Growing Mexican with Gaubrielle Pritchard
30 Oct 2013 06.49 am by Renny Wijeyamohan
It’s hot in Austin, Texas. Real hot. With temperatures regularly breaching 90°F (that’s 32°C) in the summer. This means that proper care in planting, tending to and harvesting produce is essential in maintaining food quality – especially in Austin’s thriving and competitive restaurant scene. And with an estimated 40% of the Texas population made up of people of Hispanic descent, it’s no surprise that in Texas, “Mex” is big.
For Gaubrielle Pritchard, a senior chef at Rainey Street’s El Naranjo, “Mexican food is about respecting your ingredients and the history behind them.”
“I spent the majority of my young life living in various places in Texas so Mexican food and culture was very prevalent in my life. The Latin population is growing and thriving and it is a culture that will continue to educate and fascinate others for the better. My chef and mentor Iliana de la Vega taught me everything I know about Mexican cuisine and I fell in love.”
And what’s not to love. El Naranjo’s menu is decked with spicy salsas, mouth-watering meats and tender roasted vegetables served with heartwarming tortillas and sides. El Naranjo’s philosophy is simple – present authentic flavoursome Mexican food to Austin diners sourced from quality produce. We’re talking traditional Mexican here, not Taco Bell Tex Mex.
The chefs aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty either. De la Vega grows her own hoja santa – a heart-shaped herb native to Mexico with a licorice flavour that is used to flavour dishes like Mole Verde, Pipian Verde and Green Ceviche. “It thrives in the Texas weather so we grow our own. We use it in our moles and some herb sauces. The leaf can also be wrapped around fish or cheese and then cooked. It lends its fragrant flavour and is beautiful when presented.”
“For the rest of our ingredients,” Pritchard points out, “we use purveyors that don't utilize insecticides or pesticides and we buy local produce when it is available. If we cannot source the products local we still work with farmers with the same farming values we have: fresh, natural, delicious.”
So what are some tips from Pritchard when it comes to sensing and assessing Mexican ingredients? Well…
“Hoja santa grows like a weed and does not need a lot of water to survive,” she says. It has “large green leaves so look for brown spots or areas where insects have eaten the plant; these areas can trimmed if necessary. Once the hoja santa begins to turn dark brown or black it is no longer usable.”
Once picked, Pritchard recommends storing it in water to extend its shelf life.
“Chayotes are a native fruit to Mexico. While they are technically a fruit, they are used in more savoury preparations, so they are cooked in a similar way to vegetables. They are crisp in flavour and texture and are featured in dinner items such as our chayote salad with a vinegar and oil vinaigrette, Oaxacan oregano, black pepper, Queso Panela (Panela cheese) and pickled red onions.” This is Pritchard’s favourite salad.
When selecting chayotes: “they should have no visible bruises i.e. brown spots or discoloration. They should be a vibrant green and very firm to the touch.”
“The corn we use to make our corn tortillas from scratch comes from Mexico and it is dried. We do a process called nixtamalisation where you cook the corn in calcium, rinse it, grind it and then mix with water to form masa. Masa is the ‘dough’ that is then used to make tortillas on a comal or skillet.”
“The corn that we use is picked from corn stalks in Mexico because their corn is much less sweet than ours. When using it to make tortillas you must cook it in calcium so then the corn is palettable and ready for grinding. This same masa mixture is also used to make other dishes we make such as sopes, molotes or empanadas. The corn should be stored in a dry cool place with a lid.”
When prepping the dried corn: “you want to make sure there are no rocks or other hard items mixed in with the corn. Essentially the dried corn will last for many years on end.”
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