Saturday 24 February 2018

Recipes: Brenda Costigan with some like it hot

Used with caution, chillies can add a colourful kick to Tex-Mex dishes such as chilli con carne and burritos, says Brenda Costigan, which are great options for relaxed entertaining

'It is important to stop entertaining and just have friends over." I came across this sentence in an old American magazine and first thought, 'sure, isn't it the same thing?' Having friends over is entertaining, but somehow it seems easier and more relaxed when it's put like that.

Do Americans have a more relaxed attitude to entertaining than we do? Take their pot-luck parties -- everyone pitches in and brings a dish. Or how about those bottle parties! Dessert parties, where only desserts are served, is another cute idea.

Tomorrow is July 4, American Independence Day, and this is a big party time in the USA. To celebrate the recent visit of President Barack Obama, we, too, should join in. Many years ago, poached salmon and fresh peas were traditionally served on this holiday-- especially in the Bostonian east-coast area. A barbeque is more likely now.

But for a really easy option when you're having friends over, try some Tex-Mex dishes. The ever popular chilli con carne can be made in advance, and it's so easy to serve, with all the tasty and colourful trimmings. You might consider something with fresh pineapple in it for dessert, to add a Hawaiian touch and pay homage to Obama's birthplace.


The range of fresh chillies used in cooking is astounding. To aficionados, chillies have different flavours and, more importantly, different heats. The pungency of chillies is measured in Scoville heat units. An ordinary red pepper would score zero on this scale, while tiny bird chillies could score a massive 30,000 heat units. The general rule is that the smaller the chilli, the hotter it is, but this is not always the case. The seeds are often the hottest part, and they are usually scraped out and discarded. The golden rule when you're handling fresh chillies is to wash the chopping board and knife afterwards, and scrub your hands using a nail brush. If the hot stuff gets in your eyes, you will know all about it. It is mainly a matter of trial and error as to how much chilli you use in any given dish. Start slowly, as more can always be added later if the mixture is not hot enough, but it is difficult to reduce the heat, once it has been added. Serving some creme fraiche or thick Greek-style yogurt on the side gives a nice cooling effect. You can use fresh chillis and/or chilli powder, both mild and hot, in the recipe below. Cayenne pepper is very hot and can be used if a serious heat kick is required.



This can be made days in advance, stored in a cold place and reheated later. Unless you're certain your friends like it hot, be cautious in your use of chillies or chilli powder, whichever you're using. Serve the chilli with boiled rice. Accompany with guacamole, salsa and corn chips. I like to include a bowl of coleslaw and a green salad, along with some creme fraiche or Greek yogurt to spoon on to each serving. Serves 6.

You will need:

2 medium onions, chopped

2-4 tablespoons sunflower oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

700g (1½lb) lean minced beef

2-3 teaspoons hot chilli powder or 2-4 skinny red chillies, deseeded and chopped, see note

1-2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 level teaspoon dried oregano

1 heaped teaspoon cocoa powder

1 x 400g (14oz) tin chopped tomatoes

200ml (7fl oz) water

1-2 tablespoons tomato puree

1 beef stock cube, crumbled

1 tablespoon mango chutney or tomato chutney

1 x 400g (14oz) tin red kidney beans, drained

Using a frying pan, fry the chopped onions in the sunflower oil until they become soft, adding in the crushed garlic as the onion fries. Using a perforated spoon, transfer the onion and garlic mixture to a heavy-based saucepan. Next, fry the lean minced beef in small lots, as it will brown more effectively this way. As each batch browns lightly, transfer it to the saucepan containing the onion and garlic mixture. Then add to the saucepan the hot chilli powder or the deseeded, chopped red chillis (make sure you've read the note below!), the ground cumin, the dried oregano, and the cocoa powder and stir well. Then add the tin of chopped tomatoes, the water, the tomato puree, the crumbled beef stock and the mango chutney or the tomato chutney, whichever you're using. Bring to the boil, stirring to ensure the ingredients are evenly mixed. Then reduce the heat and cover the saucepan with a lid and simmer gently for 35-45 minutes, or until the chilli is nicely cooked. Leave to stand for an hour -- or for a day or two, if you prefer -- before reheating to serve.


