Friday, September 17, 2010

the chilli project, part I: productive nostalgia

One of the most memorable meals of my life was eaten at a pit stop during an overnight bus trip through the Sierra Madre in Mexico. In the early hours of some anonymous morning, we tumbled down the steep stairs of the coach and into the desert. I remember looking around with weary eyes and seeing nothing. But at the very same time it was everything; everything that cinema had conjured for me over the years – and suddenly I was standing right in the centre of it. In this moment, I was inside cinema.

Fellow travellers bought coca-cola in small glass bottles, rubbed their eyes and smoked cigarettes. Some of us ate. Beside the register a woman stood behind a metal drum that’d been fixed up into a kind of grill and beside it on the table were plates of pulled meat and chorizo, little containers of pico de gallo and salsa verde. There was a bowl of rice – grainy and tinged pink with roasted tomato – covered with an upturned sieve to keep bugs out. There was a plate of whole fried chillies of a kind I’d never seen and a pile of tortillas wrapped loosely in a dishcloth. We stood there and realised that sleep deprivation had devoured our paltry Spanish and the woman looked at us and knew, so she made us something to eat.

On the top of the drum she flipped tortillas in slow motion, while warming a couple of the chillies and when they were ready, she put spoonfuls of rice onto the centre of the tortillas and topped them with a chilli, pulling out the stem before wrapping the whole thing up and handing it over on a little Styrofoam plate. Too tired to care what it was (or so we thought) we sat down and bit into one of the most awesome things we’d ever encountered: a burrito filled with Mexican rice and chiles rellenos.

What I couldn’t have known standing there, hungry and almost too tired to eat, was that these were ancho poblano chillies that had been grilled whole over an open flame until the skin blistered and blackened. Once peeled, a little slit had been made in each so that the chilli could be stuffed with queso fresco – a fresh white cheese something between ricotta and haloumi. Once resealed, it had been dusted in flour and dipped into a batter lightened with beaten egg whites before being fried. The batter became this super-crispy shell encasing the meaty pepper that was sweet, but with a little kick and the whole thing became the house for the molten and slightly squeaky, salty cheese centre. I could go on, because Lord. It. Was. Good.

So of course I set about making these as soon as I got home, but I realised quickly that the ancho chilli is not something you can get here (unless you want it dried, in which case click here). I experimented with different kinds of peppers, some hot, some sweet, but it just wasn’t the same. So this year, I’m growing my own. Maybe you should too?

Friday, September 10, 2010

sides as mains II: golden fried artichokes

I wish I wasn't so lazy. If I wasn't, I'd cook artichokes more often. I'd especially cook them like this. Artichokes dusted with a little flour, fried until golden and served sprinkled with salt and a squeeze of lemon - these are found often on the Greek dinner table when in season. I had a craving for them this week so bought three big artichokes from the market and proceeded to procrastinate cleaning and cooking them for the whole week. But the food-wasting guilt built up, so I sat down earlier this evening with knife in hand, over a lurid blue bowl of acidulated water and carved those babies up. Like most things you I procrastinate doing, it took less than half the time I thought it would. And it was so worth it.

If you've never cleaned artichokes before, they can be a bit intimidating. After all, they're spiky, armored things and one of the oldest continually cultivated vegetables known to man. So before you decide to do this, you should know that when parboiled, dusted and fried, artichokes become something close to the ultimate vegetable; the outside leaves separate a little and transform into the crispiest chip-like petals that encase the vegetable's tender centre that is sweet, clean and slightly nutty. I hope you're convinced.

Not yet? Maybe if you think about how the sprinkle of sea salt on these hot, crispy chippies amplifies the deliciousness by another 100%, and then how the squeeze of lemon adds zing and freshness, balancing out the richness of the fried crispy coating. Did I mention that I've upped the nuttiness here and given these a super-fine extra-crispy coating by replacing the regular flour with besan, otherwise known as chickpea flour? So this is totally worth it.

There's great instructions with pictures here for preparing artichokes. Before beginning, fill a bowl with water and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. You can throw the lemon in as well. Save the other half - you'll need it to rub the cut sections of the artichokes to stop them from going brown. Make sure you're using a sharp knife, otherwise this can be a dangerous operation! You might be shocked at how much of the vegetable you end up throwing away, but rest assured that the rest is inedible and the middle is worth it! What you're left with you can bake, braise or boil. After this you can grill them or make them into an ace gratin. They're really good with eggs, cheese, thyme, peas, bacon, homemade mayonnaise or aioli. Or you could dust them with besan and fry until crispy and golden, as below.

Golden fried artichokes

3 artichokes, cleaned and halved
1 lemon, halved
1/2 cup of besan (chickpea) or plain all-purpose flour
light olive oil, to shallow fry
sea salt

1. Squeeze one lemon half into a saucepan of water and bring to a rapid boil. Drop in artichoke halves and cook for around 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but soft (poke with the end of a knife to test this). Drain into a colander and let cool. This step can be done ahead of time, if necessary.
2. Heat olive oil in a deep frying pan until hot (not smoking). Meanwhile, toss artichokes halves in flour on a plate. Tap to remove excess.
3. Fry artichokes until golden on both sides. Transfer when done to a paper-lines plate to drain.
4. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste and serve with lemon wedges.
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