Cooking Like a Mexican

Aguachile
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

Hello, precious readers. As you read in the last issue, I will be taking over the Cooking Like A Mexican column from now on. I’d like to, first, thank my mother for trusting me with such a popular section of the paper, and make a promise to not let you down.

Second, I’d like to introduce myself to you guys. I am a twenty-something, self-proclaimed foodie. I am not a gourmand, because my love for food does not equal expensive tastes; I’m just a food lover no matter the cost. I am a pretty adventurous eater, and am in love with my country’s cuisine.

aguachile.JPGI come from a matriarchy that my grandmother started. (Many of you might know her as Sparky.) She is THE cook of the family, and she makes some killer black beans, which I will write about another time.

One of my fondest memories of my mom (besides her mom smell, which hasn’t changed my entire life) is her cooking. She always says that there’s nothing special to it, but she has that touch that makes any dish she cooks a thousand times better than if I had made it. I am pretty sure it happens to all of us. There is a special connection in our family with food: recipes are handed down from generation to generation; from the moment the preparation of a dish starts, down to that “sobremesa” after a meal. There is no English translation for sobremesa, but it’s the conversation people have after eating, usually with coffee, dessert or digestives.

Our life revolves around food. Love is born in the kitchen, and so are conversations.

Now, on to the food! Serrano chiles are one of the most used ingredients in Mexican cooking. All chiles are heavily used, really, but today we’re going to focus on this special variety. Its name comes from the word “sierra” which means “mountain range. This chile comes from the mountain ranges that cover Mexico’s landscape. The serrano chile is a tiny, cylindrical pepper that is often pointy. It is considered a six out of 10 on the spice scale, and ranges between 10,000 to 25,000 on the Scoville scale (that’s the scale used to measure heat units in food). Most of the time, this chile is consumed in its infancy, when it is a beautiful lime green color, but it can also be eaten when it starts to mature into a red color.

My recipe for this issue is the traditional aguachile. It’s a great hangover cure, as well as the perfect companion to an ice-cold beer, which makes it very popular for gatherings of family and friends. The traditional recipe comes from the state of Sinaloa, a very hot place where the shrimp are top quality. The origins of aguachile are not very clear, but its name comes from “agua” (water) and “chile” (pepper).

Aguachile is a very simple dish with three key ingredients: shrimp, chiles and lime. It is served with cucumber and red onions. What is different about this dish, something you Gringos might not be used to, is that the shrimp isn’t cooked with heat, but with the lime juice. The acid in the lime juice breaks down the raw meat. The scientific term for this is "denaturation," which is the process in which protein loses its structure from the application of a strong acid, base, salt, alcohol or heat. A long time ago, this cooking method was used to rehydrate dried meat, and then later seafood.

Before we get started with the recipe, there are several important things you have to keep in mind when making an aguachile:

- The time between making the dish and serving it must be no longer than ten minutes. I know some people might get a little nervous about lime “cooked” shrimp, but it’s the same as cooking it with heat. Once the shrimp are pink and no longer translucent, you’re good to go. But don’t overcook the shrimp either; the longer it sits in lime juice, the tougher it will be.

- It must be a little spicy. I know you Gringos don’t have the blessing of being able to take heat like us Mexicans can, but there’s no point in making a bland, cold shrimp pile. Take a little risk, worst that can happen is a little flame coming out of your bum, ha! And here’s pro tip for handling the serrano chiles: If you don’t want your aguachile to make you spit flames, soak them for a couple of hours in iced salt water.

- Shrimp must be FRESH. No frozen nonsense. You live near the ocean, come on! And I recommend using medium-sized shrimp, completely cleaned.

- The aguachile sauce has to be balanced. The flavors must be in harmony, with the lime flavor as perceptible as the chile flavor.

There are different kinds of aguachile, varying in colors and ingredients. Some are made with other seafoods, but this time I am going to stick to the traditional recipe. Yeah, I know, aguachile means water and chile, but there are a few more ingredients needed to make the magic happen.

Ingredients:

1 lb. shrimp

1 large cucumber

3 serrano chiles, chopped (If you want less heat, remove all the seeds. Leave them in for more heat.)

5 sprigs cilantro, chopped

1 cup lime juice

2 splashes of Maggi sauce (That’s the brand name, you’ll find it in any supermarket.)

¼ a red onion

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

1.      Slice about a third of the cucumber and onions in 1/3-inch moons for presentation.

2.      Clean the shrimp thoroughly, since they will be cooked in lime juice and not heat, then slice them lengthwise.

3.      In a bowl, cover the shrimp with 3/4 of a cup of the lime juice; the shrimp must be covered completely in the lime juice. Let them party in there for ten minutes, then season with salt and pepper.

4.      Take your remaining cucumber, onion, serrano chiles and cilantro and puree with the removing ¼ cup of lime juice. The consistency should be pretty runny; add water if needed.

5.      To serve, put some of the cucumber slices around the plate, as if you were making a big flower. Toss the onion and the shrimp together and put them in the middle of the plate. Then, splash some Maggi sauce over it followed by the chile sauce.

I am one of those avocado-loving Mexicans, so I also put some slices of “green gold” on top. Serve it along with some tostadas, and that’s it!

Let me know what you think. My email is ale.borbolla@gringogazette.com, and suggestions are always welcome! ,