There’s more to Mexican food than just a kick from jalapeno and citrus limes. Paul Wilson puts his own modern twist on Central American cooking ahead of Cinco de Mayo

Tomato, jicama and pomegranate salad 

Jicama, also known as the Mexican yam, is probably one of the most underutilised vegetables, in my opinion. Seriously refreshing, low in sodium and high in minerals and vitamins, it’s certainly a new “superfood” worth considering. Jicama are in season in late summer at the same time as tomatoes are at their best for making chunky, pico de gallo-style salsas.

These are the inspiration for this salad, which is also laced with pomegranate and avocado. It’s great on its own but also makes an excellent partner to many barbecued foods.

Serves 6

1 jicama
4 tomatoes, sliced
2 ripe avocados, sliced
200ml pomegranate mojo*
2 bunches breakfast radishes, finely sliced
2 red jalapenos or serrano chillies, finely sliced
100g salted ricotta, chopped
1 bunch purple basil leaves
1 bunch mint leaves
100g pomegranate seeds

Peel the jicama and, using a mandoline, thinly shave into slices. Layer the jicama, tomato and avocado slices over the surface of an attractive ceramic serving dish. Dress the salad with the pomegranate mojo and top with the radishes, sliced chillies and cheese. Scatter over the herbs and pomegranate seeds and serve.

Tip: serve this salad with a piece of grilled oily fish like mackerel or salmon for a super-healthy main dish packed with omega 3.

*Pomegranate mojo

1½ tbsp cumin seeds
2 garlic cloves, crushed
100ml sherry vinegar
125ml olive oil
200ml pomegranate juice or molasses
2 tbsp sugar
40g sesame seeds, toasted
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

This is a signature sauce of Latin cooking, said to be the condiment of the Portuguese explorers who left their garlic scent throughout their travels. So many nations have now added their own accents and that’s the charm of this popular sauce. The sourness that interplays with the garlic is the key and I choose to add pomegranate for its striking and full zesty zing. This sauce can be used to dress raw sashimi-grade fish or to invigorate barbecued meats, soups or stews.

Makes 500ml

Place the cumin seeds in a small, dry frying pan and sprinkle with water to moisten. Cook over low heat, until the water evaporates and the seeds begin to dry-fry and become fragrant. Add the garlic and vinegar and cook for 30 seconds. Add 10 tablespoons of the oil and gently warm over low heat for 2 minutes, or until the garlic is cooked.

Transfer to a blender and process, gradually adding the remaining oil, the pomegranate juice or molasses and sugar. Stir in the sesame seeds. Season with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.


Zesty chicken and sprout salad with fragrant seeds 

Brightly coloured with zesty, earthy flavours, achiote paste is a must-have for your larder if you want to capture some of the unique regional flavours of Mexico. Here it’s used as a fast marinade for a minced chicken salad which is great served wrapped in lettuce leaves or in tortillas with guacamole, or accompanied with fried tortilla chips. There are now a great range of shoots and microgreens available from our local farms, which are bursting with sweet and delicate flavours. Add your favourite nuts and seeds to this zesty and healthy slaw.

Serves 6-8

800g coarsely minced (ground) chicken
2 tbsp achiote relish*
2 tbsp sesame oil
50g mix of sesame, chia, sunflower and pumpkin seeds
½ tsp ground cumin
Sea salt to taste
100g finely shredded carrot
100g finely shredded green papaya
50g finely shredded young white or red cabbage
1 red onion, finely sliced
1 baby Lebanese (short) cucumber, finely sliced
5cm piece of fresh ginger, finely shredded
1 jalapeno, finely sliced
150g mix of alfalfa sprouts, mung bean sprouts and snow pea shoots
100ml zesty lime dressing
1 orange, segmented
Avocado, sliced
Assorted micro herbs, to garnish
Iceberg lettuce leaves or tortillas, to serve

Put the chicken and achiote relish in a bowl, mix together well and leave to marinate for 5 minutes. Heat half the sesame oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, add the chicken mixture and cook, stirring and breaking the meat down with a wooden spoon as you go, until sealed on all sides and cooked through (you may need to do this in batches). Transfer to a tray and set aside.

