Recipe for Mexican Ponche de Navidad

The evocative power of food, its flavours and aromas can be used to take us back to long and forgotten corners of our mind.  Periods like Christmas are of course charged with a variety of memories, so each one of us have our personal catalogue of food experiences that relate to certain moments of our lives.

It is no surprise that for some, the aroma or roasted chestnuts on a cold corner is equivalent to Christmas and for others, the flavour of ginger biscuits or of Bacalao is the marker of this time.

For some of us, the smell of tropical fruits slowly poaching in a syrup are instant reminders of this period.  In Mexico ponche de Navidad is a delicious and warming drink that takes me back to posada parties.

What is a posada? The word literally translates as inn, and this is a representation of the journey that the Virgin Mary and St Joseph did at the time of the birth of baby Jesus, that culminated in barn and manger.

Like most things, these parties have changed with time, but the format remains the same: a street procession that stops and chants a litany which culminates at the house of the hosts of the posada –or the place where the party is going to take place.  The joyous entry to the house by those outside and the subsequent pinata breaking, food sharing and ponche drinking!

It is the combination of fruits and the sweet aroma of a lightly spiced syrup, simmering somewhere that gives this drink a particularly strong power for memory of cold nights in Mexico.  The smell of sweet sugar-cane and guavas, tejocotes and cinnamon, always take me right back to my childhood and I can again see and hear things that lie otherwise dormant in my mind: my younger parents, the unique feeling of attempting to break a pinata, the sounds of children laughing.  Sometimes it is worth forgetting about food miles for once and make some proper ponche just for the memories.

Here is a simple recipe, if you live away from the tropics, it might be difficult to find some fruits, I give alternatives in the recipe below.  Try doing this at this cold time of year, repeat doing this and you will see how with time, this evocative drink will take you back to good memories.

Cultivate your future memories by having good times now!

Recipe for ponche de Navidad

Makes about 3 litres

20 tejocotes –these are quite particular to Mexico, if you can’t find substitute with 10 quartered apricots and 4 green apples in chunks

7 guavas, cut in wedges

3 Tbsp raisins

10 prunes

about half a kilo of sugar-cane chunks –found in caribbean shops

4 Tbsp dried apples

2 sticks of cinnamon

3 litres of water

muscovado sugar

Begin by making the syrup, dissolve sugar in water –I have deliberately omitted quantities here, add enough so that it tastes nice and sweet to you.

Add the fruits and bring to below boiling point, simmer gently until the fruits soften and poach, the syrup should be slightly thicker at this point.

Before serving add some piquete a dash or rum or brandy to give it extra warming properties.

Serve in cups with a few fruits.

** If you have a memory of ponche that you want to share here, please add a comment.  My memory now is of a posada at secondary school aged 13, with my friend Marcelita, on a very cold day and how my father threw himself to get some goodies at the pinata with the kids!

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Save our corner shops

Save our corner shops / NO to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington!!!

 

This is an old rant on corner shops, but surprisingly or rather NOT surprisingly, nothing changes, please say no to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington by signing this petition,just click here

Last week, I heard somewhere that if trends carry on as they are, the corner shop will disappear in a few years… I remember now, I heard this on Radio 4.  There was a slightly sarcastic comment saying that it will be a ‘shame’ to loose those shops that sell overpriced and dusty tins of rice pudding…

…the corner shop contains features that makes us remember dusty, half empty shelves of expensive items that are near their sell by date, and maybe the owners  of these shops will need to review their stock in more ways than one in order to keep their shop and not to sell it to a developer that will transform it to a ‘charming flat with a shop front feature’.

However there are other kinds of corner shops, and these are the ones that I feel we should support.  I happen to live in an area that thankfully has not yet been invaded by hypermarkets, supermarkets or their ‘city/express’ equivalent.  My nearest supermarket -if it can be called that, is an organic one where we can find fabulous produce and all eco-friendly-organic goodies that cost a lot of money.  There are as well a myriad of small shops that sell produce aimed at the local Turkish community, and it is these type of shops that I think we should try to support.  In my part of London these are mainly Turkish, but depending on the area where we live, these shops can be Indian, Bangladeshi, Greek or Portuguese.

