Kirsty Presents: Oz Mex

Cross-posted from Galaxy at Zoe’s request (the comments about Melbourne only make sense in the context of this incompleted series of posts)

While I was in Melbourne I went to a bookshop I had only previously read about: Books for Cooks. Ever since I first read about this shop on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, I have known that I could while away an entire day there, perhaps a week if I had nothing else to do. I didn’t spend quite that long there, but I did fulfill the other expectations I had for my behaviour: I ran from bookshelf to bookshelf, picking up one book, followed by another, and another, before finally having to sit down, wipe the drool from my chin, and have a deep think about the merits of the books I wanted relative to my budget.

I’ll talk about the whole heady experience in more depth when I finally get around to completing the promised Melbourne posts, but for now let me tell you what I’m cooking for dinner tonight. Seasoned Chopped Beef (Picadillo) is a recipe from one of the books I bought at Books for Cooks, The New Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. It’s the filling for Minced Beef Tacos (Taco de Picadillo) I’ll be eating.

Ortiz instructs you to use half of the following recipe for Picadillo:

Brown 900g of minced lean beef in a large frying pan. I used that other red meat, kangaroo, because I can’t really bring myself to buy beef at the supermarket anymore. I’ll eat beef when I’m out, but between what I have access to and what I can afford, kangaroo is a more ethical, environmental, and cost-effective choice for me. Add 2 finely chopped onions and 1 clove of garlic, also chopped. When these are cooked add the following: 2 green cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped; 450g tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped–I made half the recipe and just added a drained tin of tomatoes here; 3 tinned or fresh jalapeno chillies, seeded and chopped–again I went for the tinned; 1/2 cup of seedless raisins; 12 pimiento-stuffed olives, halved–I only had jalapeno stuffed olives, but I figured they weren’t out of place in this recipe; 1/4 tsp each of ground cinnamon and cloves–I just threw in a whole clove that I accidentally crunched on later; and finally, salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer over a low heat for 20mins. When this is done you can sprinkle it with 1/4 cup of slivered almonds that you’ve fried in a bit of oil–I missed this touch since I didn’t have any slivered almonds and didn’t feel like the trouble of blanching, chopping and frying regular almonds. I’d bother if someone other than me was eating this.

So that’s the filling for the tacos.

The Tacos de Picadillo are just a matter of assembly. I used some small, soft tortillas and filled them with the Picadillo, added some Salsa Verde Mexicana Picante, and some shredded ice-berg lettuce that came in this week’s organic fruit and vege box. Ortiz recommends guacamole as well, but as I didn’t have any avocado, I substituted with some Greek yoghurt–I didn’t have any sour cream either.

I should mention that while the recipe book has recipes for both tortillas and the salsa verde I went for the pre-made and tinned varieties. I don’t think I’ll be too hard on myself for not making tortillas from scratch. As for the salsa verde, it’s a case of lack of availability of the key ingredient, tomatillo, the green tomatoes that seem to be used extensively in Mexican cooking. The closest I could find to this ingredient in my, admittedly, rather short search was an enormous tin of them, as big as those Golden Circle juice tins. On that shopping expedition, I went for the much smaller tin of ready made salsa. It seems to be quite simple, consisting of the tomatilloes, serrano chillies, onions, and coriander, to comprise a rather refreshing sauce.

Overall, I found this to be a really tasty meal. I hope I haven’t come across as too flaky in my lack of purity about all the substitutions. I used to be really up tight about such things, but ever since the woman at the Indian Grocers advised me that ‘you cook with what you have’, I’ve felt a whole lot freer about making substitutions. Maybe what’s worrying me is that I used tinned things instead of fresh, but again, needs must.

When I first flicked through the book in Books for Cooks, I thought that the ingredients would be a bit more accessible than they’ve proved to be so far. Much of my decision to get the book was based upon the use of pineapple and banana and other sub-tropical ingredients readily available in South East Queensland. I was intrigued by the use of fruit throughout–and perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve since learnt that the used of fruit derives from the Spanish influence on Mexican cuisine via the Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine. Here I like to think that my use of kangaroo adds an Australian influence to Mexican cuisine.

Another reason I bought the book was because there’s a fellow post-graduate at uni who is Mexican, and on the subject of Mexican food in Brisbane, Australia even, she is dismissive. ‘Tex-Mex’ she sniffs when people ask her about Mexican food in restaurants. Her response has long piqued my curiosity because it made me aware that of course all I know of Mexican food is Tex-Mex, exemplified by the ‘Mexican’ section in the supermarket that consists entirely of Old El Paso products.

I guess at the moment I’m sort of stuck between wanting to know more about Mexican food and being faced with the trouble of getting the ingredients. I don’t think I’m ready to give up just yet, because clearly there’s a whole lot more to know–about all the varieties of chilli alone. First, I’ll be a bit more concerted in my efforts to find suppliers in Brisbane.


#1 Amanda on 19.12.08 at 8:49 am

I have two things to say about this.

1) nomnom
2) want

#2 Zoe on 19.12.08 at 11:30 am

I couldn’t be trusted in that shop. I went to one like it in San Diego a bit (my ex-grandparents-in-law lived there) and found it Very Hard.

I think it’s important to make substitutions; it’s part of what makes you a good cook. As for the tomatillos, I’ve copied an image of the entry from Cook’s Thesaurus, a brilliant reference and substitution guide that doesn’t permalink individual entries. Click to enlarge it to readable size:


#3 ampersand duck on 19.12.08 at 1:06 pm

I have been to that shop, and another time I took best Beloved, who also didn’t know which way to look. He decided to set his limit, and researched preserving and jam books. It’s more than a smorgasbord, it’s death by cookbook.

They do mail-out, if you’re looking for something, and they stock secondhand versions of things, so the thing you’re looking for can be less money than you think.

Gertrude Street, where it is, is one of my FAV Melbourne streets.

#4 Zoe on 19.12.08 at 1:13 pm

Fortunately, they have not managed to get their online store working yet, although it’s promised.

#5 librarygirl on 19.12.08 at 3:59 pm

I too have hyperventilated in Books for Cooks.
The only place in the world, it seems, where I could get the Barbara Pym Cookbook – TWO copies, different editions.
Plus the Constance Spry Cookbook in an early (and immaculate) edition.
Forget Borders and Dymocks, I’d like a Christmas voucher from there!

#6 Francis Xavier Holden on 19.12.08 at 5:33 pm

Sounds good – I agree with whoever – you have to cook with whats in the cupboard and substitute.

I’ve had no success with roo, so much so I’ve given up. I would appreciate if some of the kitchen staff here at PDP would do a post or two on how to handle it.

In theory it should work but it allways seems to taste too gamey and chewy and dry to me.

I’m not sure if it’s a hangover from my farm days when roo was what you ate if you couldn’t afford anything else and were sick of rabbit.

#7 Crit on 19.12.08 at 8:25 pm

There’s an online shop for Mexican stuff…
if it’s of any use to any of you. I aheven’t used it yet. but lack of good mex ingredients is one of the bloke’s many complaints.

#8 Kirsty on 21.12.08 at 1:08 pm

Thanks for the heads up on The Cook’s Thesaurus, Zoe, I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

FXH, I think that you’re not likely to get rid of the gamey-ness of kangaroo, it’s like the sliminess of okra: it just is. I do think it takes the fruit in this recipe very well. That said, I can appreciate that if you associate with last resort food, ala Spam, then there might be no getting over that for you.

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