On the Fajitas Trail (4)

Mex Fajitas

The last couple of times I’ve made Fajitas for friends I have been surprised to hear that they’d never eaten them before.   Being just lean meat and fresh vegetables cooked in a very delicious way, and eaten with a variety of pretty healthy sides, I would have thought they’d be a regular for everyone.

Many years ago I obtained in Jerry’s American Store in London (not sure if it still exists) a couple of Fajita pans – flat cast-iron griddle pans with just enough of a lip around then to stop the oil and juices running off.  Each had a matching wooden board to stand it on when placed on the table.  Generally I use those when making fajitas but any large heavy-based frying pan will do.  If you don’t have a large pan use two medium sized ones.  Cook the meat in one and the veg in the other then mix and match before serving.  If you have a long table this method may be preferable.

Last time I made Fajitas was for friends one of whom has a total intolerance to cereals (i.e. wheat, rice, etc.) so it was a natural choice – using lettuce leaves in place of the more customary tortillas there wasn’t a grain in sight.

The other really good thing about it is that once you get used to making the various sides, it’s very quick and I see it as one of the easier big dinners I cook.  Start off with some nachos (watch this space!) using little gem lettuce leaves instead of tortilla chips for those that don’t want the carbs or grains, followed by Fajitas with the works and you have a meal fit for a King, though not sure if Elvis ate them!

On the Fajitas Trail (3)

Mex Refried Beans
Refried Beans

Mexicans eat lots of beans (as indeed to Texans!)

They eat them in many shapes, forms and guises.  One of the strangest (to our minds certainly) is what’s known as Refried Beans.

I mean, “What’s a refried bean?” Well, a refried bean is a bean that has already been cooked, but the second cooking (NOT the second coming!) is frying.  So the beans are boiled (to make them edible – but not necessarily by your good self as you may choose to use tinned beans in which case they are cooked by someone else).

The Chinese have a similar concept – they have dishes that are, for example, twice-boiled, which just means that they are cooked twice (nothing really controversial in that because the word ‘biscuit’ itself in French means (surprise, surprise) twice-cooked and strictly, biscuits are baked twice.

So now we know where we are, refried beans should be dead easy.  Tins of refried beans are OK ( and I mean that) if you don’t need lots but once you need a load, make your own, and forget tins.  A 500gm/1lb packet of dried black or pinto beans costing pennies will make MASSES of refried beans and be so much nicer.

So when do we use black and when pinto (incidentally if you can’t find pinto, use borlotti – strictly speaking, they’re not the same but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference).  My understanding of the situation is that in Texas they use pinto beans and in Mexico (as in most of South and Central America), black beans abound, quite simply because they are cheap.

The bacon is of course optional so doing veggie with refried beans is dead easy.

What they are fried in inevitably matters in such simple dish ( and I don’t mean the shape of the pan!)  Any old oil is OK but if you use something with a bit of flavour then you make them jump off the page – so a good-quality olive oil is OK, butter is better, but best of all is lard or something like goose-fat, and you’ve got something to be proud of.

The perfect side for any Tex/Mex or BBQ dish m they’re dead easy so do, please, have a go.

On the Fajitas Trail (2)

Tuesday 26 August 2015

Mex Salsa
Salsa Ranchera

1 2 3 – 5 6 7    1 2 3 – 5 6 7
If you don’t immediately recognise the rhythm above, it’s kind of  the Latin equivalent of slow – slow – quick quick – slow.

Got it?  It’s the rhythm of Salsa – the world famous Brazilian beat, which has nothing of course to do with today’s post other than that it shares a name with the lovely Mexican dip I’m writing about.

‘Salsa’ is just the Spanish word for ‘Sauce’ (It’s also the Portuguese word which is why the dance of that name comes from Brazil).  Apparently Salsa, the dance, evolved from the Mambo and the Cha-cha-cha in the 1970s.  The origin of the name is unclear and ranges from what the original dancers shouted as they danced, through suggestions of ‘hot’ music and dancing, to the idea that, as the food ‘salsa’ is a mixture  of ingredients, so the dance ‘salsa’ is also a mixture of styles.

Anyway one could conjecture endlessly about such matters, but it wouldn’t change in any way the fact that salsa is, among other things,  a lovely thing in which to dunk tortilla chips, spoon onto your hamburger, or eat as a side with any other meat dish.  Make it as hot or as cool as you choose, just by varying the quantity of chillies.

As with guacamole, it’s incredibly simple to make and infinitely cheaper than buying it in a shop, so if you haven’t had a go yet, please do – you’ll be shocked at how simple it is.

After my upcoming treatise (?) on Fajitas, I’ll share with you a recipe for another wonderful  dish that incorporates salsa.