What I like of these shops is obviously the things they sell, in my case we can find large chunks of fetta cheese, wonderful yoghurt, freshly baked flat breads and the usual basket containing bunches of fresh dill, coriander, parsley, basil, mint and spinach.  These goodies sit happily next to neat rows of dried pulses, nuts and rice, Turkish tea and coffee as well as the usual -often dusty, packets of breakfast cereal and digestive biscuits.

The staff at these shops are usually friendly and welcoming, sometimes they give me free chillies, other times they let me pay later, once I was even able to use their fridge! These guys are always there, 365 days open from 9 to 9, many times they are glued to the blasting Turkish version of the Oprah show; other times they are just chatting to their mates and -especially in the summer, this seems an OK existence.  However what we don’t see is that in order to keep their shops running, they have to get up at 4 am and buy fruits, veg and herbs.  I have been to Spitalfields to buy fruit and veg at that time in the winter and I know that is not exactly fun.  Then they have to be there in the shops all year round.  For the place to look open, they need to have their doors fully open too and that means living in the cold for half the year.

Then, there is also the problem of prices, at markets like Spitalfields, the price of the produce varies everyday, so our friendly shopkeepers are constantly having to juggle with prices, often making very little money if any at all.  As an example, my local shop sells avocados at 70p each, he buys at 50p so his profit is hardly what we can call a profit.  The bullets that resemble an avocado in a supermarket -the ones that have obviously not been ‘ripened for flavour’ cost the same amount.  I wonder how much to they get these at? it is certainly not 50p, otherwise the profits would not be so healthy for these guys.

There is the question of choice, for some strange reason, we are led to believe that a large supermarket has a large range of items, well think again; next time you go into a supermarket look into the stock and ask yourself the question if there is really a large selection, or are you really being sold what they are telling you what you buy… I don’t want to portray large supermarket chains as evil guys that are planning your life, dictating what you should consume; however, it is extremely annoying to go to these places and then find that the only kind of cocoa powder they sell is their own brand, that you can only find ‘the most popular’ of meat cuts i.e. mince and two others, that their fish counter looks like a fishmonger but they cannot sell you the heads of the fish to make stock.  Instead they have oversized rows where they sell oversized ‘family’ bags of all kinds of flavoured crisps… if we are not careful our families will be oversized in a very short time.

We complain and mock that the stock at local shops is nearly out of date and that they don’t often have what we want, and the reason for this is exactly because we don’t buy enough stuff from them. It is very difficult to always have the same selection of produce if half of it goes to waste, when there is really no need for that to be so.  If we bought more from these shops, then the stock rotates more often and we will find more choice and fresher stuff as well.  Regarding choice, well, my local shop does not sell 27 varieties of tortilla chips but they sell amongst other things medjool dates, white onions, shallots and large white eggs by the piece (10p each), and frankly I prefer this kind of choice, I like my ‘totopos’ (Mexican for tortilla chips) plain thank you.

What I am trying to say here is that I think there is enough room for both kinds of shops to survive, yes it is nice and comfy to take the car and buy a whole year load of dishwasher tablets and toilet paper, yes it is nice to buy two for the price of one items like chicken breasts… although we should ask if this is actually an ethical thing to do… and yes it is nice to be able to get cashback when we pay and to buy very cheap wine.  But it is also nice, very nice to be greeted by the local shopkeeper and to feel like a human being there.  It is nice to find weird and wonderful seasonal produce, pomegranates in September for instance, but it is nicer to feel that one is contributing directly to keep somebody in business.  Next time you think that your local shop is a weird place packed with dusty and expensive items, think again, yes things might cost a little more, but not much more and also think that this extra price keeps these guys in business and this includes the community feel that these shops bring.

