve.