In Search of the Perfect Taco – California – part 1

img_2857fish taco from Mercado &Taqueria De Amigos, Pascadero

On a recent road trip to California a really old article from The New York Times, caught my attention. In short, the author, Cindy Price, went on a taco trawl from San Francisco to Los Angeles sampling the tacos on offer. This appealed to me on many levels. Whilst the article was old, I absorbed the information and decided that if we happened to be near any of the places she recommended we’d check them out – if they were still in business that is.

The first place we just ‘happened’ to be driving past was a stones throw from the legendary Highway 1. We’d spent the morning exploring the beaches of Bean Hollow State Park and Pebble Beach, admiring the wild surf and trying in vain to spot a whale along the shoreline. There was a chill in the air and we were eager for some Mexican food to warm us up. California really does have many micro-climates and you only need to go a little inland and the chill from the coast dissipates.  Pescadero is a charming town so small that if you blink you’ll have passed it. There is a county store, a tea shop, a church, a bar and a couple of furniture shops and not much else. On the corner of the ‘main’ street is a garage with a small stores attached called Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos and it was here where we were assured we would find some good, honest Mexican food, and in particular tacos.

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img_2859Seeing local Mexican workers having their lunch at the tiny booths was a good sign. If it’s good enough for them then I knew I was onto a good thing. The setup was small, but the choices on offer definitely made my stomach begin to rumble.

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I first opted for the fish tacos, which had been recommended to me, my girls had chicken quesadillas (there were another couple of option boards not in photo above) and Mr B chose a burrito, as he likes something ‘more substantial’ and refried beans. As we made our way to our booth we passed the self service nacho bar accompanied by four red and green zingy and spicy salsas to choose from.

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We loaded up with our choices in little paper pots and after a short wait the food arrived.  The fish tacos were hot, freshly cooked and fragrant. I added a splash of salsa and dived in.

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There is no way to eat these in an elegant manner. You need to pick them up and disregard the looks of your dining companions as the juices dribble down your chin. Loose yourself in the moment people, seriously this is what eating is all about. If I hadn’t been so restrained I could have eaten them again and again and again, but ceviche tostadas were calling.

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The tostadas was crisp and held the ceviche in place until it reached my mouth. The zing from the lime, the creaminess of the avocado, the heat from the chilli and freshness from the fish, made this dish memorable. In fact even writing about it now is making me so hungry. Needless to say we totally loved this taqueria. It’s the type of place that you would typically drive by and never consider as a food destination, had you not been given the wink. It’s between San Francisco and Santa Cruz and is definitely worth stopping at. The portions are big and the food reasonable priced – even with our present exchange rate. Order a little and see how you get on. You can easily order more if you can squeeze in another taco or three.

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Combine it with a stop off at Harley Goat Farm, which is a few minutes drive away. Here you will be able to see a herd of about 200 goats and pick up some of their award winning goats cheese. I love the presentation of the cheeses above with their edible flowers and dried fruit. They also have a great selection of bath and body products made locally with their fresh goats milk. They also host lunches and dinners which you can attend, so check out their website for dates as these do get booked up.

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After you’ve tasted some cheese and patted some goats head back on Highway 1 and go south to Davenport where, just before entering the town, you will find Swanton Berry Farm. Here you can either go strawberry picking, jam tasting, relax over some tea and cake in their tea shop or simply pick up a jar of their delightful jams. You’ll even be able to pick up a jar of the olallieberrie jam, which I’d not come across before. Apparently olallieberries are a cross between the youngberry and the loganberry.

Before heading back to Portola Valley we couldn’t resist visiting the tasting room of Bonnie Doon, five minutes down the road in Davenport. We’d had their wines back in England and had enjoyed them immensely. The first thing you notice about them is their artistic labels which are painted by a wide range of artists.  Am sure many of my readers may recognise the labels? The friendly staff will guide you through a tasting of some of the wines, giving you an in depth overview of the wines themselves as well as the history and background of the vineyard.

