Annabel Langbein: Marvellous Mexican (+ recipes)
Swine flu was on the rampage in Mexico back in 2009. As a result of the epidemic, tourism was in a major slump, which meant amazing deals on hotels.
I didn't even think about getting sick. I had been working like a mad thing in New York and was totally exhausted, and all I could think was, "Wow, I can get an incredible holiday for next to nothing." And so I did, booking into remote luxury eco resort Verana on the western coast of Mexico, south of Puerto Vallarta near the small village of Yelapa.
To get to Verana is an adventure in itself. You take a 45-minute taxi from Puerta Vallarta down to Boca de Tomatlan then jump into a speed boat and blitz about 20 minutes down the coast through the Bay of Banderas. As you come into view of the Bay of Yelapa, the driver cuts the engine and you drift in towards the coast. The mules are standing on the rocks. Your luggage is strapped to their backs, and you hike up the hill into the lush jungle.
It didn't take long to discover that I was the only person at the resort who was not on honeymoon. And so I headed to the kitchens. The chef was local to the tiny village of Yelapa, a 20-minute walk away, and he sure knew his way around a dinner plate. Each day as part of his mise en place he would prepare 16 fresh salsas, each offering differing degrees of heat and flavour. I could always find him working over a fire outside the kitchen, brewing up rich, slow-cooked braises of pork in big terracotta dishes set on a thick piece of steel over the embers. The locals would bring fresh local cheeses, which he would crumble over eggs and sauces, and tortillas to be grilled and filled or fried for corn chips. Everything was sourced and made locally either in the resort or the village nearby. It was all so fresh and delicious.
Down in the village, taco bars and restaurants offered the gambit of chimichangas, tacos and burritos, all cooked to order with fresh ingredients. These divey places with plastic-covered tables, blaring TV screens and often questionable hygiene (think plastic bowls for washing dishes, and lots of mud), offered amazing authentic tastes, layered with flavours. The cooks were all local women, bringing the tastes of their homes to these humble kitchens.
Some may say Mexican cooking is ruled by chillies, but it's so much more. In their fiery power there is history, culture and passion. You can taste it on every plate. Here's a simple meal using three of my favourite Mexican recipes.
I'll often soak and boil a big batch of beans and freeze them, ready to throw into dishes like this. If you don't have time to soak and cook the beans, use three 400g cans of kidney beans instead.
Smoked ancho chillies are available online from specialty Mexican food stores but if you can't find any use 2 tsp pureed chipotle chillies in adobo sauce instead - they won't need to be soaked so just add to the tomato sauce with two extra cups of water. Get the recipe
This recipe works for any bone-in pork roast weighing 3kg or more. Pork shoulder is the best cut to slow-cook as the intramuscular fat keeps it tender and sweet. You can slow-cook pork with all manner of flavours, such as a Moroccan rub, Cajun spices or a fennel, garlic and salt mix instead of the Mexican rub.
Any leftovers are delicious in a bun with coleslaw or in a wrap with hoisin sauce. The Mexican rub keeps for weeks in a jar in the fridge and is a simple way to transform fish, chicken, pork and other meats. Get the recipe
There are as many versions of guacamole as there are cooks. Sometimes I make it smooth and simple with just crushed garlic, salt and lots of lemon juice, but to make avocados go a little further and a chunkier mixture, I add tomato, spring onions, chillies and coriander. Get the recipe
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel’s best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips — on sale at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores or visit annabel-langbein.com