June 29, 2010

life these days

Wimbledon. Haruki Murakami short stories. Campari soda and soda chanh. Wonderful summer rain storms. Berries. Fruit pies in my ruffled dish. The combination of Mark's hearth bread and ultra-creamy Beemster Graskaas. Missing my family, who all came to visit last week. Helping our friends paint their new townhouse. Thinking about how to adequately celebrate Mark's thesis defense (only 2 more weeks).


Also, cooking successes (handmade flour tortillas!) and disappointments. Buoyed by my tortilla success, I made a pile of whole wheat chapatis last night, to accompany kidney bean curry, mushroom masala and cucumber raita. I should have paid better attention when my friend Jyoti's mom was making them for us. Hers were pliable and delicious; mine, disappointingly dry. And tonight I made salmon en papillotte: wild Alaskan salmon topped with julienned zucchini/fennel/carrot, lemon juice, white wine, thyme and a little butter, neatly sealed in parchment paper. We tore open the parchment at the table to find two very pretty pieces of overcooked salmon. Hoping for something better tomorrow.

June 13, 2010

Texas, our Texas: making salsa

One of the best parts about living in Texas is Mexican and Tex-Mex food. After 9 years in Texas, the act of sharing frozen margaritas, chips and salsa, and beef fajitas has become synonymous with celebration -- whether it's a birthday, old friends in town, or just Thursday night.

At home, though, we rarely cook Tex-Mex. Fajitas aren't hard to make, but the original Ninfa's on Navigation does them so well. And their tortillas are so chewy and warm and delicious -- why mess with perfection? No, when cooking at home, I always want to make Mexican food. One of the things that I love most about Mexican cuisine is how you can take a few simple, fresh ingredients and make a dish or sauce of surprising complexity and flavor. Don't get me wrong, I love Tex-Mex but most dishes I know rely a little too heavily on cheese/sour cream/fat/salt for me to make them on a regular basis. Mexican food is all about the balance of acidity, spice, fat, and heat, with an amazing attention to texture. I just find it more rewarding to cook and eat.

The other great thing about Houston, besides lots of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, is having access to high-quality ingredients. El Camino farmers market on Airline is one of the best place to stock up on produce but, closer to our hood, is the tiny Fiesta on Dunlavy -- especially for super juicy limes, perfect avocados, tomatillos, at least a dozen different kinds of dried chiles, chipotles en adobo, cajeta (aka goat milk caramel), warm corn tortillas, and key herbs like epazote and cilantro. And the friendliest security guard ever.

I picked up most of my tricks by watching my friend Elvia, who is a true home cook. She taught me to make a fantastic tomatillo and avocado salsa that is creamy and tart at the same time. Another day we made a tomato and chipotle salsa that is just insane on chilaquiles. She also taught me to add fresh epazote when making a pot of black beans. Epazote smells like paint thinner but adds a licorice-y note that I really like.

But for those of you who don't have an Elvia, I recommend Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless. The recipes in the book are relatively simple, much more so than his other books, hence the "everyday" characterization. But we have loved every recipe we made: lime-cilantro salad dressing, garlicky ancho chile rubbed steak, grilled roadside whole chicken, and the salsas.

Adding my Elvia recipes to the blog are on my to-do list. But, for now, I offer two of my favorite Rick Bayless salsa recipes. The fire-roasted tomato salsa, which I sometimes eat by the spoonful, is a snap to make if you have a blender. And the tomatillo salsa is tart and almost fruity, perfect with a rich pork taco.

P.S. Photography by JP Slavinsky.

Rustic roasted tomato salsa
From Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless

1. If you are sensitive to spice, be careful using jalapenos. Sometimes jalapenos are weak, almost like bell peppers, and sometimes they are burn-your-face-off hot. Serranos have a more consistent level of heat, in my experience.
2. My favorite tomatoes for this recipe are Muir Glen fire roasted tomates.
3. I have found that this salsa gains in intensity in the refrigerator -- the onion and garlic flavors become especially prominent after 1-2 days.
4. This salsa is super with chips or can be used as a simmering sauce for chicken or shrimp.

Makes about 2 cups.

4 serranos (or 2 fresh jalapenos)
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice, preferably fire-roasted
1/3 cup loosely packed, roughly chopped cilantro
a teaspoon or so of fresh lime juice
coarse salt

1. Set a small skillet over medium heat. Lay the chiles and garlic in the skillet and dry-roast until soft and blotchy black in spots, about 10 minutes for the chiles, about 15 minutes for the garlic.
2. While the chiles/garlic are roasting, scoop the chopped onion into a strainer and rinse under cold water. Shake off the excess water and pour into a medium bowl.
3. Pull the stems off the roasted chiles and peel the paper skins off the garlic. Scoop them into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the tomatoes, with their juice, re-cover and pulse a few more times, until the mixture is as coarse or as smooth as you like your salsa.
4. Pour the tomato mixture into the bowl with the onion. Add the cilantro and stir thoroughly. Thin with a little water if necessary to give the salsa an easily spoonable consistency. Taste and season with lime juice and salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. If not using within an hour or two, cover and refrigerate.

Fresh tomatillo salsa
adapted from Rick Bayless and the Homesick Texan

1. Before using the tomatillos, you'll need to husk them and give them a good rinse. Tomatillos usually have a sticky residue that, when it meets water, starts to get foamy and slippery. This is normal; don't worry.
2. The step of heating the tomatillo salsa in peanut oil helps the flavors combine and reduces a bit of the tartness. A good trick.
3. Favorite uses: dribbled on quesadillas or egg and potato tacos, with chips, or -the best- served with pork carnitas or that Rick Bayless grilled roadside chicken I mentioned.

Makes 2 cups.

8 medium (about 16 ounces total) tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and quartered
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 serranos or 1 jalapeno, stemmed and roughly chopped
1/2 to 2/3 cup loosely packed, roughly chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely chopped white onion
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
a small pinch of sugar
peanut oil

1. Scoop the chopped onion into a strainer and rinse under cold water. Shake off the excess water and add all ingredients except peanut oil to bowl of a food processor or blender. Process to a coarse puree, adding up to 1/4 cup of water to loosen the mixture if necessary.
2. Taste and season with additional salt if you think necessary.
3. Heat saucepan over low-medium heat. Add a little peanut oil to the pan. Add salsa mixture to pan and heat over medium heat 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally.