In the mid-1980s I lived in New York's Brooklyn, in a divey apartment in what was then a very rough neighbourhood. Brooklyn is seriously gentrified these days but back then you had to climb over various passed-out bodies on the pavement to get through the gate and the bunch of prostitutes who hung out across the other side of the street used to try to solicit me.
It was however, that particular moment of time in the United States that heralded the arrival of the celebrity chef. Manhattan's new temples to gastronomy offered up sumptuous menus with price tags that would empty a seriously endowed pocket as fast as you can say "may I have the bill please".
Occasionally I got to experience this when a rich "maybe beau" would pick me up with his driver in the limo and wine and dine me at the iconic Tavern on the Green in Central Park. The rest of the time I was living on the smell of an oily rag, subsisting largely on whatever cheap produce the farmers' markets had on offer, like leeks, potatoes and pumpkin.
Around the corner you could get a dammed fine slice of pizza for 70c, which I would occasionally splurge out on. Tex Mex food was another option, tasty plates of nachos, tacos, quesadillas and fajitas dished up for small change. Paul Prudhomme, the super-sized chef who put Cajun and Creole food into the mainstream with his blackened redfish, published his first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen (1984). I purchased this book while I was there and brought it back with me. Prudhomme's food was far more down-to-earth and rustic than most of the lofty food produced by other "celebrity chefs" at that time. Prudhomme passed away in 2015 but his famous "magic' seasoning mixes live on and have sprouted a multitude of lookalike versions.
July 4 is upon us and with it, a chance to celebrate American cooking. Here are some everyday dishes that draw on a simple-to-prepare smoky spice mix that I can guarantee will become a champion in your pantry.
Smoky Spice Mix
Prep time: 5 mins
Makes just over ½ cup
3 tsp chipotle powder
2 Tbsp toasted cumin seeds
1 Tbsp dried oregano
2 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ cup soft brown sugar
1 Tbsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp dried rosemary leaves, coarsely chopped
Whizz everything together in a spice mill or grinder, or pound to a fine crumb with a mortar and pestle.
Spicy Smoky Beef Fajitas
Fajitas are a great place to use a cheap, tasty meat cut - like skirt steak, hangar steak or onglet. The key for a juicy flavoursome result is to slice the meat very thinly across the grain and serve it rare or, at most, medium-rare. If you can't be bothered making your own spice mix and want to use a commercial one remember that brands vary considerably in their heat profile, so start with less and add more as preferred.
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Ready in 25 mins
400g skirt steak, finely sliced across the grain, or thinly sliced hanger steak, or onglet steak or beef schnitzels
2-3 Tbsp smoky spice mix (above) or store-bought Cajun or Mexican spice mix
2 Tbsp neutral oil
2 onions, halved and cut into very thin wedges
2 red peppers, cut into thin strips
8 tortillas, heated
Side salad (below)
Iceberg lettuce, cut into wedges
Guacamole or mashed avocado, optional
1 green pepper thinly sliced
6 tomatoes, cored and chopped
½ red onion, thinly sliced
1 avocado, chopped
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt and grinds of pepper
Stir beef and spice mix together and set aside. Combine all the ingredients for the side salad in a bowl and toss to combine.
Heat 1 Tbsp of the oil in a heavy-based frying pan and cook onions and peppers until they are very soft and starting to brown (about 10 minutes). Move to one side of the pan, increase heat to high, add the remaining oil and stir-fry the beef for about 1 minute . Don't overcook. (You may need to lift out the onions and peppers or cook the beef in two batches if you don't have a very big pan). Toss to combine the beef, onions and peppers and pile on to a serving platter.
Serve with tortillas, side salad lettuce and avocado mash or guacamole. If using, so people can build
their own fajitas.
Mexican Meatballs with Firecracker Sauce
You could also cook these amazingly speedy oven-baked meatballs on a grill hotplate or in a frying pan – just cook until they are firm and golden. The sauce also makes a great base to cook mince/ground meat and beans for a simple chilli meal.
Ready in 25 mins
Serves 10-12 at a pass-around party
Sauce makes about 1¼ cups
2 Tbsp oil
¼ cup smoky spice mix
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
4 tsp soft brown sugar
500g pork mince
¼ cup grated onion
2 Tbsp chopped coriander leaves
2-3 Tbsp smoky spice mix, or use store-bought Fajita or Cajun spice mix
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
To make firecracker sauce, heat oil a small pot over a medium heat, add spice mix and sizzle for a few seconds. Add tomatoes and sugar and simmer gently over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly thickened (about 20 minutes). Sauce will keep covered and chilled for up to a week.
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake and line a shallow roasting dish with baking paper for easy clean-up. Combine all meatball ingredients in a large mixing bowl until evenly incorporated. Form into balls about the size of large walnuts and arrange on the prepared tray. Bake until golden and firm (12-15 minutes).
Serve meatballs with toothpicks and sauce for dipping.