Chillies and Mexican Food – the Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge roundup

Fiery Roasted Red Pepper Salsa For anyone who loves chillies proper Mexican food is a real treat – the Mexicans grow and use probably more varieties of chilli than any other country, from the fiery habanero to the smokey chipotle and everything in between.  This month I am delighted to be the host of the Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge, and hope you will find some inspiration in the fabulous flavours of Mexico which our contributors showcased this month. As usual the rules were simply that the dish had to contain chilli in some form, and the style of cuisine – as this month celebrated Cinco de Mayo – was Mexican, natch.  Starting the fiesta is the queen of the Chilli Challenge herself, Lyndsey, who put forward a fiery roasted red pepper salsa of such stunning proportions I defy anyone not to want to grab one of those tortilla chips and dig in.

Tango Like Raindrop was actually the first off the blocks with this colourful mango Pico de Gallo salsa, a fruity twist on a classic recipe:

Mango Pico-de-Gallo SalsaAnother mango offering came from Janet of ‘The Taste Space‘, this time as an accompaniment to a healthy twist on a Mexican favourite – Oyster Mushroom and Black Bean Tacos

Oyster Mushroom and Black Bean Tacos‘Farmer’s Girl’ Janice Pattie went super-meaty with these Lamb Steaks with Adobo Seasoning Lamb Steaks with Adobo SeasoningChris of ‘Cooking Around the World’ took the challenge to a new level (and won the heart of my hubby, who’d tried & failed to persuade me to do the same) by making his own tortillas for these delicious sounding mini Garnachas with tomato-apple salsa:

Garnachas with tomato-apple salsaMy contribution to the month’s round-up had to be the much-maligned (in TexMex restaurants anyway) but genuinely Mexican favourite Faijitas, using a homemade version of a store-bought sauce and a variation on the classic salsa Pico de Gallo

Mexican fajitas with pico de galloAnd finishing the roundup was another contribution from Lyndsey, some delicious Grilled Fish Tacos

Grilled Fish Tacos If you’d like to take part in, or host, a future Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge you can find all the information you need here.


Mexican fajitas with pico de gallo

Mexican fajitas with pico de galloOnce upon a time fajitas made their way onto my dinner table every week and always went down a storm whenever I served them to guests. My secret? A shameful addiction to a store-bought sauce called Knorr’s ‘Stir it up’ Mexican Fajita Paste. When the paste was discontinued I was devastated and almost gave up on fajitas altogether, as no recipe I found could match the depth & spicing of this magic jar of sauce. I had always sworn that one day I’d work out how to make it for myself, and was thrilled to discover someone had in fact done it, and blow me, but it tasted almost exactly like the fajitas of my past, and it was made from 100% storecupboard ingredients! I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit from the original to better suit my tastebuds, try it and I know you wont be disappointed.  The recipe below makes more than you need but it’s tricky to scale down and keeps for months in the fridge if you sterilise the jar first.

Mexican fajitas with pico de gallo
Mexican fajitas with pico de gallo
Serves 2

Traditionally in Mexico fajitas would be made with beef, but with the price of steak as it is I actually usually make these with chicken breasts (and could happily substitute even more economical turkey breasts), and keep the steak for special occasions.

2 small skinless & boneless chicken breasts or sirloin steaks
1 bell pepper (any colour)
1 small red onion
3-4 tbsp fajita spice paste*

Pico de gallo:
Handful of cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 large shallots, finely diced
1 jalapeno, deseeded and finely diced
Juice of ½ a lime
Handful of coriander leaves

Flour or corn tortillas
Sour cream
Grated cheese

Fajita spice paste:
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1½ tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp oregano
1-2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion granules
5 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp smoked paprika (hot or sweet)
1 x 390g carton chopped tomatoes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp tomato puree

To make the spice paste: Using a spice grinder or pestle and mortar crush the coriander, cumin and mustard seeds along with the oregano to a fine powder. Put the oil into a medium saucepan and add all the spices, then place over a medium heat and cook for several minutes, stirring almost constantly until it smells aromatic and has turned a shade darker. Watch it like a hawk, as the spices can go from delicious to scorched very suddenly. As soon as the spice paste is as intense as it can be without getting burnt, tip in the tomatoes – watch out, it may spit a bit! Stir in the remaining paste ingredients, stir well then leave to simmer for 20-25 minutes until it has formed a thick smooth-ish sauce, use a splatter guard if you have one as it can splutter furiously. Decant into a sterilised 400ml jar and once cool store in the fridge until needed.