Till then, 1 2 3 – 5 6 7    1 2 3 – 5 6 7   1 2 3 – 5 6 7   1 2 3 – 5 6 7

On the Fajitas Trail

Mex Guacamole

Guacamole  (pronounced Wahkamolay without the ‘G’) is extremely nutritious.  I am told you can live on it although with this much raw garlic you may have a rather solitary existence.

Most people buy it in their local supermarket, paying what is in reality way over the odds for something so simple to make.  More to the point, the shop-bought guacamole has not been made that can compare with freshly-made for flavour and texture.

While essentially very simple the ingredients may be modified to arrive at how the individual likes it.  You could, for example, add chopped spring onions or coriander or top it with these.  The only really mandatory ingredients are the avocado and the garlic.  Once you start making it, you will not go back to shop-bought again, I promise.

The title of this post promises Fajitas – they will come soon, but only after we are prepared to make all the required concomitants (i.e. things that go with them!).  Home made fajitas are a real treat.

Watch out for the next exciting instalment of ‘On the Fajitas Trail’.

It’s an ill wind . . . . .

Sunday 23 august 2015

CDAStarter       CDAMain
Home made foie gras                         Bourride de poisson
. . . . (not by me!)

Once again apologies for delay since last posting.  Drove back from Germany on Tuesday and have been exhausted ever since.  Not only the 470 miles on Tuesday but the whole 1500 miles of the week-long trip suddenly caught up with me.

It had been the intention to stop at Waterloo on the way back from Frankfurt to see the battlefield restored for the 200th anniversary to how it would have looked in 1815 (well, the  buildings, not the fields) but I decided to save that for another occasion and so we pressed on to Ostend where we had booked a room for the last night of our trip.

Ostend turned out to be quite different to what we were expecting, being more akin to Benidorm than Calais so by the time we found our hotel, between unbelievable one-way systems, trams, parked cars and an infinity of pedestrians paying no heed to vehicles, I was wishing we were not to stay there.

Anyway the hotel obliged telling me that my card payment had been declined and that they had re-let the room.  While angry at the nerve of the hotel, I was also relieved at not being obliged to stay.

On the way down to Calais we rang the ferry company and rebooked for later than night – later to give us time to pick up some wine and to have dinner in our favourite restaurant in Calais, Au Côte d’Argent.

There’s just something different about the way they serve fish in France (i.e. different from England) and that doesn’t just mean they don’t fry it and serve it with chips.  Even what might be termed ‘classy’ fish restaurants in London don’t demonstrate the subtlety and delicacy achieved in France.

The images at the top show the starter and main course I had, which with a delightful amuse-bouche on arrival and excellent as-much-as-you-want cheese and dessert trolleys, cost €40 or at current exchange rates, about £30.  Not bad, eh?

We found the restaurant on a wine-gathering day trip and fell in love with it.  Calais is actually a great place to go for lunch if you live in London.  It’s about an hour to the coast and another hour sees you in France (bit longer on the ferry) but where else can you get to in 2 hours fro East London?  Anywhere west is a non-starter because it takes an hour and a half just to cross London; north there’s Cambridge, very nice but I bet they don’t do fish the same way there so south to France it is, and with the right deals, the savings in wine can pay for the trip.  Bargain!

Vive la France!

PS The day after we got back, I received an email from Booking.com saying that the hotel had reported us as a ‘no-show’.  Fearing we might be charged for the room we had been denied, I contacted my credit card company who told me the hotel had not even attempted to take a payment (so much for being declined), then rang Booking.com (who incidentally were incredibly and surprisingly supportive) and set them  straight about who had done what to whom!

Aires and Graces

Sunday 16 August 2015

Apologies for being off the air for so long – partly doing a lot if driving, and partly staying in a lovely part of France with a somewhat challenged internet signal.

But here I am!  The lovely thing about driving in France, especially on the autoroutes (motorways to the Euro-sceptics) is the frequency of the Aires – those lovely little rest points every few miles (well, kilometres!).  While every now and then there is one equipped with restaurants, etc., the in-between ones are lovely little stop-offs with parking areas, picnic tables and toilets.  Just the job.

Funnily enough, it was only really when we crossed into Germany and wanted one that we realised that the Germans do not have them; that the Aires are graces exclusive to France.

But driving on German Autobahnen (still motorways to the Euro-sceptics) presents unique challenges.  While French motorway driving is generally casual and relaxed as most people do not use the chargeable (Péage) sections, and traffic tends to be very thin, giving one plenty of time to assess situations and make decisions, in Germany, everyone uses the motorways and wants to remind the world that German speed limits are advisory not mandatory.

