Stef’s Trip to Mexico! (and New York)

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Me and my husband Nick, recently managed to get away for 10 days. Mexico was top of our list as it’s one of our favourite places. We absolutely love the country, the weather, the beaches, the people, the wildlife, but more importantly THE FOOD. Anyone who knows me will know that I have a bit of an addiction to Mexican food and have done for some time. But as we wanted to make the most of our time, we decided to squeeze in 3 days in New York first, in the hope that we’d have a relaxing 7 days in Mexico afterwards (wishful thinking) – more on this later!

Top of our list was a restaurant some friends had recommended. ‘Nick and Stef’s Steakhouse’ – I mean, it would be rude not to, right?! So glad we did, the food was great. Nick had the ‘Nick Burger’ (obviously) and I opted for the chicken chop chop salad (after a few days of American overindulgence I felt like I needed it!) Would really recommend this place, and definitely have a Vanilla New York Cheesecake too – amazing!

nick burger nick and stefs salad

So, our highlights of New York. I would really recommend taking a walk through all 3 of these places:

1 Central Park – might sound obvious, but I don’t think I imagined how amazing it would be!

2 Brooklyn – loads to see and do. Make sure you go to Grimaldi’s – THE best pizza I’ve tasted, even if you do have to queue to get in!

3 Chinatown – so much going on there. Street markets, fresh fish stalls, and even taekwando practise in the park!

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As it was our first trip, we obviously did lots of research of all the best attractions, best restaurants and best neighbourhoods to take a stroll in. There was just so much we wanted to see and do, so we hoped we could just walk around all day and see all of these amazing things in 3 days…which we did…and by the end of day 3 we were just.so.tired. So off we set to Mexico, Playa Del Carmen in the Yucatan Peninsula, for a beautifully relaxed 7 days, or that was the plan anyway, but after a few hours attempting to get a tan, on the beach, with a margarita we decided we weren’t ‘lie down on the beach all day’ kind of people anymore and set ourselves up for another few days of craziness!

First up was Coba. These Mayan ruins are set in deep thick jungle, only accessible by bike. You can still climb the ruins here and the view from the top was breathtaking. It was really interesting learning about the ancient Mayans and the Mayan calendar -we were told many things along this trip, although I’m not too sure how true they all are… Mayans are believed to be descendants of Mongolia, Mayans use lots of salt in cooking as it’s a sign of wealth and also invented chewing gum (I can totally understand why after eating Mexican breakfasts every day!)

On the way back we stopped for some lunch. Lovely tortilla soup made with cornmeal and tomatoes topped with fried ancho chillies and cheese, and one of my all time favourites Pibil chicken – slowly roasted in banana leaves, marinated in sour orange juice, herbs, spices and annatto seeds to give it a lovely red colour.

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soup  pibil

Next up, we had researched the best place to go for authentic street food in the area. El Fogon (meaning ‘the stove’) was apparently the place to go. The waiter recommended we try the chorizo and cheese tacos, so we ordered these along with chicken tacos, nachos and guacamole (obviously, we are in Mexico after all!) The food came with some great accompaniments, an ancho salsa, a deliciously hot habanero pico de gallo and nopales – cooked cactus paddles (for those who are wondering, it tasted to me like a meaty green bean! Worth a try!) It was all some of the best, messiest but most simple food I have ever tasted! (The pictures really don’t do it justice, you’ll just have to take my word for it!) I will be doing a post on some PROPER Mexican nachos soon – so good.

el fogon

chicken

guacamole

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On our supermarket trip, we were amazed by the quantity and quality of the fresh produce. There were mountains of avocados of varying ripeness which were just SO cheap. There were some new vegetables to me. Jicama (mexican yam – texture and taste is a bit like a savoury melon? Apparently, the next new superfood…), chayote (a type of squash) and this funny shaped unidentified green squash looking vegetable at the end (if anyone knows, let me know! Looks interesting!)

