Juanita's Kitchen: keeping it hearty, healthy and vegan friendly

Making a mole is famously complicated. In Juanita’s Kitchen, Juanita herself spends an entire day selecting, mixing and cooking over 30 ingredients that go into a jar of her signature sauce.

First, there’s five types of chili – chipotle, milotto, poblano, ancho and pasilla – then there’s almonds and peanuts, sesame seeds, pimento and coriander seeds, all individually toasted and ground. She blends in tomatillos grown in the Grampians, fresh garlic and tomatoes, lemon, lime and apple cider vinegar for a fresh, acidic note. After that she adds fresh coriander, Australian raisins and prunes. And, finally she mixes in a bouquet of spices: cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, clove and nutmeg. The result is a deep, complex and floral marinade, best served with chicken, rice and fresh tortillas.

Juanita first made the mole for her partner, who was raised in Mexico, and was pining for the dish. “He was really craving mole. It had been years and he hadn’t had a good mole. So I made a recipe that’s a combination of his mother’s and my own,” she recalls. “When he tried it, he said, this is beautiful, can you make it again? But it had taken me all day! I thought, all right, I’ll start putting that in jars. Now, when he wants a mole, it’s on the shelf.”

This honest, home-style cooking typifies Juanita’s Kitchen. Prepared in a little cafe on Preston’s High Street, Juanita’s focus has always been nutritious, vegan-friendly and sustainably-sourced food. She began her business cooking West African cuisine at festivals and farmers markets eight years ago until “I got tired of cooking and started putting it in jars”.

Her first product, and still one of her most popular, is Noccas, a rich paste that forms the base of much Senegalese cuisine. Using fresh chili and black pepper, Juanita then adds mustard, cumin, coriander, garlic, vinegar and olive oil. “I use it for marinade, I put it in dressing or cook beans in it” she says.

It also forms the base of Juanita’s Mafe, a milder peanut-based simmer sauce. “It’s a West African version of a satay but it’s a bit earthier and not as sweet,” explains Juanita. “It’s just a very good creamy dish perfect with lamb or chicken or even goat.”

When Juanita moved into Mexican, she was surprised by the similarities between West African and Central American cuisine. “I always used to think it was just lots of sour cream and heavy and everything but it’s really light and fresh,” she says. “You have almost the same ingredients in the Ndambe as you would in the tomato salsa, but the ingredients are treated differently at the start.”

Along with the mole, Juanita’s Mexican range also includes a Tomatillo Salsa and a Chipotle Salsa, which uses sweet and smoky jalapeno peppers, as well as a Salsa Picante that’s designed to be an all-purpose hot-sauce. “There is a famous Mexican hot sauce called Valentina – it’s quite citrusy and tangy,” says Juanita. “When I look at the ingredients it had all these preservatives and sugar. I thought I’d make one that’s similar, but I sweetened it with apples instead of sugar.”

Juanita’s concern about preservatives is, in part, motivated by the health of her children. “Every single one of my daughters has some sort of food intolerance. So I wanted to not only do good flavours, but give people an option when they’re busy and can’t find something to cook, and to be healthy as well.”

Those daughters are now critical to Juanita’s production line, with her elder heading up manufacturing in the kitchen, and the younger tasked with getting Juanita’s ideas down on paper. “Quite often I don’t write everything down. I just start throwing in ingredients and and we have something that tastes really good. My younger daughter will follow me around with the notepad,” she says. “Then we will do that again”.

Thankfully, that means Juanita focuses on what she does best: coming up with hearty, healthy, ingredients for folks to use at home. “I like when people contact me and say they have used one of my products and they have made this new recipe,” she says. “It’s rewarding.”

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