Start by adding only two teaspoons of the chilli powder or two small, fresh, deseeded, chopped chillies Later, when the dish is cooked enough to taste it, you can add another spoon or two of the powder depending on taste. Or, if you're using fresh chillies, add another 1-2. You may like to soften any extra chopped, fresh chilli first by frying it gently in a spoon of oil, and then add it -- oil and all -- to the cooked meat mixture.


This fresh-tasting salsa can be made in advance, even overnight.

You will need:

Small red or white onion, finely diced

3 ripe-but-firm tomatoes

½-1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely diced

¼-½ medium red pepper, deseeded and diced very finely

10cm (4in) piece of cucumber, diced finely

Juice of 1 lime

1-2 teaspoons caster sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-3 teaspoons sweet chilli sauce (optional)

Extra virgin olive oil

Handful of fresh coriander leaves, chopped, to serve

Put the finely diced red or white onion, whichever you are using, into a bowl. Chop the tomatoes into small dice, discarding only their hard cores -- some people like to discard the central seeds of the tomatoes, but it is rather wasteful -- and add to the diced onion.

Add the finely diced and deseeded chillies, the finely diced red pepper and cucumber. Add the lime juice, a little caster sugar to taste, and some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Add some sweet chilli sauce, if you are using it. I find it gives a great zing to the salsa's flavour. Drizzle in a little extra virgin olive oil and mix it through.

Add the chopped fresh coriander leaves just before serving, as they turn black if left for too long.


The word burrito means little donkey. The flour tortilla is wrapped, parcel-like, around a meat filling -- close it at both ends, and sit it on a plate with the folded ends placed underneath -- this humpy parcel supposedly resembles a small donkey. The meat filling is the chilli con carne, see above recipe. The tortillas take the place of rice or potatoes.

To serve the burritos, you can put all the components on the table -- the hot chilli con carne in a bowl, the warm tortillas, the grated cheese, the sliced avocado, and the sour cream. Then, let everyone make up their own burrito. Serve with the salsa, see recipe above. Or, if you prefer, you can wrap the burritos up in the kitchen before serving.

You will need:

8-10 flour tortillas, warmed

Chilli con carne as recipe above, but half the quantity

Grated white Cheddar

2 avocados, peeled, sliced and tossed in lemon or lime juice

Sour cream

Salsa, to serve, see recipe above

Warm the tortillas quickly in the microwave -- cover them -- or, if you like, toast them in the toaster.

Put a generous spoonful of the chilli con carne into the centre of each flour tortilla, scatter on some grated white Cheddar, slices of avocado and put a spoonful of soured cream on top. Fold the two sides of the tortilla over the filling, then turn up the ends and roll over so that the fold is underneath and the uppermost side of the tortilla parcel is smooth. Accompany with the salsa.


Guacamole is made with fresh avocados, and it should be eaten on the day it is made. Buy avocados a few days in advance and leave them on the kitchen window sill to ripen. Avocados don't contain saturated fat, but rather the 'good' polyunsaturated fats.

You will need:

2 ripe avocados

Juice of ½-1 lime

1 small onion, very finely chopped

2-3 skinned, deseeded tomatoes, chop the flesh

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

1 small chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pinch sugar

Tortilla chips, to serve

Mash the ripe avocados to a somewhat lumpy puree with a potato masher or a wooden spoon, adding the lime juice immediately as this helps to preserve the colour. You could also buzz them in a liquidiser. Then add in the finely chopped onion, the chopped tomatoes, the chopped fresh coriander, the deseeded, chopped chilli, some salt and freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of sugar. Mash or buzz until everything is mixed according to your taste; some people like their guacamole chunky, some like it smooth. Serve with tortilla chips, or cover with cling film and keep in the fridge until ready to serve.


Serve a fresh pineapple like a melon.

You will need:

1 fresh pineapple

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

1 tablespoon caster sugar

Whipped cream (optional)

Cut away the top and tail of the unpeeled pineapple and divide it in half down the length, then, also down the length, cut each half into 3-4 wedges. Trim off the strip at the point of each wedge -- what was the core of the pineapple, which is very tough. With a sharp knife, cut the flesh of the pineapple of each wedge away from the skin, leaving the pineapple in place. Cut this flesh in short pieces across the width, making bite-size pieces. Serve each 'boat' on a plate. Mix the caster sugar with the chopped mint and sprinkle it over the wedges of pineapple. Serve at room temperature. Accompany with a little whipped cream, if you are using it.


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