James Whelan Butchers: Down Mexico Way

Despite the incessant rain, the wind and the very unseasonal weather, in true Irish spirit I declare that it is the summer. You may still have to wear your wellies and a raincoat in order to use that shiny new bucket and shovel at the beach, but wear them we will in order to indulge in a little sandcastle building. It’s the summer and we eat ice cream and build sandcastles in the summer!

Mexican beef tacosWith the longer days my tastes change accordingly. There is nothing I enjoy more than a steak with fried onions and a huge plate of salad. I like rocket leaves mixed with handfuls of fresh chopped coriander and after that, whatever salad vegetables are to hand; red onions and a little cucumber are always good. I just love the taste of peppery rocket punctuated with the distinctive and aromatic flavour of feathery fresh coriander. The other evening I added a new side to my simple summer steak. I found two ripe avocados in the fridge with a red pepper and some spring onions. I chopped the pepper small and onions small, mashed the avocados and mixed the two with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a little seasoning. A simple guacamole, my mixed salad and a perfectly cooked steak covered in soft delicious fried onions; paradise on a plate. The guacamole was such a hit that it has now become an integral part of the dish. Everything was cooked or assembled from fresh food, it took a total of around 15 minutes to prepare and it was a feast fit for a king. Who said great food had to be complicated?

The guacamole got me thinking about Mexican food in general. I am sometimes cautious due to their love of myriad different types of chilli pepper, but the overall Mexican flavours are delicious and, if you are cooking at home, the chilli content can be controlled. Just because a recipe calls for forty of the hottest chillies around, doesn’t mean I have to put them in!

Interestingly much of the food we take for granted today was largely unknown in the western world until Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas in the 16th century. Corn, tomatoes, peppers of all kinds, beans, courgettes, avocado, chocolate, vanilla and even turkeys were unknown. They were all found in Mexico. It has a long standing tradition with agriculture and historians reckon Mexico’s agricultural history is around the same age as the ancient Middle Eastern culture of cultivating crops.

While Mexico is famous for hot and spicy flavours and tomato based dishes there are other much more subtle dishes in the Mexican repertoire. If you are going to look at traditional Mexican recipes then I suggest you have a vague knowledge of chillies and peppers, because they are used a lot in Mexican food. There are many, many varieties of chilli in particular, but the common fresh green ones are serrano, jalapeno and poblano; these are all quite hot. The habanero is small and the hottest chilli known to man! That comes in red and green. If you are using dried chillies then a mild one is ‘ancho’ and a very hot chilli is chipotle. Chipotle is very popular with chefs at the moment and I’ve seen it mentioned in several recipes recently on TV and in magazines. Our common bell peppers are otherwise known as capsicums. Canned or bottled red peppers are called pimientos. Coriander is a favoured herb, while corn, tomatoes and beans are basic ingredients in many dishes. Rice also features quite heavily. Like any culture with such a rich food history there probably is no such thing as the iconic Mexican dish. Each region has its own favourites and collectively they come together to serve up the full colour fiesta that we know as Mexican favourites; tortillas, quesadillas (which are filled tortillas), my own favourite chimichangas and the famous Mexican taco.Guacamole

However having not been brought up in a Mexican kitchen it may be a little daunting to try and recreate the flavours to an authentic standard. I suggest instead that you look and seek inspiration and add those notes and tones of Mexico to your own favourite dishes for something little different. Try a basic chilli con carne which translates simply as ‘chilli with meat’. The right spices, some mince and a tin of red kidney beans makes for a tasty yet inexpensive supper. Take a basic flour tortilla, fill with your favourite cheese filling, fold over and fry on a pan for a quick quesadilla. These make excellent snacks for hungry children just in from school or play. Like many countries, Mexico also has its own version of meatballs. In fact meatballs the world over are pretty standard, it’s the sauces that create the uniqueness. In Mexico a mix of pork and beef mince are the basis, with onion, breadcrumb, oregano, cumin salt and pepper. The sauce is hot. It is prepared in a similar way to an Italian tomato sauce but the obvious difference is the addition of a chopped hot chipotle chilli.

The sun may not be shining outside but we can have sunshine on our plates by using a little imagination. For more inspiration drop by James Whelan Butchers in the Oakville Shopping Centre or Monkstown, Co. Dublin or why not visit us online where you’ll find us open 24/7.

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

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