When you come to make your fajitas, get your accompaniments ready first, as once you start the fajitas are as quick to make as any other stir-fry. Assemble the pico de gallo by simply stirring everything together and seasoning to taste, and get your cheese grated and your tortillas warmed. When you are ready to start cooking, slice the chicken or steak and the pepper into slim strips, and finely slice the onion. In a large frying pan or wok gently heat the fajita spice paste with a teaspoon of vegetable oil, just until it starts to smell aromatic, then add the sliced meat and toss to coat. As soon as the meat starts to lose its raw appearance turn the heat up high and throw in the peppers and onion. Cook, stirring regularly, until the meat is cooked through and the vegetables have softened just slightly (you want them to retain their crunch). Serve immediately with the tortillas, pico de gallo and any other accompaniments that take your fancy.

Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge

My ultimate hot ‘Buffalo’ wings and blue cheese dip

Ultimate hot Buffalo wings and blue cheese dipLook good don’t they?  Juicy, saucy, yet crispy….I love hot wings but so often find that you can either have them crispy, or saucy, not both; and unless you’re deep-frying them saucy usually means the skin is all soft and flabby which frankly, doesn’t appeal.  This recipe uses that top American trick with poultry – brining – to impart flavour into the meat and also, crucially, to keep the meat juicy when baked at the high temperatures needed to create a lovely crisp, dry skin which is normally impossible without deep-frying them.  To further encourage a crisp exterior I toss the wings in gram flour, which crisps beautifully when the wings are introduced to the hot fat in the baking dish, and also tastes much nicer than regular wheat flour.

‘Buffalo’ hot wings with creamy blue cheese dip
Serves 2 greedily

900g-1kg chicken wings
1/2 x 148ml bottle Frank’s red hot sauce
25g gram flour
1 tsp cayenne
15g butter

For the brine:
1 litre water
3 tbsp sea salt
3 tbsp chilli flakes

For the creamy blue cheese dip:
100g soft blue cheese (e.g. creamy gorgonzola)
100g sour cream
1 small garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 rounded tbsp mayonnaise
pinch salt

First make the brine by dissolving the salt in the water (this is easiest if you dissolve the salt first in a splash of boiling water, then top up with cold water), then stir in the chilli flakes.  Immerse your chicken wings in the brine, ensuring they are completely covered – weigh them down with a small plate if necessary – and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.

Meanwhile, make your blue cheese dip: simply place all the ingredients in a mini food  processor or in a tall jug with a stick blender, and process until smooth.  Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas 6 and place a large roasting dish in the oven to heat at the same time – the dish must be large enough to take the wings in a single layer.

When the oven is hot and the wings are brined,  add a large spoonful of fat – schmaltz, lard or ghee are best, to maximise flavour, but vegetable oil will do – to the hot roasting dish, and return to the oven to get piping hot. Drain, rinse & pat dry your brined wings. In a large bowl toss them in 2 tbsp of the hot sauce then in the flour and cayenne. Carefully place the wings in the hot fat, skin-side down and bake for 50mins-1hour until tender and crisp, turning once (carefully – the skin is fragile!).

In a small saucepan or in a microwave very briefly heat the butter with the remaining  hot sauce until the butter is just melted, then pour over the crispy baked wings and toss well to coat.  Serve with the blue cheese dip and lots of napkins. Go Nicks!

This is my entry for round 5 of the Sweet Heat Chilli Challenge – Game food.

Sweet heat chilli challenge

How to cook like Heston? – Ultimate cheese sauce for lasagne

Ahh, Heston Blumenthal, a name that divides opinion more sharply than probably almost any other in the food world. Love him or loathe him (I blame the snail porridge for 99% of the haters) you can’t escape him these days, between Waitrose adverts, the ongoing debate about the merits of Dinner, scandals in the press and his various TV projects. I’d planned to try some of the recipes from Heston’s latest series anyway, and with a chance to win a tour of his lab on offer at lovefood what did I have to lose? I threw caution to the wind and rolled up my sleeves to melt cheese according to his ‘groundbreaking’ method.