Yes, there is the question of lifestyle, of living busy, of our life being made easier by doing all the shopping in one go, but have we actually stopped and thought how little we need to buy in a week? how much waste we create by buying lots of veg in one go and then spending all week eating out or eating take aways? Maybe, just maybe if we divide our shopping and spend 10 minutes at the local shop we will end up buying things that we did not know existed and we are prompted to use our imagination, we might find things that we have not seen in years -white eggs for instance.  Just doing a little bit of shopping at these places will help save them.  So why don’t we do it?

Last Saturday pm I had the misfortune to go to a large supermarket and just when I was feeling lost in the family size crisp department, amongst many upset people that looked more like lost robots than actual human beings; there was a cute Spanish girl having a fit, she said to her mother: ‘there is nothing I like about this shop and the only thing I like you won’t buy’.  Obviously she wanted to get some crisps, but what I thought interesting is that she did not like that place, and it seemed that most of us seemed unhappy there.  Then the question is, why do we carry on buying like if there is no tomorrow, when there is an option to buy stuff from our local shop? if we carry on like this, there won’t be a tomorrow for our little shops and we might come to regret that.

How to eat a taco and the best taquerias in Mexico City.

Like mole, the subject of tacos is enormous, there are tacos for all occasions, and for all types of people.  Small children in Mexico begin their taco-eating journey from an early age, most likely with ‘flautas de pollo’ which translates as chicken flutes the name being related to the similarity of these crispy tacos to a small flute or piccolo.  Some kids are brave enough to pour salsa on theirs, but many people, little or large enjoy eating these with guacamole, topped with lettuce a dollop of ‘crema agria’ and some crumbled ‘queso fresco’ and of course the ubiquitous optional salsa.  As we continue on our life journey, the palate matures -or in the case of many, it toughens; so more chilli, complex textures and flavours are required and here is where the taco subject extends massively.

To complicate things further, tacos are also associated to different occasions and they can be eaten at christenings, at private parties called ‘taquizas’, for lunch, as a snack just before going out, or as a perfect accompaniment to a long night on the tiles and of course as a good cure for the hangover that develops afterwards.

To attempt to classify tacos according to class, gender, race and festive occasion, would go beyond the scope of my simple blog, so I am not going to do that, not yet.  In fact I think that those outside Mexico who are interested in eating tacos, could perhaps start their own taco-journey by going to places like Taqueria -see my entry below, or its equivalent in whatever city you are.  If you are either in Mexico or are planning to visit and eat like the real Mc Coy, then you can follow these bits of advise:

1.  If you have Mexican friends join them, ask them to take you to their favourite taqueria, do ask what are you going to be eating, we tend to eat everything and although everything is delicious, it might not appeal to all, so ask first.  Then copy your friends add salsa, lime, coriander, onion, whatever takes your fancy, but remember that there is a code here and your friends will guide you, for instance a taco al pastor has to be eaten with onion, coriander and ‘salsa borracha’.  A taco de bistec should have lots of lime and perhaps a tomatillo or pico de gallo salsa. One taco topped with different salsas is a no, no, and don’t dip your tortilla chips (totopos) on salsa it is not quite the done thing… follow your friends or those sitting next to you.

2.  If you are a just a tourist and don’t know of anybody, then this guide might help you.

First of all go to a reputable place, don’t be mislead by the tourist thinking: if I am going to a stall that is full of people, food is being sold quickly so I might not get sick, well this might not be the case, also you might be eating things that are not necessarily of your fancy, so I would recommend going to a proper taco restaurant, or taqueria.  I will give some suggestions below.

Your taqueria should be clean, busy and it should have a ‘maestro taquero’, a master of the art of making tacos: this is a man (apologies for stereotyping people), he is usually in his thirties/forties, generally with a rounded belly and the proud owner of a bushy-black moustache.  He usually wears a white shirt, a white cap or paper hat and and apron and is extremely skillful in the art of taking orders, preparing meat, slicing, grilling, chopping, serving, making a mental account of how much each person is consuming, and then telling you exactly how much you need to pay.  Unlike sushi chefs, a ‘maestro taquero’ does not train for sixteen years before he can make his first taco, this trade is a ‘learn as you go’ job, but an advanced skill it is indeed! So much so that when I see them working so hard, so accurately, and always with a smile, I feel like giving them a round of applause -I won’t do that, I am not that ridiculous!