Bean Hollow State Park and Pebble Beach – Highway 1 near to Pascadero (take a jumper even in August)

Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos – Pascadero

Harley Goat Farm – Pascadero

Swanton Berry Farm – just before Davenport

Bonnie Doon Tasting Room  – Davenport (please note this is the tasting room only, not the vineyard itself)


Mexican Slow Cooked Pork Cheeks With Chipotle, Polenta and Fino

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With the clocks having gone back last weekend, the nights are drawing in earlier and winter seems almost knocking at our door. With the colder months set out before us, hearty food comes into its own. It’s with this in mind that I came up with this wintery of dishes. The type of meal that you can only really do justice to after a long bracing walk. Pork cheeks, if you have never tried them before, are flakey, succulent and a real treat to have now and again. I cook them at a low temperature (130 degrees) for 3 hours, which gives a similar texture to pulled pork. I have combined them with a Mexican influenced sauce, which envelopes the pork cheeks making them irresistibly tasty.

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I have paired the dish with a glass of Fino, which cuts through the sweet, sticky richness of the pig cheeks sauce. I ordered both the pork cheeks and Fino from Basco Fine Foods, which are Spanish food importers and supplies based in Yorkshire. They have won many gourmet food accolades and have a wide selection of really tasty food and drink, perfect for the Christmas season. They are well priced and even do next day deliver, which is a real bonus.

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I have paired the pork cheeks with creamy polenta, which is the perfect partner to soak up all the tasty sauce. I know polenta divides people but please trust me when I say it really comes into its own in this dish.

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So I hope you get to give this one a go over the winter months. Let me know how you get on and if you are on instagram take a photo of it and use the #chilliandmint and tag me @chilliandmint so I can see. It comfortably feeds 6 people as you’ll find that two pig cheeks are very filling.

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Mexican Slow Cooked Pork Cheeks With Chipotle 

serves 6

3 whole dried chipotle chillies, seeds removed if you prefer it less hot

1.2 kg pork cheeks

flour for dusting

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

350g red onion, finely chopped

1 tsp salt

3 carrots, finely chopped

5 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 cinnamon stick

2 bay leaves

2 tbsp tomato puree

3 tbsp white wine vinegar

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 handful of fresh oregano

2 tbsp demerara sugar

700ml vegetable stock

50ml Fino En Rama

1/2 juice of an orange

  1. Preheat an oven to 130 degrees.
  2. Place the dried chipotle chillies in a pan of boiling water so that they are covered and simmer for 30 mins.
  3. Place some plain flour on a plate and then dust all the pigs cheeks. Heat a large pan and add a little vegetable oil and bronze the pigs cheeks in batches. This will take a couple of minutes on each side. Place to one side to rest.
  4. In the same pan add a little more vegetable oil and add the cumin seeds followed after 20 seconds by the red onions and salt. After 5 minutes add the carrots and garlic and simmer gently for a further 5 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile drain the chipotle and remove any seeds. Using a blender, blend them into a smooth paste.
  6. Add the cinnamon stock, bay leaves, tomato puree, chipotle paste, both vinegars, the Fino En Rama, fresh oregano and demerara sugar.
  7. Return the pig cheeks to the pan and coat them in the sauce.
  8. Add the vegetable stock so that the pig cheeks are submerged and place them in the oven for 3 hours.

**********

Perfect Polenta

200ml milk

600ml water

1/2 tsp salt

150g powdered coarse polenta/cornmeal

1 heaped tbsp butter

  1. Heat the milk and water in a pan and add the salt.
  2. When the milk/water has boiled add the powdered polenta and whisk so that it become smooth and mixes completely with the water/milk.
  3. Whisk every few minutes, on a low heat, for 10-15 minutes so that the polenta remains smooth. Add a little more milk if you feel it is a little too thick. It will begin to come away from the sides. Taste to see if it is done and serve immediately.

