Playing at Masterchef: the Mexican challenge with Discovery and Benito's Hat

(...or, "how I won this apple green beauty")

I know nothing about Mexican food. My experiences of said cuisine have been largely limited to homemade attempts at fajitas (read: cook chicken. Cook peppers. Roll in tortilla wrap. Add sour cream and salsa from a jar), and a trip to Wahaca in Covent Garden (delicious - must go again sometime). It is, perhaps, the cuisine I am least familiar with and cook least often. For no particular reason, I suppose - mainly lack of knowledge and experience. I used to enjoy burritos from The Mission in Oxford when I was there as a least, I enjoyed the first few mouthfuls, after which I would start to feel mildly sick, but obliged to continue until the bitter end as said meaty wrap had cost me over a fiver.

So when I was invited to take 'the Mexican challenge', in association with Discovery (whose brand name is synonymous with make-your-own fajita kits) and Benito's Hat (Mexican restaurant with three branches in London), I was more than a little apprehensive. I had visions of said challenge perhaps involving an all-you-can-eat-tacos contest, a guacamole mud fight, or some kind of re-enactment of an Aztec sacrifice. Fortunately, it involved none of the above (although all of the above could certainly have happened on the actual night I'm sure, had enough margaritas been involved).

The Mexican challenge took place at Waitrose Cookery School in Finchley Road. I was completely charmed upon entering this place; it reminded me a little of Masterchef, with its individual fully-equipped cooking stations and its walls decorated with gorgeous kitchen ingredients and paraphernalia. I was even more charmed when I promptly received an enormous margarita to sip as I mingled with my fellow food bloggers. A complete cookery school situated directly above a huge Waitrose supermarket from which one could pillage ingredients - basically my idea of heaven. When we were given our own Waitrose aprons, I started to plot how best to smuggle mine out under my jumper (I never managed to achieve this - don't worry, Waitrose, your aprons are safe).

Before I start, I'd like to apologise for the quality of the photos on this post - I totally forgot to take my camera, and ended up having to use my iPhone. I emphatically wish I'd remembered, but oh well. Bear with me - you can still get the gist!

Felipe making prawn tacos
First, after a brief introduction from Ben (founder of Benito's Hat and maker of excellent margaritas), we watched Felipe, chef at Benito's Hat, prepare two Mexican-style dishes. The first I found really interesting - he sliced 'jicama', an ingredient I'd never heard of or seen before, into fat strips. This vegetable looks a bit like a turnip, but has the texture of a water chestnut and is usually eaten raw. He also sliced some cucumber, then tossed it all in a dressing made from lemon juice, lime juice, paprika, coriander, and parmesan cheese. A sprinkling of peanuts finished the dish. I have to admit, I was highly sceptical, with no idea how said mixture would taste - lemon, lime, and parmesan? Upon trying it, however, I was pleasantly surprised - the freshness of the citrus lent a lovely tang to the crunchy vegetables, with the parmesan and peanuts providing a deliciously moreish, savoury note.

Next, Felipe made shrimp tacos - buttery, garlicky fried prawns coupled with paprika and a garlic and chipotle mayonnaise, served in a tortilla with iceberg lettuce, lemon juice, and a salsa of tomatoes, onion, coriander and salt. These really were scrumptious - I love the soft, doughy bite of a tortilla wrap against the snap of a crunchy lettuce leaf, finally yielding to the juicy bite of a seared prawn. Even better when everything is flavoured with the gorgeous smokiness of chipotle chillies.

Speaking of chipotle chillies, I've discovered a few fabulous ingredient. I'd never tried them before, but one sniff of a jar of chipotle paste and I was blown away. They have an incredibly smoky, almost fruity flavour, quite unlike the abrasive heat of a regular supermarket chilli. I'm a complete sucker for anything smoked - smoked garlic, smoked fish, smoked meat...I once bought a jar of smoked roasted peppers from a stall at the Real Food Festival, which was incredible. I can't wait to get myself a jar of chipotle paste and use it in sauces and stews; its flavour is unlike anything I've tried before. I kept coming back for second helpings of Felipe's shrimp tacos, savouring the marriage of creamy mayonnaise and fiery, chipotle-enriched salsa.

And then it was our turn to cook.