If you are a novice, go for simple tacos, things like bistec, chuleta, costilla, choriqueso (mexican chorizo and cheese), al pastor (pork in guajillo salsa and grilled pineapple), nopales (cactus), rajas (poblano strips, onion and cream) and alambre (poblano strips, char-grilled onions, bacon and steak). These should come on two tortillas piled with fillings and you need to divide these to make two tacos.  Then you add lots of lime and the salsa of your choice.  Fold the tortilla in half and in half again… if you want to look like a pro, then follow these simple steps:

  • Eat the taco with your hand, placing fingers like this: thumb and fourth fingers underneath the taco, index and middle fingers on top of the taco and little finger sticks out like when you drink a posh cup of tea.
  • Body position is very important.  Gentlemen, remove your ties! Tacos are better eaten while standing up.  To avoid spillages, chest sticks out a little and so does the bottom, this is in order to keep balance!  Tilt your head to face the taco and then you are ready to go.  Remember, practice makes perfect!

Most important is to enjoy the taco and for that you could go to:

El Califa.  Altata 22, corner with Alfonso Reyes in Condesa. Tel. 5271 7666.  London prices but the ‘Gaonera’ is delicious, go for the simple ‘taco de bistec’ which is very good, this is a post-modern establishment with videos, music, fancy deco and exhorbitant prices.  If you are in the area, go and mix with the in crowd, with luck you might spot Gael Garcia Bernal or Diego Luna

Los Panchos -since 1945.  Tolstoi 9, Anzures between Leibinitz and Dante, round the corner from Camino Real Hotel Tel: 5254 2082.  This is a traditional place which is always busy and where you can eat standing up, go for the carnitas, which are yum.  This is great to watch working Mexicans at lunch.

El Rincon de la Lechuza -since 1971.  Located in Miguel Angel de Quevedo almost corner with Insurgentes Avenue, very near Coyoacan district.  Tel: 5661 0050.  My parents used to bring me here when I was little and yes it is a family place, take mum, dad, cousins, brothers, sisters and granny.  Visit on a Sunday for lunch so that you can watch the other families; the grilled meats are very nice and so it was the chicken soup.

El Charco de las Ranas, in Rio Mixcoac 209 Tel 5598 6597.  In the middle of nowhere touristy, yet slightly close to Condesa, this place is a must, their pastor tacos are generous and delicious. In fact all their tacos are very generous.  This is a sui-generis place with slides for the kids, noisy, full of families and it looks like Mc Donald’s goes to Disneyland, but forget all that and enjoy the food, which is not only delicious but generous with fantastic salsas.   Also drink the rice drink (horchata) which is a favourite.

El Tizoncito in Tamaulipas 122, Condesa.  Tel. 5286 7321.  A beloved place that is full of memories, when I used to visit with my friends, where they used to have an ad hoc ‘park in’: people would park all over the place and someone would come and take the order and serve us in the car.  In my university days are full of memories where we used to all eat crammed inside my VW Beetle, and the smell of coriander would linger for days in the car!!  Sadly nowadays this place is a chain with franchises, more of a ‘concept’ now and their tacos do taste formulaic, however it might be worth visiting because they are in Condesa, because they are cheap, and because that first bite of a hot taco al pastor with all the trimmings is a fantastic experience.. and also because to watch Mr. Taco Master at work is something worth watching.

*this guide was partly borrowed from Chilango magazine and also from my own experiences and memories… enjoy!

Tacos al Pastor and Shawarma

One of the things I like of the post-modern world as I understand it, is the fact that we can move from world to world in a similar way to that of opening windows whilst we surf the net.  Well at least that is how I feel life in London is, one is able to enter and leave worlds and move countries and nationalities in no time.

