Ask Peter: Along Mexican lines
Some time ago I enjoyed a bake at a Mexican meal. It was a meat-based sauce that was topped with a light and fluffy, and I think, cheesy corn topping. I would like to make something similar but can only find recipes that feature something that is a bit more bready than I would like. I may be mistaken and it was more bready than I remember, but I wonder if there is something you may know of? Annamae
To be honest I have no idea what this might have been, although I’m trying to picture it. Do you think it was a traditional Mexican dish or was it simply a good old sharing meal cooked by a Mexican cook? If I were given this brief by a client and told to make a “meat sauce with fluffy cheesy corn topping” then I’d probably do the following.
Make 750ml of any standard bechamel sauce recipe using low-fat milk. For the corn flavour, you could just boil a corn on the cob and remove the kernels, or for a little more funky flavour, grill the corn to blacken it slightly then steam for a few minutes, and then cut the kernels off. Puree to a medium fine paste and add to the milk before thickening with the roux. Once it’s been cooked out properly, meaning it needs to be bubbling gently for a few minutes while constantly stirring (which ensures the flour tastes cooked), mix in ¾ cup of finely grated parmesan and half a cup of mascarpone. You need to do this as soon as it comes off the heat. The parmesan (while not being Mexican in any shape or form) will give a lovely sharp character to the sauce without making it too fatty or heavy. The mascarpone will add a creamy richness and also a lightness. Tip into a clean bowl and leave it to cool for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. Separate 3 eggs then whisk 2 of the yolks into the sauce. Beat the 3 egg whites with a pinch of salt to medium peak stage (not too stiff but able to hold themselves) and gently stir ⅓ of them into the bechamel to incorporate. Gently fold the remaining whites into the sauce. Tip on to your prepared base, which should be in a dish and should already be warm, or else you risk overcooking the sauce in order that the base is piping hot. Sprinkle with a little extra grated parmesan cheese, or use grated cheddar, and bake at 180C until golden and gorgeous. Hopefully that might do the trick — although I may well be miles from what you experienced.
As to the base itself, thinking along Mexican lines with my usual Fusion cap on, the flavours that jump to mind for a beef or lamb-based sauce are: smoky chipotle chillies for chilli heat and a light smokiness; toasted cumin; epazote which may be hard to source, so try dried oregano (although someone’s comment on my Instagram account says she thinks epazote tastes and smells like pencil lead); tomatoes; garlic; coriander; and although this may sound odd — cocoa powder or a dark chocolate. Traditional mole sauce has dark chocolate added and it gives a lovely richness to the sauce. For a chicken or seafood-based sauce I’d use; corn, grilled as described above; orange peel (not too much though as it can overpower); cinnamon; cumin; vanilla (again not too much); roasted garlic — or try black garlic; a smaller amount of dark chocolate or cocoa powder, or coarsely ground cacao nibs. For any base sauce, feel free to add coarsely ground nuts to help thicken it, or even mix in some peanut, or other nut butter. The delicious Fix & Fogg brand “Smoke & Fire” is a personal favourite as it combines chilli and peanuts — what’s not to like? I always take as many jars as can fit in my luggage back to London for my breakfasts there.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.