Ixta Belfrage – Food for thought

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The chef, food writer and co-author of Ottolenghi flavor, Ixta Belfragesits at the epicenter of three electric kitchens, fusing the simplicity of Italian cuisine with the vibrancy of Mexican and Brazilian cuisine, creating dishes to excite and delight.

In her first solo cookbook MEZCLA, Belfrage pays homage to its potpourri of culinary influences, hence the book’s namesake, meaning mix, mix or merge in Spanish. Whether it’s tossing shrimp in habanero oil lasagna or serving pineapple with chicken and ‘Nduja, Belfrage takes us on an odyssey through Italy, Brazil and Mexico and shows us how we too can become masters of fusion cuisine.

Ixta Belfrage’s rise to culinary stardom began in the shadow of Tuscan olive groves. His father’s job involved cultivating relationships with Italian wine producers. So, at the age of three, Belfrage and his family moved to Italy to live in the former servants’ quarters of a typical 15th-century villa.

“I was blessed to grow up in the food mecca of the world, and from an early age I was exposed to really good food and eating really well,” she says. “My best friend’s grandfather ran a restaurant and I remember spending a lot of time watching him make fresh pasta in the laundry room of their house. I would insist on spending time with him because he made the best lasagna in the world.

Growing up in Tuscany, Belfrage reveled in the country’s rustic flavors, eating chicken liver crostini, duck stew tagliatelle, rabbit fritto misto and zucchini blossoms with sage leaves. But it was also the time spent in Brazil and Mexico that made Belfrage the cook she is today.

“My mother is Brazilian, so I grew up with lots of fresh fish, plantains and black beans spread out on the table,” she says. “And then I was vacationing at my father’s paternal home in Mexico. Although I never met him, we still visited the house where his wife lived, and the food there was just amazing.

The story of Belfrage’s parentage deserves a book on its own. Her father was born to English parents but grew up in the Bronx. When he was 14, his father was accused of being a communist, so he was deported and moved to a halfway house for political refugees in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

By a twist of fate, Belfrage’s maternal family had also fled the Brazilian military regime and found refuge in the house in Cuernavaca, where his parents would first meet. In addition, from the garden of the house, one could see the Ixtaccíhuatl volcano, where his parents found the inspiration for the name Ixta.

Belfrage would return to this beloved home in Cuernavaca with her family, and she would gaze intently at the cooks stuffed and fried with chili rellenos (stuffed peppers), rolled corn tortillas and pounded chili, and spices for the moles.

When she got home, she found herself craving the generous Italian, Brazilian and Mexican spreads she had grown up on. “At home, the food was a bit plain,” Belfrage says. “My mother was a nutritionist, so we eat very healthy. I was so obsessed with food that I realized if I wanted to recreate those flavors, I would have to do it myself.

After graduating from school, Belfrage spent a year traveling in Brazil, taking a basic art course, and spending some time in Sydney with a then-boyfriend. Essentially, she was spinning and feeling taken aback as to what to do next. “I’ve always loved cooking, but it took me a while to realize that was what I wanted to do,” she admits. “Then my sister turned to me one day and was just like, ‘Why the hell aren’t you a chef, and so that was a bit of a light bulb moment.’

Belfrage started sending resumes to a bunch of restaurants but didn’t expect a response due to his lack of experience in the industry. “I got a call one morning, and it was from nope (Ottolenghi’s restaurant) because they brought out a chef and I guess they just had to fill the position quickly,” she explains. “But, to be honest, I didn’t do a good job there. I was one in fifteen; I constantly felt overwhelmed, worked 60-70 hours a week, and didn’t eat or sleep properly. It wasn’t for me.

Belfrage then discovered a trial at the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen (OTK) and jumped at the chance to work alongside Yotam and Noor Murad. For half a decade, Belfrage finally had the freedom to do whatever she wanted as long as it fit within the “Ottolenghi ethos”.

While at OTK, Belfrage worked with Ottolenghi to write the best-selling cookbook Flavor. “Yotam is a great person and a boss, and he really brings people together, so I was very lucky to have the chance to co-write Flavor,she said, full of praise. “Yotam is very honest about the people he develops recipes with, which is rare in the industry.”