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It was our 3rd wedding anniversary while we were there, and we chose this day to visit the beautiful Tulum ruins overlooking the beach. However, we got a bit lost and ended up walking for miles through a road in the jungle, but we did enjoy seeing lots of great nature, iguanas and Yucatan jays! We eventually found ourselves at a much needed beach bar, where we spent some time sampling a few Mexican beers!

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There’s so many more tasty things to tell you about from this holiday, including some traditional Mayan food specialities, but I am trying to hold back so I can test out some of these recipes at home myself and share them with you (hopefully this will keep me occupied enough to stop me booking a flight back to Mexico immediately!!)

 

Wild garlic & cheese scones with ‘gathered’ salad

You must try this!

I love this time of the year (when it’s not raining!). Go out for a walk and everything is bursting into life.

Foraging is in my blood, my Dad’s grandmother had Romany gypsy roots and taught him about the edible things that were safe to eat when they went for walks. My Dad passed that on to me and I love the walks I have with my own children which enable me to give them a taste of ‘living off the land’.

We went out and about today to try and gather some very simple wild food for us to enjoy when we got home (with lots of wayside snacks along the way!)

We found a huge bank of wild garlic which we started to gather, along with our first snacks to see us along the rest of our adventure.

A whole ‘field’ of wild garlic!

The smell of wild garlic is really pungent and you’d think that the leaves would taste really strongly of garlic. You’d be wrong – it’s a very mild taste. A cross between spinach and chives which you can add wherever you’d add these well known herbs would be used. Great in omelettes, quiche, pesto, dressings etc.

Wild garlic flowers are the thing that I like best about this time of the year. They are delicious! Each little white flower is a concentrated tiny bomb of garlic flavour. They taste like a cross between a fresh very sweet pea and garlic. They’re much stronger than the leaves and are quite hot. If you like watercress – you’ll love the lovely white flowers of wild garlic. Good to munch as you walk along.

The new tender leaves of the hawthorne were shiny next to the buds that had just started to form. Both the leaves and the buds are a lovely snack and part of our salad. The older leaves aren’t so good (they just taste of ‘green’). The buds have an astringent quality to them, the same as the berries when they appear.

The new leaves, buds and flowers of the hawthorne are edible

Next we found some Jack by the Hedge.

Jack by the hedge or Garlic Mustard as it’s sometimes known

This is a useful addition to a salad as the leaves bulk out the other things that you might have. It’s supposed to have a ‘garlicky’ taste, but it’s not as overtly garlic as you may think. You may pick up a hint of garlic in some of the younger leaves, but other than that it’s pretty much the same as raw spinach but a bit sweeter. The flowers on the other hand have a much punchier flavour and are quite spicy. The seed pods when they form are a great wayside snack and do have a garlic taste.

Everyone knows about Goose grass (or Cleavers and it’s also known). It’s the thing that children throw at each other because it sticks to clothing. It’s covered in tiny hairs which cause it to ‘stick’ onto anything that it touches which means that the older growth is difficult to eat raw and can get stuck in your throat, so it’s best avoided. It can be cooked as spinach which makes the hairs disappear. But if you want to eat it in a salad, just choose the very top new growth, it has a lovely fresh pea taste which is ideal in salads. I’ve heard that you can dry and grind the seeds which make a kind of coffee, but I’ve never tried that myself.

Goose Grass/Cleavers. Just pick the top new sprouting growth to eat in a salad.

We stumbled upon lots and lots of wonderful Wood Sorrel which is a magical find and normally only happens every so often to me. Today we saw it everywhere!

A patch of Wood Sorrel

It has a zingy lemon flavour which makes it a wonderful addition to salad or just as a garnish to fish or chicken. It’s a lot like sherbet and the flavour becomes apparent after giving it a good chew – you won’t notice anything if you give a couple of chews and then swallow! It’s a very ‘trendy’ wild food and something that you would definitely find it on the menu at the best Michelin starred restaurants. You should be careful not to take the whole plant. Just take what you need and leave the rest for another day. It doesn’t transfer well to other soil and it’s a shame to move it somewhere else when it’s obviously so happy where it is.