Not many years ago one was only able to move worlds by moving physically and that meant exile for many… how did people in exile continued with their memories of the lost land and dealt with their present in space and time?   I imagine that this meant moving nearby people that lived in the same conditions and people from the same country.  This seems to be one of the things that have happened in large cities and London is a showcase of many areas where people of so many nations live clustered together sharing spaces, a language, culture and food as well.

The other day I had to go to Divertimenti in Brompton Road and whilst I was cycling there, I was -once more, watching all the different pots that simmer in this incredible city, I went from Turkish Green Lanes in the north of London, through various districts that included gorgeous Bloomsbury where my beloved Birkbeck College is, through the trendy Marylebone area with all its shops and restaurants and I ended up in Lebanese Edgware Road, at this point I was quite hungry so I decided to stop at Maroush.  The Edgware Road I imagine, is like some part of Lebanon, full of spotless restaurants that are full of gorgeous, delicious goodies, amongst them lovely salads and dips, fresh and juicy shawarma straight from the grill, juices, a syrup drenched cakes.  Whilst having my shawarma I was thinking about how it is made and how similar is to Tacos al Pastor or Shepherd Tacos and it is funny the link here, maybe Tacos al Pastor are a Mexican adaptation of a migrant food of middle eastern origin.

As it happens, in Mexico we have the same contraptions where piles of marinated meat are put in front of a grill and turned to cook, whilst very skilled chefs cut bits of it and put them inside a bread and serve with salad, a gherkin, chilli sauce and a yoghurt dressing …yum! These are served rolled on sheets of paper and these are delicious washed down with a fresh juice.  These are called Arab tacos, and they can be eaten at ‘‘Taqueria El Greco’ in colonia Condesa in Mexico City and they are really similar to the shawarma I have had in Lebanese London.  However there is another dish that is similar in the way it is made and that is Tacos al Pastor.

I have no idea if these tacos existed when my parents were young, I doubt it.  What I am sure about is that when I was at university these were the rage and funnily enough the principle to shawarma is very similar… a Doner Kebab contraption, using marinated meat, in this case a mix of guajillo chilli, oranges, oregano and other ingredients, grilled until slightly charred and served skillfuly on a corn tortilla, not fogetting to add a little slice of roasted pineapple that has been flicked from the top of the turning grill.  In true Mexican tradition, these are served with fresh lime juice, a little chopped coriander and onions and salsa borracha, a hot salsa that contains pasilla chilli, vinegar and sugar amongst various ingredients.  I don’t know what it is, but these tacos are fantastic and at 7 pesos each from El Tizoncito in Condesa they certainly made very good fare for empoverished students like I was back in … um… back in the 80′s

What is great is that you can order a taco at a time and everyone else does the same -customers usually gather in front of the grill; there is only one man doing all the job and somehow he is able to track what is needed, who ordered what, who needs an extra taco.  Best of all is that each taco is served on a little piece of paper and at the end of your meal, your meal is sorted by counting the pieces of paper left on your plate.  Don’t try to be too smart though, they DO know how many tacos you have had and cheating with the number of papers is just not on.

I love tacos al pastor and I love shawarma, they are very different from each other maybe they have a common ancestor, maybe they are a refection of migrations, of different ways of experiencing something that could be the same, of the way we live nowadays, whatever it is, when in Mexico City do eat some Tacos al Pastor, they are great.

The best tortillas this side of the atlantic

Freshly made tortillas using an ancient 'metate' in the island of Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

The ancient art of making fresh corn tortillas is no easy task, to do that in a place like London is actually a real challenge.  Cool Chile Company are the people who have undertaken such a task and finally they have their brand new tortilla making machine in place!  This is good news for tortilla lovers all over the UK.

On an grey, icy and cold January morning Mexican friend Gicela and myself, went to northwest London to meet Dodie who was going to show us her new tortilla machine.  When we arrived to the place, we had no idea that we were going to be transported directly back to the days when –napkin in hand; we used to queue at the local artisan tortilla maker to buy fresh and soft tortillas in Queretaro for Gicela and in Mexico City for me.  For any person who has been to one of these tortilla shops, you will know exactly what I mean by the evocative smell of fresh maize dough being cooked and the rickety sounds that emanate from an over used tortilla machine.