Cars appear suddenly in the rear view mirror and are on one’s tail in an instant, and not just the odd one – it’s as likely to be a pair of souped-up Golfs going nose to tail at 120 mph.  This wreaks havoc with the usual planning of manoeuvres.  Get in the wrong lane behind a lumbering truck or coach and one can be stuck there for ages as opportunities to pull out to overtake are blocked by a succession of boy-racers of all ages and both sexes.

But anyway, we arrived and here we are, schoolboy German dusted off and working.  But what brings us here, you may ask?  Today is the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley in 1977.  To celebrate this (i.e. his life , not his death) the city of Bad Näuheim , north of Frankfurt, holds an annual Elvis Festival.  This is the city where Elvis stayed in a rented house with his entourage during his service with the US army (forget the publicity about Elvis just being one of the guys and bunking down with his comrades – good story but far from the truth!)

But this did not do anyone any harm and Bad Näuheim host this lovely 3 day Festival every August, spending a lot of money in the process.    However, while the entertainment was spectacularly good, the most striking thing about the event was the cost of food and drink.  If, like most right-minded people, you are appalled by the generally extortionate prices you are asked to pay for indifferent food at large-scale public events, this was like a breath of fresh air.

The event was hosted in a large luxury hotel which one might reasonably expect to be expensive in the first place.  Add to that an event of this type and the cost of eating could be starvation-inducing expensive, but not so – a perfectly respectable and hugely substantial hamburger (what else at an Elvis event, but not as good of course as the one I made last week!), served by a white-clad chef with a proper, tall, chef’s hat, cost a mere €5 (or about £3.75 at the current exchange rate).  If they can do it, why can’t others.

We paid about €50 each for a seat at a concert by a couple of Elvis Tribute Acts and it was absolutely money well-spent; the production (venue, band, sound-system, lighting, technicians etc.) was superb and incredibly professional – not always the case at such events.  The performers were first rate and benefitted from the excellent production – good production can never make a bad artist good, but bad production can easily ruin a good singer’s performance, and when everything is right, the effect is brilliant.

So full marks (no pun intended!) to Bad Näuheim for spending their money wisely and well.  Thank you.

A Hamburger!

Sunday 9 August 2015

Hamburger Chips
Hamburger and home-cooked chips : perfect on a lovely sunny day

I often find myself saying the word in the way Lady Bracknell famously uttered ‘A Handbag!’ in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ because that’s what it is  – not a burger or a beefburger or any other variation on the name – but a Hamburger!

But then I hear people say, “It can’t be ‘hamburger’ because it hasn’t got ham in it”, to which my standard response is that neither does a Frankfurter have Frank in it.  The name has nothing to do with ham or any other kind of meat but derives from its place of origin, Hamburg.  The word ‘Hamburger’ simply means in German ‘of Hamburg’ in the same way as ‘Frankfurter’ means ‘of Frankfurt’ and ‘Berliner’ means ‘of Berlin’.  (They are also what the citizens of those three cities are called.)

The term ‘burger’ generally relates to an inferior product usually served swamped in grease and all kinds of unpleasantry, and is now used in some restaurants to mean anything served in a bun and includes chicken, fish, etc.

Whatever the Germanic associations of the name, we now of course think of the hamburger in all its manifestations as coming from the USA, within which the state of Wisconsin in the north with its very large German-origin population is accepted as its true home.

Quality steak is the secret of great hamburgers.  Forget the greasy apologies of things you can buy in frozen packs.  A good hamburger  is a wonderful, substantial meal.  I once asked my butcher for 2 lb. of rump steak and told him I was going to grind it up for hamburgers.  He told me that if that was what I wanted it for, he could have given me some nice chuck steak, to which I replied,  “You do it your way and I’ll do it mine, and I know who’ll make the better hamburger!”

Once the beef is ground, anything mixed in needs to add two things: flavour and moisture.  By its nature, barbecuing meat dries it out and the more moisture that can be retained in what is grilled, the more succulent it will be.

I found my recipe in a Sunday Times colour supplement many, many years ago.  The article was generally on American food and featured the tuna mayo sandwich, the edible submarine (the Sub), the hot dog, etc. and of course the hamburger.

It is very simple and the two principal ingredients, tomato ketchup and soy sauce, both add flavour and moisture, making for an especially juicy piece of meat when cooked.

The main thing about cooking a hamburger (or a steak for that matter) is NOT to keep pressing down on them with a spatula in the hope that it may make them cook a little quicker.  All that achieves is dry meat with all the lovely juices squeezed out and burned.