Note: This post was kindly sponsored by Basco Fine Foods.

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Mexican Chilli Beef with Butternut Squash

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Mexican food is perfect when the chill sets in and yet it also lends itself well to hot, humid weather. So wherever you are based in the world at this point in time this Mexican chilli beef is a must. The warm, smokey taste from the pasilla and ancho chilli add a wonderful, addictive, depth to this dish that are well suited to the adult and child palate.

 

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If you can cook it a day in advance the flavours really open up, but if you don’t have the time or inclination try and cook it in the morning if you are going to eat it later in the day.

So you may be wondering where on earth do you get Mexican chillies? I tend to buy mine online and I personally find Melbury & Appleton have a good selection and are quick and efficient to deliver. They also provide 1kg catering packs for the serious Mexican chilli aficionados, which is perfect for when I want to make my chipotle en adobe, it also works out far more cost effective in the long run.

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This is cosy, comfort eating at it’s best and perfect to feed a crowd. Washed down with one of my brother’s ales – check out Wiper and True  (he is the True part of the name!) then you have yourself a knock out meal. Don’t go putting his ale in the dish though, it’s too good for that – use any old lager you have to hand.

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Just take a look at that tasty morsel of meat with the smokey gravy working it’s magic and the wonderful combination of dry roasted pumpkin seeds, butternut squash, raw red onion, avocado and sour cream. A match made in heaven. Seriously give it a go. You won’t regret it and I can guarantee it will become one of your firm favourites going forward.

 Mexican Chilli Beef with Butternut Squash

Adapted from a recipe ‘Beef and Squash Chilli’ in the December 2014 issue of Bon Appetit

Serves 4

1 large dried pasilla chilli (2 if it is small)

1 dried ancho chilli

700ml chicken broth/stock

2 tbsp olive oil

1kg boneless stewing steak/beef chuck, cut into bite sized pieces

 1tsp rock salt and black pepper

1 large white onion, finely chopped

8 garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp tomato puree

350ml lager

1 small (500g) butternut squash skin removed, cubed into bite sized pieces

1 lime, juice only

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To serve

2 avocado, diced into 1 inch cubes

3 tbsp pumpkin seeds, dry roasted

1 tbsp of sour cream per serving

1 red onion, finely sliced

1. First dry roast the dried chillies in a frying pan for a couple of minutes on both sides so that they darken and soften. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl with 500ml of boiling water for up to 30 minutes. Then drain and remove the stork and the seeds and place the chillies in a blender along with the chicken stock, and blend until smooth.

2. In a heavy based pan – I use my Le Creuset Pot – heat the oil and then add the seasoned stewing steak and stir at intervals until the redness has gone and the meat becomes brown. This will take around 5-7 minutes. When the beef is brown take it out of the pan using a slotted spoon and place on a plate. There will be a fair amount of liquid that has come from the beef. Once the beef has been removed, turn up the heat so that the liquid evaporates. This will only take a couple of minutes.

3. Once the pan has become dry, add the onion. You may find you need to add a little more oil at this stage. Stir the onion so that it becomes coated in the remnants of the beef juices, add a pinch more salt at this stage. After 4 minutes add the garlic and stir well into the onions. Let the onions and garlic cook together for a couple of minutes.

4. Add the oregano, ground cumin, tomato puree and stir together for a minute before returning the beef to the pan along with the lager. Increase the heat so that the lager begins to be absorbed. After a couple of minutes add the chilli puree that you made to begin with. Increase the heat so that it boils and then reduce it and leave to simmer gently for around 30 minutes.

5. Add the squash and continue to simmer for a further 15-20 minutes or until the squash has softened. Add the lime juice and stir gently. Leave to rest before serving.

6. Place the pumpkin seeds on a baking tray. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and then add 1 tsp of olive oil over the pumpkin seeds. Place in the oven for no more than 10 minutes, being careful to check they do not burn. Let them cool before serving.

