I take it hotter, spicier and exceedingly saucy
Saturday 15 April 1995
Having lived in hot countries (bless you, oh Lord, say I, as spring sends its icy blasts through Boston) for a good part of my life, I am well used to hot, spicy foods. I perspire copiously, I go red in the face, I become my own air-conditioning, and a lovely feeling it is, too.
I served my apprenticeship with a long-ago Mexican president while he was on the campaign trail: visiting the dutiful peasants who turned out, beginning long before dawn, to greet the candidate of the wonderfully aptly named Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The Mexican campaign trail at that hour is a laborious affair. With dust trailing behind the cars, you drive through miles of desert to some wretched little egido (these are community-owned farm villages not so different from collective farms) where the mariachi band awaits.
The candidate is draped in paper flowers or garlands, the village elders (party bosses) turn out to assure you of their villagers' 100 per cent support, and a great deal of tequila is drunk - for a candidate visits only once every six years, and the whole village marks the event. Then you sit down to huevos ranchero, or eggs with salsa, accompanied by black beans, tortillas and whatnot: all of it potent enough to lift the roof off your mouth.
Forty minutes and another 20 kilometres later, your head swimming, your plumbing gurgling, you repeat the process at another egido. And so on until five hours and five breakfasts have passed. The candidate, universally addressed as Senor Presidente, for no PRI candidate has ever been allowed to lose an election, has to put up with this early-morning routine day after day, otherwise the Indios who vote for him might just forget their electoral duty.
It is the sort of routine that toughens up a man for the hard work of accumulating a vast private fortune in only six years, and El Presidente has to look just as happy on his 20th tequila and fifth plate of huevos ranchero as on the first.
My point is that the stomach gets used to anything. If you have been chewing on chilli peppers, khat or coca leaves since you left off suckling, presumably they mean no more to you than a glass of milk.
Fortunately, should you fall on a fit of anti-blandness as I did recently, remedies are to hand. Thanks to the impact of Tex-Mex cuisine (a much- reduced version of plain Mex) there is no lack of hottish preparations on the market: salsas of various strengths, jalapeno chillies in all sorts of forms, chutneys and, of course, that old premier hot sauce from Louisiana, tabasco. Most Indian and Pakistani shops sell a wide variety of fierce chutneys (Major Grey was obviously made for more delicate colonialist palates), including my two favourites, mango and chilli.
What I find interesting about highly spiced condiments in cooking is how well they blend with European sauces. When used in judicious amounts, they can give considerably more zest and pungency and they have an exotic after-taste which I welcome.
As it happens, this week I had another dinner for 12. I had chosen to cook a loin roast of pork on the bone. This is a delicious joint, but it can be - at least in America, where pigs are bred for sweet flesh rather than strong flavour - somewhat bland. Traditionally, I cook porksmothered in fresh thyme, an admirable blend of flavours, but for this dinner I wanted to do something more, particularly as the pork came after a risotto with mushrooms and would be accompanied, spring being putatively here, by the first ratatouille of the season. As every cook knows, a ratatouille creates a vast amount of juice from its jumble of courgettes, aubergines, peppers, onions and tomatoes. The problem was how to liaise one set of flavours with another.
The Italians make a dish called vitello tonnato, basically roast veal with a tuna sauce. I love it, my wife despises it. But as she was off doing her paramedical training, I resolved to use a tuna-and-tomato based sauce for the pork.
Despite the fact that the tuna and pork blended well, the initial results were disappointing: not sharp enough, at least for what I now recognise as a post-flu jaded palate. Add rice vinegar, a touch of raspberry vinegar (is not pork traditionally allied to fruit?) and tarragon mustard. Better. Add some of my family's own balsamic vinegar. Getting there. Blend in some chilli chutney and bring up to strength. Quite wonderful. In the end, the tomato related to the ratatouille, the tuna to the pork, and that extra bit of sharpness cut through both the puckery flavour of the aubergine in the ratatouille and the sweetness of the pork.
Professionals might say that my sauce-making is a waste of labour. But trial-and-error is fundamental to sauce-making and the discovery of new flavour combinations. I have many defects as a cook, not least my disregard for appearances, but it is as a saucier that I may be said to shine. Three qualities are needed for good sauces: a knowledge of what you want in the way of flavour, high gamut or low; a good nose to tell you how close you are to your ideal; and absolute fearlessness in improvisation.
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