Wood Sorrel

We headed home to feast on our bounty, discussing what to do with it all on the journey. We came up with Wild Garlic scones with cheese. We happened to have some feta that needed using up and the pairing was genius!

Wild Garlic Scones with Feta 

In a food processor (or large bowl) add 150g plain flour and 50g wholemeal flour (or any combination of the two, making up 200g), 2 tsp mustard powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar and 2tsp baking powder.

Add 50g soft butter and whizz until it disappears or rub in. If using a food processor, empty the whizzed mixture into a large bowl.

Chop 150 – 200g cheese (your choice, I used 120g feta and 50g strong cheddar) cut into 1cm cubes. Add the cheese to the large bowl and stir around.

Add around 10-15 leaves of wild garlic (washed, dried and cut into strips) to the bowl and stir around. You can add more wild garlic if you want to, but don’t overdo it. I also added the flowers from around 5 stems, just to intensify the garlic flavour.

In a jug/mug/bowl whisk 1 large egg and 2tblsp plain yogurt and stir into the dry mixture. You need to make a slightly sticky dough so you may need to use upto another 2 tbslp plain yogurt. Add it 1 tblsp at a time so that the dough doesn’t get too wet.

Tip out onto a well floured surface and roll out to about 2-3 cm thick.

Rolled out dough

Cut into rounds with a glass or cutter, or pat the dough into circles if you prefer. The dough will make around 8-12 depending on the size of cutter.

Bake in a hot oven 210C or 190C fan, Gas 7 for around 10-15 minutes or until golden.

Wild Garlic and Cheese scones
Wild Garlic and Cheese scones

The only thing left to do is to assemble the salad, making sure to add lots of the lovely white wild garlic flowers for extra punch! A drizzle of olive oil and your favourite vinegar (we used some dandelion vinegar made a couple of weeks ago!) and you’re in heaven!

Gathered salad

 

Corn Tortilla

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Stef has been telling me all about how good the authentic corn tortilla taste in Mexico, hot from the pan and so I thought we should all be able to experience them, in the comfort of our own homes!

You’ll need to find Masa Harina flour which is flour that is made out of corn. DON’T use the type of cornflour that you get in the baking section at supermarkets that you’d use for thickening, or putting into shortbread – it’s completely different! Also, don’t use polenta as that’s also different. You can find Masa Harina on line or from some delis.

There is no gluten in corn which means that if you grind it up, it won’t stick together to become a dough. It has to go through a process in which lime is added to the cooked, soaked corn so that when it’s dried and ground, it will form a dough when water is added.

 

You will need:

2 cups of masa harina flour

2 tsp oil

1/2 tsp salt

 

In a large bowl add the flour, oil and salt.

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Add 1 1/2 cups of hot/warm water (you may need a little more or less) to the dough and squish it all through your fingers to mix. It’s best not to use a spoon as you get a feel for how the dough should be. As you squish it, you’ll find it’s not like normal dough – it seems a little ‘cleaner’, in that it doesn’t stick as readily to your fingers. Keep mixing until the dough is soft and feels exactly like play-doh (I think it smells similar too!). Put into a plastic bag and leave for 15 minutes so that the corn can absorb the water.

After 15 minutes, take the dough out of the bag and check that it still feels like play-doh. If it’s a little firmer add a splash more water and squish it through with your hands until it’s mixed in. Don’t be afraid to add more water, the secret with this dough is to keep it soft. You can always add a little more masa harina if you’ve gone too far with the water. It should look like this:

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Take a large, good quality zip lock bag and cut it open, so that you have to pieces of plastic. Take a small golf ball sized piece of dough and roll it into a ball and put on top of one piece of the plastic. Cover with the other piece of plastic and squash down.

