Earl Dexter on Food: Mex on the Beach

Okay let’s face it: tequila is not the finest tasting liquid known to man, woman or beast. If it did not taste like nail varnish and paint-stripper, this stuff would surely not have to be consumed in one blistering salt-laced gulp chased with a bite of lemon, would it?

However, I never hit the road without a bottle or two of tequila. Used for medicinal purposes, tequila is a handy disinfectant for flesh wounds, no matter how questionable their origin may be. A bottle of tequila is also a hugely effective negotiating tool when facing surly border-post officials in Southern African countries. Tequila helps to start camp-fires in the most rainy of seasons and held at the neck, an empty tequila bottle is a nifty weapon for defence as well as attack. The two pimps who tried to con me out of a cell-phone in Mombasa might remember this.

Tequila’s major purpose, however, is its inspiration in assisting you – the on-the-road gringo – to cook some Mexican-inspired food. Mexican chow is some of the finest eating around. It’s simple, tasty, filling. And fun to prepare once you have knocked back a Tequila Sunrise or two.

For this you take: One shot tequila, poured into tall glass. A couple of drops of grenadine. (That’s the red, syrupy stuff so popular in gay-looking cocktails.) Add ice. Fill glass to the top with orange juice and stir.

And there you go! Just be forewarned: If you are cooking, don’t drink more than three of these babies beforehand. Passing-out in the campfire is not as funny as it looks.

Right. Mexican food starts with guacamole. You are going to make some to keep your guests entertained while you get cracking on the real stuff.

Guacamole for 6 requires:

4 fully ripe avocados

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 clove garlic, crushed to a pulp

1 medium tomato, skinned and chopped

1 teaspoon Tabasco

Peel avocados, remove pips and place in a bowl. (The flesh, dude, not the pips.) Mash avocados with the back of a fork. Add all the other stuff and keep mashing until you have a green pasty-looking kind of think. This may appear suspect, I know. But plonk it on the table next to a packet of sturdy chips and tell the folk to use the guacamole for a dip. That should shut them up.

Now, chilli con carne – loosely translated as chilli with meat – is not exactly Mexican. This staple dish of the American south-west was, however, surely inspired by the millions of illegal Mexican immigrants residing in this part of the world. But it is a major important culinary feature of Texas and New Mexico where people have their character, mental stability and creditworthiness judged on their ability to make a good pot of chilli con carne. It is hell of a tasty, easy to make and the perfect outdoorsy meal.

For my version of this classic for 6 people I take:

1½ kg lean beef steak mince. (Please, take the trouble to select decent mince. Upon purchase you should inspect the product closely to ensure the meat is red, not too finely minced and is free of suspect looking un-meaty organs such as eyeballs or nostril flaps.)

1 tin tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 huge onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 small tin tomato paste

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup dry white wine

1 tin kidney beans

Notice something missing from the above ingredients? What – no chilli! Well, let’s stand still on this crucial topic for uno momento.

This dish, chilli con carne, can be made fiery enough to blister a tractor tire or mild enough to be spoon-fed to a baby of eight weeks. The amount of vooma you put into the pot will depend on the chilli-tolerance of those for whom you are cooking.

That is point number one.

Point number two is never, ever use pre-prepared chilli sauces in the place of the real thing, namely a couple of fresh chillis or some dried chilli powder. Those bottled sauces or chilli pulps contain vinegar and spices and other things that are going to put your expertly cooked dish out of balance.

For a reasonably spicy version, I will add 4 medium-sized fresh red or green chillis, chopped, to the above ingredients or three heaped teaspoons of pure chilli powder. And no: I don’t remove the pips. But if I’m with my chilli-loving amigos, we go ballistic.

Okay, so how’s that chilli con carne?

Heat your pot or potjie over coals or on gas. Pour in some vegetable oil – not olive – and wait for the oil to heat. Fry your onion and garlic in the oil until translucent, but not brown or crispy. Remove the onion and garlic from the oil and set aside. Add the mince to the pot, breaking it up and stirring the meat until it is well-browned all over. It should be loose and easy to stir, without any pink specks.

So far, so good. Now you return the fried onion and garlic to the pot and add the tomato and tomato paste, oregano, salt, chillis and the white wine. Make sure the stuff inside the pot is not cooking at too frenetic a pace, cover and sit back with a beer, carefully listening to your pot. It must be simmering slowly and gently to unleash and combine all those yummy flavours. Every once in a while you may open the lid to check what is happening, and if things start drying out, add some more white wine.

The longer you cook it, the better it gets. 2 hours is civilized, however, 3 perfect. Now add the beans and the teaspoon of sugar, stir, and let everything cook for another fifteen minutes.

Culinary expert that you are, you would have rustled up some rice by now. Remove the pot of chilli con carne from the fire and serve on rice with a few grinds of black pepper. And I tell you what, if you really want a satisfying dish, grate some cheddar cheese over the chilli.

Now you may add some of your favourite hot sauce, such as Tabasco.

Eat with a cold beer. Beer, I kid you not, has never tasted better.

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