How to cook like Heston? - Ultimate cheese sauce for lasagneHeston does a couple of variations on his cheese sauce (one involves infusing parmesan rinds into the wine, which I wished I’d remembered as I have a freezer full of the things) , all of which make quite a small amount, so I used a double quantity of the recipe as done for cauliflower cheese. As with other recipes of Mr Blumenthal’s I’ve tried (spag bol, chilli con carne, chicken tikka masala, all from the In Search of Perfection series), I’ve found that the predominant problem for home cooks is not actually the techniques, or even the availability of the ingredients, but the cost, and once again I was blown away with how much money he assumes the average Joe (even the average foodie Joe) is willing to spend on dinner at home. Reducing nearly a whole bottle of good quality wine (there’s no point using a cheap bottle – it’ll taste like rancid vinegar by the time it’s reduced sufficiently) to make half a pint of cheese sauce feels like a painful extravagance to me, particularly given the current economic climate (which I must assume is not affecting Bray).


Heston Blumenthal’s ultimate cheese sauce (adapted from the original)
This double quantity made enough sauce for a lasagne to feed 6.

1 litre quality chicken stock
600ml white wine
240g grated cheese (two-thirds hard cheese, one-third soft goat’s)
40g cornflour
40g sour cream (Heston uses soft cheese but I didn’t have any)
Knob of butter

First reduce your chicken stock to 400ml in a small pan (if you do it in a large pan you’ll be cleaning burnt stock off the sides for weeks). In a separate, even smaller pan, reduce the white wine to 60ml. This takes quite a while so get it started nice and early, but make sure it is still warm when you continue to the next step.

Add the reduced wine to the reduced stock. Mix the grated cheeses and cornflour then stir into the liquid on a low heat until melted (following Heston’s advice as given on the show I added the hard cheese first, then when that was melted I added the goat’s cheese, which just as he said doesn’t melt totally). Finally stir in the knob of butter and the sour cream/soft cheese.


Is it worth it? Read on to find out if you should be cooking cheese like Heston….

Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauce

The provenance of this recipe is quite mixed – the leeks are of course quintessentially British, the soy and ginger in the dip are very Chinese (as is my accompaniment of egg fried rice), but I’ve added a touch of Vietnam too with the white peppercorns – a pungent and aromatic spice that is so different from regular black pepper, and which instantly transports me with memories of my honeymoon.  The result is, I think, a very happy fusion and quite unlike anything I’ve had in any restaurant, whether it be Chinese, Vietnamese or any other.

Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauceMaking these gyoza is super-easy if – like me – you keep a packet of gyoza ‘skins’ or wrappers in the freezer. Commercially sold gyoza skins are so much thinner than anything you can make at home and are perfect for quick steamed dumplings like these (though if you want to pan-fry these you could of course make up a batch of your favourite dough – I like Ken Hom’s recipe). The wrappers take half an hour or so to defrost at room temperature (during which time you can be making the filling and the dipping sauce), but be sure to keep them under a damp cloth to stop them drying out.

Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauce
Serves 4-6

550g minced pork (absolutely NOT the kind sold as ‘lean’ – it’s essential to have fat in there or the dumplings will be too dry)
1 large leek, finely diced
2 tbsp finely diced fresh ginger
1 tbsp white peppercorns, freshly ground
2 spring onions, finely diced
1 tbsp sea salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
35-40 gyoza wrappers (I use Imperial Dragon brand, bought from Wing Yip), defrosted if frozen

For the dipping sauce:
125ml rice vinegar
75g caster sugar
2cm ginger, finely diced or grated
2 spring onions, finely diced
1 hot red chilli, finely diced (a scotch bonnet, though not authentic, is tastiest, use a birdseye chilli – seeds and all – for a more traditional flavour)
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp fish sauce
juice of 1 lime

Start the dipping sauce first, as the gyoza are actually very quick to make. Start by dissolving the sugar with the vinegar in a small saucepan over a low heat, then increase the heat and simmer vigorously until it has reduced by about a third and is quite syrupy. Allow this to cool then stir in the remaining ingredients.

