Sunday, 3 August 2008

Je Ne Viens Pas De Texas (I'm Not From Texas)

It's been some years since I shed the vintage cowboy boots and the bumper sticker which read, "I'm Not From Texas, But I Got Here as Quick As I Could." The relationship didn't last, nor my short-lived affection for pickup trucks, but my visits to Texas did leave me with an enduring appreciation for Lyle Lovett and any kind of food which could be eaten in or alongside a tortilla.

As a long-ago New Yorker cum Londoner cum Parisienne (and one who has never travelled south of Austin) I'm in no position to be a purist about the myriad differences between Tex-Mex, Southwestern, Americanized Mexican and true Mexican food. I've never eaten from a taco truck or cooked a fresh tomatillo, and my copy of Diana Kennedy's Essential Cuisines of Mexico is still free of telltale stains. But although last night's dinner wasn't a total success, I'm feeling re- inspired to pull out the lime, cilantro and dried chilis more often.

I first got the idea for making steak tacos a few weeks ago, when I came across an old recipe in Food and Wine written by Alice Waters' daugher, Fanny Singer. When this week's NYT featured a spicy, Cuban-esque marinade for grilled beef, Saturday's dinner plans were confirmed. I headed to Borough Market for ripe avocados, skirt steak (technically onglet) and lots of tomatoes and, after lunch, doused the meat in an aromatic souse of cumin, orange juice, lime zest and bay leaves. Following an afternoon of newspaper reading, West Wing-watching and napping, I began work on the flour tortillas.

Since I didn't have the milk required by this recipe, I went with another one instead, substituting Cornish butter for the shortening. The flour, fat and hot water came together almost instantly into a plump, pliable mound. But when it came to rolling out the tortillas, the still-warm dough stuck to everything: hands, counter, rolling pin. Though the too-thick and comically misshapen breads which eventually appeared were tasty enough, they were hardly the revelation which I had promised.

Although the recipe didn't call for it, I'd like to think that a spell in the refrigerator would have made the dough easier to handle. But even if I'm not in the strongest position to recommend homemade tortillas at present, I would advise without reservation the combination of grilled steak--crusty on the outside, blood-red on the interior, homemade guacamole, and salsa made smoky-hot with chipotle in adobo.

In my defense, I doubt that more time in Texas would have burnished my tortilla-making skills. For just as no rational Parisian would dream of baking a baguette, any self-respecting Texan would know just where in town to buy freshly-made, perfectly-symmetrical tortillas. Lyle sums it up well: "You say you're not from Texas. As if I didn't know."

Although the quantities below are certainly enough to flavour 4 portions of meat, the excess could also be boiled down and served over rice. The marinade could be applied anywhere from an hour to a day in advance.

Flank Steak With Garlic, Thyme, Orange and Cumin
adapted from Melissa Clark in the New York Times

1/4 cup orange juice (from 1 large orange)
2 fat garlic cloves
1 tablespoon packed fresh oregano leaves (I substituted dried thyme, which is commonly used in Caribbean cooking)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
zest of 1 lime
between 150 and 200 grams (about 1/3 pound) skirt or flank steak per person

Chop the garlic and zest the lime. In a shallow dish large enough to hold the meat in one layer, combine the marinade ingredients, mixing so that the cumin dissolves. Add the meat and season, turning several times to ensure it can absorb the marinade fully. Cover and leave, refrigerating if longer than 1-2 hours. Before grilling, lightly brush off any bits of chopped garlic. If using as a sauce, strain and bring the marinade to a full boil before serving.

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