Wipe the pan clean, add the rest of the sesame oil and set over medium heat. Add the mixed seeds and toast for 2 minutes stirring occasionally. Season with the cumin and sea salt to taste.

Remove 1 tablespoon of the toasted seeds from the pan and set aside for garnish, then return the chicken to the pan and mix together well. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Combine the mince with the carrot, papaya, cabbage, onion, cucumber, ginger, jalapeno and mixed sprouts in a large bowl. Pour over the lime dressing and toss together.

To serve, divide the chicken and shredded vegetables among bowls. Top with the orange and avocado slices and sprinkle over the reserved toasted seeds. Garnish with micro herbs and serve with lettuce leaves or tortillas for wrapping.

Tip: try adding finely chopped roasted salted peanuts and finely sliced habanero chilli to this salad to give it a little extra savoury spiciness.

*Achiote relish

2 jalapenos
6 garlic cloves
50g achiote paste
1 large handful oregano leaves
60ml chardonnay vinegar or best-quality white wine vinegar
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground fennel
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
80ml fruity olive oil

Preheat an overhead grill to high heat. Place the jalapenos and garlic on a small tray and grill, turning occasionally, for 10 minutes, until soft, caramelised and charred black. Combine the charred jalapenos and garlic with the achiote paste, oregano leaves, vinegar, spices, salt and pepper in a small food processor and blend to make a coarse paste. Gradually pour in the oil, blending to make a smooth sauce. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.


Purple kale and chilli de agua tacos 

Vibrant veggie street eats are a great way to start a dinner party fiesta. Chilli de agua, also known as bullhorn chillies, are sweet and subtle, great on the barbecue or in a quick stir-fry. Sure, kale is a rather overexposed superfood but it’s also one of our most versatile brassicas – prepared as a savoury stew inspired by Mexican rajas poblanos, it’s both comforting and nutritious. The impressive-looking crispy kale topping acts as a great sponge for the salty cheese.

Serves 6-8

1 bunch purple kale, stalks removed
2 tbsp olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1 large salad onion, finely sliced
1 bunch oregano leaves, chopped
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground cumin
Pinch of ground allspice
2 jalapenos, finely sliced
6 assorted bullhorn chillies, cut into thin rounds
3 tbsp sherry vinegar
3 tbsp agave syrup
250ml adobo sauce
8-12 small homemade tortillas
175g salted ricotta or feta, chopped

Crispy kale spice mix

Olive oil spray
Pinch of salt
Pinch of garlic powder
Pinch of ground cumin
Pinch of chilli powder
Pinch of smoked paprika

Preheat the oven to 150C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil, add half the kale and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain and refresh in ice-cold water for 2 minutes, then drain and squeeze dry. Roughly chop and refrigerate until required. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, onions, herbs and spices and fry for 2-3 minutes, until the onions start to soften, then add the jalapenos and bullhorn chillies and fry for a further 2 minutes.

Pour over the sherry vinegar and agave syrup, bring to a simmer and cook for 4 minutes, or until reduced and syrupy. Add the cooked kale and adobo sauce and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Season to taste and leave to cool.

Add the remaining kale to a bowl, spray lightly with olive oil and toss together with the salt, garlic powder and spices. Arrange the kale on the prepared baking tray, leaving space between the individual leaves, and bake for 30 minutes until crisp, turning the tray around after 15 minutes to ensure even cooking. Heat a medium non-stick pan over high heat. Lightly spray with oil and briefly fry the tortillas to warm them. Stack the tortillas, wrap in a warm damp tea towel (dish towel) and set aside to keep warm.


To serve, place the tortillas onto serving plates and top with the kale and pepper stew. Scatter over the crispy kale leaves and cheese and serve immediately.

Tip: if you’re craving some more protein, add 250g of cooked pinto beans or cooked shredded chicken meat to the mixture.

‘Taqueria’ by Paul Wilson (Hardie Grant, £16.99). Photography by Chris Middleton