Serving a hamburger is also a matter of personal choice.  I like it in a seeded bun fried off in some meat juices, and topped with American mustard, tomato relish and gherkin (or a cucumber relish), but there’s no right or wrong way, merely personal choice.

So burger off, all you ‘burgers, and make way for the magnificent Hamburger.

Something fishy about this

Friday 7 August 2015


It’s Friday and what do we eat on Fridays?  fish!  (Well OK, not all of us)

And what’s the best way to eat fish?  with chips! (Probably not everyone will agree but for present purposes it works)

And where do we like to get our fish & chips?  Well, that depends on where ‘we’ are but when I’m in Essex, it really has to be Peggotty’s in Rayleigh.  It’s quite a new shop but we’ve been going there for 2-3 years now and it’s consistently good quality, fresh. hot and served up by really nice people so what more could one want?

Actually while researching this I did find on the internet that there are a number of Peggotty’s scattered around, but not sure if they’re all related.  Not least there are at least two in Spain on the Costa del Sol .

Seems also to be one in Epping, another in Hadleigh near Southend, also Grays, Benfleet, and somewhat more distant, Leeds, of all places.

Now, I’ve only tried the one in Rayleigh but if the others are as good then they’re well worth a visit.

You’re probably wondering why my image shows the shop and not the food and it was indeed my intention to take a picture of my cod and chips before I devoured it but hunger got the better of me and I’d eaten half of it before I remembered.  But then I thought that while everyone knows what a plate of fish and chips looks like, not everyone knows what the Peggottys take-away looks like, so there you go, win-win.

Viva Peggottys!

A roll in bed with a little honey

Wednesday 5 August 2015

The classic witty description of the perfect continental breakfast in the caption above would apply very well to breakfast in Aberdeen.

Setting aside what’s known as the full Scottish breakfast (which oddly enough seems to be to all intents and purposes the same as the full English version) mornings in Aberdeen are the better for a totally unique dining experience.

An Aberdeen morning roll

Known locally as rowies or butteries, the morning roll is totally exclusive to Aberdeen – other parts of Scotland have no knowledge of their existence.

Generally eaten warm, they are reminiscent of a croissant but somewhat firmer.  They are, as the name ‘buttery’ implies, very buttery tasting but also quite salty.  They have a flat side and a ‘lumpy’ side which comes of the dough just being dumped on a baking sheet without being in any way shaped, as a croissant is, but that gives them a charm of their own.

They are sold in bakeries, supermarkets, corner shops, petrol stations, etc. but oddly not the local M&S for some reason.

They may be eaten on their own or ideally spread thickly with butter and/or your preserve of choice – the heart attack will take a rain-check!

If you’re in the area, definitely have them for breakfast and even if you’re not, you can order them from Aitken’s Bakery in Aberdeen who will happily post to anywhere in the UK, and if you call them, you’ll see what I mean!

Actually, ordering them mail-order is a real walk down memory lane and a far cry from the credit card/Paypal encrusted on-line shopping experience – they send the rolls with an invoice and you pay after you receive them.  It’s worth ordering just for that experience alone!  Thank you, Aitken’s.

Roll on, the next trip to Aberdeen!


Chorizo with a ‘th’

Monday 3 August 2015
Spanish sprouts

I don’t know if the Spanish actually eat sprouts but if they do, I’m sure this is how they would cook them.

Last Christmas I saw Mary Berry pan fry sprouts with pancetta, tried it, thought it a great idea but decided that using chorizo would be better, and it is.

Chorizo is one of the most exciting ingredients ever;  it has the ability to utterly transform anything to which it’s added.  It adds a delightful splash of colour, reminiscent of  cranberries, a wonderful flavour, and the hot version packs a powerful punch.  I can’t think of much that wouldn’t be improved by its addition.

I add it to a potato omelette or any dish involving fried potatoes, ANY green vegetable (not just sprouts), beef mince dishes – think of it as a more exotic kind of alternative to bacon or pancetta.

Or just slice it thinly and nibble it with a glass of wine or serve it on thin slices of French bread.

But just one thing, please, oh PLEASE, pronounce it ‘choritho’ like the Spanish, and never ‘choritso’, which would be OK if it were Italian or German, but it’s not.  And you can’t justify it by saying it’s how it’s pronounced in English  – there are no words in the English language where a ‘z’ is pronounced  ‘ts’.  We don’t, for example got to see the animals at the tsoo, or see what’s on TV by looking in the Radio Times magatsine.

If you can’t manage ‘choritho’, try ‘choriso’ (like the Portuguese), or if you have to pronounce it in English, it’s ‘choriZZZZZZo’  (but 1 Z will suffice, thanks!), but NEVER ‘choritso’ (unless you’re Italian, German, or just very pretentious!