To plate up add the Mexican chilli beef, a dollop of sour cream on the side, the roasted pumpkin seeds over the chilli beef and sour cream, a scattering of thinly sliced red onions and then a few avocado cubes. The combination of all these flavours makes for a really memorable meal.


Tlayudas – Mexican Open Pizza and Homemade Guacamole

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Homemade guacamole packs a punch well above the bought stuff.  I know this my trade mark line (yawn yawn!), but it really is a breeze to make and is so tasty you’ll be wishing you had bought more avocados. As well as being a moreish dip – I kid you not, if I leave the room with a bowl of guacamole and tortilla chips, when I return the contents of the bowl will be clean – it’s also the perfect filler for the Mexican pizza Tlayudas, pronounced something along the lines of (clae-yoo-das).

These pizzas can be made with Middle Eastern flat breads/pittas a supply of which I always have in my freezer. It’s simply a case of piling on all the ingredients, with the flat breads sitting directly on a frying pan and then folding them over slightly to give the appearance of an thick taco. You can fill the flat breads with whatever takes your fancy, however I find that guacamole; shredded, poached chicken; mozzarella; pecorino; spiced sun blushed tomatoes; spinach; tarragon and rocket really hits the spot.

Be warned eating this is not a tidy pastime. However, you can get seriously involved and at one with your food.

Let me know if you give them a whirl and leave a comment below.

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Homemade Guacamole

adapted from Thomasina Miers’s book Mexican Food Made Simple

Serves 4

1/2 a red onion, finely chopped

2 serrano green chillies (1 if you prefer it less spicy), finely chopped

3 large ripe avocados, stoned and skin removed

1-2 limes, juice

pinch of rock salt

handful  of freshly coriander, chopped

black pepper

1. After finely chopping the red onion and chillies (I tend to leave the seeds in to give it that extra kick) place them in a bowl and  mash them together a little before adding the avocado. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar I find a good sized bowl and an end of a rolling pin work really well.

2. Add the juice of one lime and stir well into the guacamole, along with the salt, pepper and the chopped coriander.

3. Taste and add the juice of a further lime if needed – down to personal choice. I love it limey so tend to add two.

4. Give a good stir and spoon into a serving bowl/dish.  Place in the fridge whilst you are preparing the ingredients for the Tlayudas. Do not prepare too far in advance as the avocado will begin to discolour.

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Tlayudas, Mexican Open Pizza

adapted from Thomasina Miers’s book Mexican Food Made Simple

Serves 4

2 chicken breasts, poached and shredded

1 large bag of spinach

1 tsp of butter

4 large Middle Eastern flat breads

a bowl of homemade guacamole, see above

2 large mozzarella balls, torn into smaller pieces

16 slow baked tomatoes with chilli 

2 handfuls of rocket

1 handful of fresh tarragon

rock salt and pepper

pecorino or cheddar cheese for grating

1. Poach the chicken (in boiling water for up to 20 mins) and then shred it using a fork.  Place to one side.

2. Place a saucepan on low heat and add the butter. Once it has melted add the washed spinach and cook for a minute until the spinach just wilts. Remove from the pan and strain the spinach, pressing down firmly with a spoon so that the water is removed as far as possible. Place to one side.

3. Heat up a large frying pan and when it is hot add a flat bread and press down gently. Sprinkle a drop of water and turn the flat bread over. Now you need to work quickly. Spoon on a generous helping of guacamole followed by the chicken, mozzarella, slow baked tomatoes in chilli, spinach, rocket, salt, pepper and some grated pecorino/cheddar.

4. The flat bread will begin to crisp up quickly and the mozzarella begin to melt, so carefully begin to fold the flat bread over. With a spatula lift the pizza onto a plate and serve immediately.

5. Repeat until everyone is served.

Dive in and enjoy. Don’t forget the napkins.