Left: Waitrose Cookery School. Right: my workbench and choice of ingredients.
The idea was simple: we'd have a selection of ingredients to choose from, half an hour to prepare a dish, then the results would be judged by the Benito's Hat team. If it sounds a little like the famous Masterchef 'invention test', it was. Especially because the prize was, to me, almost as covetable as the Masterchef title: a KitchenAid blender. Who wouldn't want one of these gorgeous creations adorning their kitchen worktop? Who isn't a fan of the iconic KitchenAid design? It was certainly a prize worth cooking up a storm for.

I was like a child in a sweet shop after we were allowed to go and pick our ingredients. (There clearly weren't many health and safety guidelines for this evening - who thought it would be a good idea to let a load of margarita-influenced food bloggers loose on Waitrose's pristine knives, pots and pans?!) There were two huge worktops covered in all sorts of edible wonders; the first packed with Discovery products, the second with fresh vegetables and a fridge. There were courgettes, peppers, oranges, lemons, limes, herbs, spices...and a huge bowl of perfectly ripe avocadoes.

A perfectly ripe avocado is a very, very rare thing. They're pretty much impossible to locate in supermarkets, which charge extortionate prices for something mendaciously termed "perfectly ripe" that in fact has the same texture as a raw potato. I spent a few moments lovingly cradling one of these jade specimens in my palm, before hoarding three and moving to my cooking station, relishing their rampant ripeness. I also went a bit crazy for the huge platter of raw prawns and the perfectly filleted sea bass, ingredients I could never normally afford but were here for the taking. I may have selected a few extra prawns for 'testing'.

Our lovely larder
I could tell you that I had some great strategy, that I'd spend the week preparing Mexican dishes in anticipation, that I'd been honing my fajita-rolling skills days in advance, but that would be a lie. Quite literally, I saw the ingredients available, and a couple of ideas popped into my head. I'm genuinely a bit proud of this fact - one of the things I always tell people who say I should go on Masterchef (apart from "er, are you mad? I'm not a huge fan of televised ritual humiliation") is that I'd fail at the first hurdle - the invention test. I generally don't think of myself as very good at seeing a load of ingredients and coming up with a tasty idea, which is odd, considering that's usually how my lunch comes about (honestly, a grated carrot, orange, spinach and sardine salad is actually quite nice). So to come up with two fairly plausible recipes made me quite self-satisfied.

Unable to decide which would be more blender-worthy, I made them both. One was vaguely Mexican, the other not really Mexican at all, but a mish mash of some of my favourite things on a plate.

My first recipe was inspired by Felipe's prawn tacos. I made something vaguely approaching guacamole, spread it onto crunchy lettuce leaves, then topped it with garlicky buttered prawns. The idea was a prawn taco with none of the carbohydrate, something easily nibbled as a sort of canape, but packed with flavour. I also thought it would be easy to present in an attractive way, Masterchef-style. I have to say, this dish really was delicious. I mashed the avocadoes with lots of lime juice, chopped coriander, chopped tomato, and a little sour cream and chipotle paste to add a gorgeous smoky tang (I basically just went a bit wild with the Discovery ingredients, chucking them in with abandon and tasting occasionally to check I hadn't ruined everything with a smidge too much sour cream). The result went incredibly well with the rich, juicy prawns, the crunch of the lettuce leaf providing a delicious texture.

Although the food tasted good, the incident where I tried to open the foil lid of the sour cream sauce with my teeth and it splattered all over my face and apron was not particularly dignified. Thank the lord for those Waitrose aprons, or my nice new top might have been ruined forever.

My second recipe was pan-fried sea bass, with a crust of spices (cinnamon, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper), served on a salad of baby spinach, avocado, raisin, orange, pumpkin seed, coriander and lime juice. Perhaps it sounds a bit odd, but I think it worked - the meaty fish with its flavoursome crust stood up to the fresh, citrussy flavours of the salad, but there was a lovely crunch from the pumpkin seeds to contrast with it all.

I honestly found the experience quite stressful. My hands were actually shaking a little as I deposited my ingredients on my workbench and tried to think about where to start making my two dishes. I can only assume that such trembling was down to my extreme desire for the KitchenAid blender. If I was that nervous cooking for the Benito's Hat team to win a blender, I really can't imagine how the Masterchef contestants feel in front of Gregg and John (or Monica and Michel Roux, in the case of the Professionals series). I always ridiculed them a little for letting nerves get in the way of the prize, but now I completely empathise. No more will I chuckle as a chef accidentally slices off a finger under the searing gaze of Monica Galetti, or drops his dish on the floor under the stern eye of John Torode.