Writing her own cookbook had always been in the back of her mind, but when Flavor was published, the publishers approached Belfrage with a golden opportunity. After gaining Yotam’s blessing, she began stoking the embers for a cookbook that might encapsulate her style of fusion cooking.

“The premise of MEZCLA it’s about mixing ingredients, but it’s also about my mixed heritage and how that shaped me as a cook,” she says. “I always have a million recipe ideas swirling around my head, and when I wrote them all down, I realized I had 150 great ideas and that was it.”

The book is divided into two parts; “everyday” recipes for quick meals and “entertaining” for those times when you feel like investing more time. MEZCLA has recipes that range from Chiles Rellenos with Salsa Roja Risotto, Jumbo Cheese on Toast with Honey and Urfa Butter, Browned Butter Sea Bass with Tangerine Dip in Whipped Yogurt with Roasted Strawberries and Peanut Fudge Sauce.

Belfrage says his favorite is the shrimp lasagna with habanero oil. “It’s a beautiful representation of the spirit of the book,” Belfrage says. “The habanero oil is Mexican, the shrimp is Brazilian, and the lasagna is Italian.”

She adds, “I also like cornbread and coffee ice cream. Typically, cornbread can be quite dry, but it’s moist and has fresh corn in and on it. While coffee ice cream doesn’t require churning, you literally put everything in a mixture, whip it up and the texture is great – I’m proud to have found this one.

For Ixta Belfrage’s last supper, she chooses a starter of ceviche with fresh local white fish and tons of tomatoes, cilantro and lime. For her main course, she opts for a Tuscan-style stew with rabbit, dried porcini mushrooms, black pepper and chilli. For its pudding, tiramisu and drink, a mezcal margarita (on the rocks).

The Ixta Belfrage recipe for cornbread with curry and brown butter (for 6 people)

Cornbread is usually a supporting act, but this version is good enough to take center stage at the table and will likely end up being the dish you plan the meal around. The corn that adorns the surface is best out of the oven when it’s a little crispy from the butter and a little sticky from the maple syrup. That doesn’t mean you have to eat it all at once; it will still be delicious the next day, reheated. To reheat, either pan-fry or place the slices on a baking sheet in a cold oven, raise the temperature to 150°C fan/170°C and reheat for about 10 minutes. Serve with plenty of butter on the side.

Excerpt from MEZCLA by Ixta Belfrage (Ebury Press, £26) All photographs by Yuki Sugiura

Ingredients

140 g unsalted butter, plus extra for serving 500 g frozen corn kernels, thawed and patted dry
150 g Greek yoghurt
2 large eggs
1 finely chopped Scotch bonnet pepper (optional, see notes)
1 spring onion, finely chopped
5 g fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1½ teaspoons medium curry powder
1½ teaspoons finely grated lime zest
100 g quick-cooking polenta
80g plain flour
½ teaspoon fine salt
6 tablespoons maple syrup, plus extra for serving
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
flaked salt, for serving

Method

I use a whole Scotch bonnet, and its flavor and heat are quite dominant. I love it, but of course you can add less, removing the pith and seeds, or just add a sprinkle of regular chili flakes for a milder heat.

Preheat the oven to 200°C convection/220°C. Butter and line a 20cm cake tin.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat for 5-6 minutes, stirring often, until the butter is foamy and then turns dark golden brown. Add the corn and boil for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes.

While the corn and butter mixture cools, add the yogurt, eggs, Scotch bonnet, spring onions, ginger, curry powder, lime zest, polenta, flour, salt and 3 tbsp maple syrup in a food processor, but don’t blitz yet.

Once cooled, set aside 140g of the corn and butter mixture in a small bowl for later use. Add the remaining corn and butter to the food processor, then add the baking powder and baking soda.

Pulse about 3-5 times, until the mixture comes together. Don’t over mix, you want a textured batter with little bits of corn, not a smooth batter.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, then evenly distribute the reserved corn and butter over the surface.

Bake for 20 minutes, then drizzle evenly over the remaining 3 tablespoons of maple syrup and bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until crispy and golden on top.

Leave to cool for 15 minutes. If you have a torch, use it to char the corn in spots. Drizzle with a little more maple syrup (I like it a lot!), sprinkle with flaked salt and serve with a slice of butter.



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