Mexican Tortilla Soup

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It’s been half term this week so until now I ‘ve not had a second to sit down and actually write a blog post. I had wanted to put up one of my ‘en papillote’ recipes, but although I ended up eating three fish meals ‘en papillote’  this week each time it was in the evening and by the time the little parcels of deliciousness came out of the oven the lighting was frankly too dark to get a good shot. Lightening or rather natural lightening is key to good food photography and whilst I am still learning I feel it is important to heed this one basic rule. When I started food blogging two years ago, virtually to the day, my food photography was pretty appalling and whilst I have not got to where I want to be quite yet, it has at least improved. This shot was taken at night and I look back at it now and cringe – in fact I think I may even re blog the recipe – Chilli Crab Linguini – with more appealing photographs as the recipe is a keeper and perfect for a midweek supper.

Anyway I digress, the recipe for today’s blog is straightforward and perfect for a light lunch. It uses a spoonful of the chipotle sauce that I blogged about a couple of months ago – hands up whose attempted to make it? I made another batch of 7 pots the other day as all the others had finished. By all means buy a ready made chipotle sauce but if you have a little bit of time (it really does not take long) I really urge you to try making your own chipotle sauce – recipe here.  The chipotle gives the soup an earthy, delicately spiced flavour – for those who have not tried chipotle chillies before they are NOT ‘blow your mind’ type of chillies but more of a smokey, gently spiced chilli that keeps you coming back for more. My seven year old loves the soup and does not find it too spicy for her palate.

Mexican Tortilla Soup

adapted from Thomasina Miers – Mexican Food Made Simple

Serves 6

4 tbsp olive oil

2 onions, sliced

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 corn tortilla, broken up

1 tbsp of chipotle sauce

2 (400g) tins of tomatoes

1 tbsp brown sugar

1 tsp fresh oregano (or dried)

1.5 litres chicken/vegetable stock

salt and pepper to taste

Garnish

2 corn tortillas, chopped into 1 inch strips

vegetable oil, for frying

4 pasilla dried chillies, deseeded and stems removed (or you could use ancho)

100g feta cheese, crumbled

handful of fresh coriander, chopped

half a lime per serving

(You can also add avocado and sour cream although I omitted them for this shoot)

1. In a large pan – I find my large casserole Le Creuset pot is perfect for this – add the olive oil and when it is hot add the onion and gently cook for around 10 minutes before adding the garlic and the broken up corn tortilla. Leave these three ingredients to cook for another five minutes.

2. Now add the chipotle sauce, brown sugar, tinned tomatoes, oregano and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Leave to cook for another 10 minutes before adding the stock and simmering for a further 10 minutes.

 3. Using a hand blender, blend the soup until smooth and then let to simmer gently for a few more minutes.

4. While the soup is simmering, place the pasilla chilles in a bowl of warm water for 10 minutes and then remove the stems and deseed. Pat dry with kitchen paper.

5. Heat up some vegetable oil in a small pan. You want to make sure that there is enough vegetable oil so that the tortilla will float on the top. I find that 200ml is more than enough – (you can reuse this oil fyi!). When it is hot and small bubbles are rising to the surface, gently add the strips of corn tortilla. They will sizzle immediately and begin to bronze quickly so move them around the pan for a few seconds so that they are bronzed all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper before transferring to a bowl.

6. Delicately place the chillies in the remaining oil. If they are still wet at all they will spit so be vigilant when placing them in the oil. Move them around in the oil for a few seconds then also place on kitchen paper. Chop up into bite sized portions and place into a bowl.

7. Crumble the feta, roughly chop the coriander and half the limes. (if you are using avocado – chop this is up into small cubes). Place in bowls on the table so that the hungry masses can add whichever garnish they wish to their Mexican tortilla soup.

Also if you are using sour cream, place in a bowl so those who wish can an add a dollop to their soup. I had this all ready and then forgot to photograph the sour cream on the soup as well. A case of being hungry so quickly wanting to photograph the soup and then eat with the rest of the family!