For the gyoza, simply mix together all the filling ingredients, then assemble them one at a time (to stop them drying out too much) by placing a heaped spoonful of filling in the centre of each gyoza wrapper, running a wet finger around the edge (this becomes the ‘glue’), then folding over into a semi-circle and pressing together gently to seal, expelling any air as you go. Place them on a baking tray and keep them covered whilst you do the rest. They keep for a day in the fridge, tightly covered with clingfilm, or they freeze well. To cook, line a large steamer basket with a sheet of greaseproof paper and lay the gyoza onto it in a single layer, not touching each other (they stick easily). Steam for 4-5 minutes until the pork is just cooked through – it is important not to overcook them as the filling will become bouncy and tough rather than tender and meltingly soft.

This recipe makes around 35-40 dumplings, a generous 4 portions if accompanied by rice and pickles, or they will obviously serve more if you are having them alone as a starter.  I served them with egg fried rice and some speedy carrot & cucumber pickles, the recipes of which will follow soon…..


Asparagus and super-easy Hollandaise sauce

Asparagus & Hollandaise sauceNothing signifies the return of summer cooking to me more than the first of the new season’s asparagus. That first plate of green delights from our British fields tells me it is time to put the cassoulets and hotpots away, and bring in light pasta dishes and salads.

Although a touch early (the British asparagus season is usually from the end of April-early July), I did indeed have that first dish of new season asparagus this weekend, the first cutting of the year, taken that morning. There is only one approach to take with asparagus at the beginning of the season and that is ‘keep it simple’ –  either drizzle it with molten butter, or dip it in luscious hollandaise. Later in the month I might start getting creative with tarts and pasta, but for now I want my asparagus whole, and mostly unadorned.

Lightly boil or steam your asparagus, and the freshest spears will need mere minutes. Then whip up a batch of my insanely easy hollandaise sauce, based on a recipe given to my father more than fifty years ago and still a family favourite, then devour – preferably with one’s fingers rather than knife and fork.

Easy Hollandaise Sauce
Serves 4 as an accompaniment

3 egg yolks
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp sea salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
110g melted butter

Put all the ingredients except the butter into a blender or liquidiser and process briefly until mixed. Keeping the motor running, very slowly pour in the melted butter and continue to blend until foamy. Serve immediately.

Hot blue cheese sauce with bacon, honey and thyme (to accompany sprouting broccoli)

Hot blue cheese sauce with bacon, honey & thyme (to accompany sprouting broccoli)Purple-sprouting broccoli is one of my favourite seasonable vegetables, and it’s just as well that it’s seasonal, ‘cos if it was available year-round I’d eat it with this sauce more often, and would consequently be the size of a house. As I’ve mentioned previously on my post about Blue Vinny tart, this sauce is the lovechild of two early River Cottage recipes to accompany sprouting broccoli – crème fraiche with honey and thyme, and hot blue cheese & bacon. It really is divine, and as well as turning a plate of broccoli into a substantial lunch or supper, it is delicious tossed through pasta (with or without the broccoli!).

Originally devised with Dorset Blue Vinny, this sauce is just as good when made with a good Stilton, or even some Shropshire blue (though the colour will be rather different!).  If you want to make this dish vegetarian it still tastes yummy without the bacon, but bear in mind that many blue cheeses (the good ones anyway) are made with rennet, which is an animal product – you may need to shop around a bit to find one without it.

Hot blue cheese sauce with bacon, honey & thyme (to accompany sprouting broccoli)

Hot blue cheese sauce with bacon, honey & thyme

NB. This sauce isn’t what you’d call low-fat and it’s not meant to be. Don’t be tempted to use low-fat crème fraiche, as heating the sauce high enough to melt the cheese can cause reduced fat products to split and go grainy.

3 rashers smoked streaky bacon
1½ tbsp thyme leaves, finely chopped
2 tsp honey
300ml crème fraiche
100g blue cheese, crumbled

Finely dice the bacon and fry it in a small saucepan with a little olive oil for a minute or two until just cooked but not yet crisp. Add the chopped thyme and honey, stir well and fry for another minute or two until the bacon is crispy and the herby aromas are released.

Stir in the crème fraiche (be careful – it may splutter!) and heat through gently before stirring in the blue cheese. Keep stirring on a low heat until the cheese has melted into a lovely smooth creamy sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary (some blue cheeses are saltier than others, it may need none), serve immediately.  The sauce thickens quickly as it cools, but thins out again if reheated gently and whisked.

Makes enough for four people to dunk a generous portion of sprouting broccoli, or to coat pasta for six.