Of course that things are slightly different at Cool Chile, the machine is brand new and the process follows all the rigorous food safety and hygiene standards required by the industry over here.

First there is the mixing process, where water and dehydrated masa harina meet to make the dough or masa.

Then the dough is fed into the machine, cut into identical rounds and then taken through a heated conveyor belt that cooks the tortillas to perfection.

Then fresh tortillas are ready to be packed.

This operation seems very simple, but maybe because of this  simplicity, it is that the whole thing is actually very complicated.  For a start it is very important to access the right masa –by this I mean one which is fine enough for making tortillas with the right texture and of course one that is GMO free.  Then there is the business of the water –a crucial element here.  London water is really hard and I reckon that this is a reason why tortillas over here can turn from soft and pliable to solid cardboard discs in a matter of seconds –in my next post some tips on how to avoid this… And then there is the issue of packaging them under the right conditions so that they arrive to customers still soft and yummy.

Dodie and all the staff at Cool Chile Co., do their best efforts to ensure you get good tortillas over here.  Of course they are not going to be identical to the ones you get off from a stall or a tortilleria in Mexico, simply because conditions are very different: weather, logistics, water etc., however these tortillas are good and very tasty.

When you buy a packet, consume them as soon as possible, warm them up inside a plastic bag in a lower setting in the microwave for just a few seconds until warmed through; if you put a glass of water in the microwave at the same time, the tortillas retain their moisture.

If you are not using them all in one go, wrap them tightly in cling film and keep in the fridge but for no longer than a day or two, otherwise they will go stale.  Tortillas are made to be consumed on the day of purchase.

Leftover tortillas are not good for making soft tacos because they dry up quite quickly.  However there are lots of things you can do with them, you can turn them into totopos or tortilla chips: cut them into triangles and bake them until crispy or fry them in a little oil.  These are good for chilaquiles or tortilla soup.

Leftover tortillas are also very good for making a dish from northern Mexico called Migas.

The recipe will follow in my next post, watch this space…

If you want to buy soft corn tortillas go to http://www.coolchile.co.uk

*With thanks to Dodie Miller and Cool Chile Co. for allowing us the experience of seeing the only tortilla machine in London

Mexican street markets or tianguis

Mexican street markets…

Or ‘el tianguis’ as it is commonly known is the Nahuatl word for the various colourful markets which populate the streets of Mexico, here you can find all the things you need, thought you needed and things you would not even imagined existed but are sold, from wedding dresses to plants and baskets, these markets sell all kinds of stuff and it is lovely to see people buying all kinds of things.

A tianguis in Polanco, Mexico City

A particularly nice thing to do is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables; courgette flowers, tomatillos, cactus leaves, ripe guavas, mamey fruit and avocados, sweet mangoes and juicy pineapples, all sit happily waiting to be tested, tasted and bought. For those who fancy a snack, just stop at any of the many street stalls, where you can taste a hand made quesadilla with fresh hot salsa or a ‘tlacoyo’ which is a tortilla filled with beans, usually made with blue corn and topped with a delicious salad of cactus leaves, tomatoes, coriander and crumbled cheese.

If in Mexico look for the classic green or pink canopies characteristic of these markets and delight in watching people offering their wares, haggling and buying. Try the various exotic fruits and vegetables and stop for some food. Don’t forget to take a hand made bag or basket or better still buy it there. If you like Mexican cooking implements look for them at the stalls, you can get tortilla presses, lime squeezers and gorgeous enamel pots and pans at very good prices. Of course if you feel eccentric, you can always bargain for some silver jewellery, a banana plant, fake designer shoes or even a wedding dress, the choice is yours. Whatever your taste choices a ‘tianguis’ is really fun!

… the lesson here, if you don’t want to wipe off your past, remember to back things up!