After a speedy thirty minutes of cooking time had passed, we waited as our dishes were tasted and judged. After each had been tasted, it was brought to us to try ourselves. I ate a lot of excellent food that night from my fellow bloggers; highlights included Mexican roasted sweetcorn from Jackie and a delicious green dip for tortilla chips from Colin, the ingredients of which I've shamefully forgotten. Katie, who was cooking on the bench opposite me and therefore bore witness to my mania and sour cream disaster, came up with what she termed a "student meal" but which was very tasty: quesadillas with melted cheese, salsa, and sour cream. We sat around and stuffed ourselves with various tortilla dishes, prawns, chicken, sour cream, guacamole, and other Mexican delights, until finally the judges announced the runner-up and winner. Colin was duly rewarded for his green salsa with a free meal at Benito's Hat, as was the lovely Rosana.

As you will know from the picture at the head of this post, I won the blender. I was absolutely thrilled, especially given the superb standard of the other dishes, many of which were - I'm sure - far more Mexican than my attempts. Although Ben, upon second glance, revealed that he hadn't noticed the orange segments in my sea bass salad. I hope he doesn't have a phobia of oranges and is, to this day, regretting handing me that cumbersome KitchenAid box.

Carrying said blender home on the tube and then train all the way to Cambridge was interesting, to say the least - particularly trying to negotiate the automatic ticket barriers when I had no hands spare to extract my ticket from my bag. However, the blender is now installed in my kitchen where it has provided me with glorious smoothies every morning.

I had a fantastic time at the Mexican Challenge. Not only did I get given a goodie bag packed with Discovery ingredients and a KitchenAid blender, but I also got a bit of insight into the cooking at Benito's Hat, where the emphasis is all about fresh, local ingredients and helping Mexican food shed its greasy, Tex-Mex image. I almost wish I'd won the runner-up prize so I could go and eat there, though I think I'll be paying a visit anyway sometime soon.

I'm also feeling rather inspired to broaden my Mexican cooking horizons - any suggestions as to what one can make with a KitchenAid blender and some Discovery salsa?!

Me with my two culinary creations. Check out the apron!
Thanks to Wild Card PR for inviting me to the event, and to Benito's Hat and Waitrose Cookery School. (And also, of course, to KitchenAid!)  Should you fancy trying Felipe's tempting recipes, here they are:

Benito's Hat Jicama Salad (serves 4):

1 whole peeled Jicama (350-400g)
1 whole peeled cucumber (250-300g)
1 whole lime (1/8 cup squeezed juice)
2 whole lemons (1/4 cup squeezed juice)
Dry roasted peanuts (50g)
Fresh chopped coriander (20g)
Parmesan cheese (30g)
Paprika one pinch
Discovery Salsa

In a big bowl place all the ingredients and mix very well. Serve in a small bowl - garnish with more parmesan cheese and coriander. For extra flavour, serve with Discovery Salsa – a perfect dip to accompany the salad.

Benito's Hat Prawn Tacos (serves 4):
20 prawns
50 grams of butter
2 cloves of chopped garlic
Pinch of paprika
100 grams of finely chopped iceberg lettuce
Pico de Gallo (recipe: 1 chopped fresh tomato, 20g onions, 20g chopped coriander and salt to taste)
Chipotle garlic mayonnaise dressing (see below)
1 lemon cut in wedges
Discovery Plain Flour Tortillas
For the dressing: in a blender jar put 1 tbsp of Discovery Chipotle paste, 1 garlic clove and 1 cup of mayonnaise. Blend it for about 2 minutes until it becomes creamy or runny.

Place a frying pan on a low heat. Add the butter, garlic, prawns and paprika and cook for 4 minutes stirring occasionally until the prawns are cooked thoroughly

Heat the Discovery Plain Flour Tortillas in another pan and then place on a serving dish. On each tortilla place the lettuce and add Pico de Gallo. Put the prawns on top and cover with the Discovery chipotle and garlic mayonnaise. Place a lemon segment on the side of each plate.