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Roll out the dough through the plastic. If you try and roll the dough without a plastic covering it will just stick to the rolling pin. You can’t dust with flour to stop it sticking because it makes the dough too dry. You can use a tortilla press to make the process quicker, but I think you can roll the tortilla more thinly this way, which gives more of a chance of your tortilla puffing up during cooking. Heat a frying pan (non stick if possible) up over medium heat while you’re rolling out your dough. Don’t add oil to the pan.

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Peel the rolled tortilla off the sheet of plastic (it may tear if you’ve rolled it too thinly, in which case you need to squash the dough together and start again) onto your hands and put it onto the hot dry frying pan.

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The tortilla should start to cook at the edges straight away, you’ll see the tortilla start to whiten. If you’re lucky, you’ll then see that it starts to puff up. This is ideal (though certainly not essential) as it cooks the dough thoroughly in the middle. You can encourage this puffing up by pressing firmly with a fish slice all over the tortilla. Keep looking under the tortilla until you see brown speckles forming and then turn it over.

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Keep pressing down on the tortilla with the fish slice so that the other side cooks evenly and to encourage puffing. When you have brown speckles form on the side nearest the pan, you can take it out. Put in foil to keep them warm and serve straight away.

If you have any left, you can brush them with oil, sprinkle with cheese and bake them in the oven to make home style Doritos!

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Roast Cauliflower Bhaji

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I love cauliflower and I especially love the taste of roast cauliflower. I’m always looking for ways to use up the huge trays of them that I bring home from market. Last night I wanted a side dish to go with the Lamb Saag that I’d cooked for dinner (side dishes are something that I can never decide on!) and my experiment turned into something that was totally delicious. If you’re looking for a seasonal side dish for tonight – please give it a go!

The word ‘bhaji’ can mean something mixed with gram flour and spices before it’s crisply fried, or it can mean a vegetable dish that has a small amount of sauce clinging to the vegetables. My version is roast rather than being made in a saucepan and is really quick to do.

Roast Cauliflower Bhaji

Serves 2-3 as a side dish. Preheat the oven 200C 180C fan Gas 7

225g cauliflower (about half a medium one)

1/2 a small onion cut finely into half moons

A handful of cherry tomatoes cut in half OR 2 large, sliced

Spice mixture 1: 1tsp ground coriander, 1tsp ground cumin, 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1/2 tsp chilli powder, 1 tsp salt. (buy these spices on our Ebay shop here)

Spice mixture 2: 1/2 tsp mustard seeds, 1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds and 1-2 whole dried red chillies broken into three pieces – leave these out if you want less heat. (buy these spices on our Ebay shop here)

3cm piece of ginger

Cut the cauliflower into florets that are quite small about 5cm long by 4cm wide – try to keep some stem attached to them so that they don’t break up. Spread out onto a baking tray. Don’t forget to add any young green leaves to the pan, too!
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Put onion on the tray with the cauliflower.

Put the tomatoes on the tray with the cauliflower and onions.

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Put all of Spice Mixture 1 in a bowl and add 4tblsp water on top of them and mix thoroughly. As evenly as possible, pour this over the vegetables on the tray and mix around until coated.

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Peel and cut finely the ginger into strips. Set aside.

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In a small saucepan, add 3-4 tblsp flavourless oil and set over medium heat. Add the seeds and dried chilli (if using). As soon as the mustard seeds begin to pop, turn off the heat and add the finely cut ginger. Stir well.

As evenly as possible pour the contents of the saucepan over the vegetables and stir around until they’re all coated.

Place in the oven and cook for 10 minutes before getting the tray out and gently stirring everything around. Put back in the oven for another 10 minutes or until the cauliflower is cooked through and is starting to go crispy in places and the onions are golden. Serve as a side dish with your favourite curry, or add a drained can of chickpeas to the tray with the tomatoes, to make a lovely veggie dish.

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