Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

The Winter Kitchen: Salsa Macha

When I’m on a Mexican cooking binge I have to make some condiments to serve with meals and Salsa Macha is among my favorites. I love the name, which could be translated roughly as “bold sassy woman sauce,“ and I love the flavor, which manages to be very hot and very delicious. This one is for fire-loving palates. When most Americans hear “salsa” they think immediately of the tomato-based pico de gallo, but in fact there is a huge range of salsas and table condiments in Mexico and, as far as I can tell, most of them are delicious.

Among published recipes there are infinite variations, and my preference is for the simplest version, which I learned from the writing of Zarela Martinez more than a decade ago and have been making with only slight alteration ever since. You will need both a spice grinder and a mini food processor. The blender doesn’t work, since too much oil would be needed to keep the blades turning.

1 ounce chiles de Arbol, about 25

1 cup roasted peanuts

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

salt and mild olive oil as needed

Snip the stem end off each chile and shake out all the seeds you can. Discard the seeds. Put the chiles in a small saucepan over the lowest heat and cook somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, stirring and shaking occasionally. When you start, notice the sound they make when you stir them, because your best indication that they are done is when the sound becomes higher pitched and somehow drier. They will be a couple of shades darker and a little smoother and glossier than when you started, and more brittle if you squeeze one between your fingers. Be careful not to scorch them.

At the same time, put a small skillet over low heat, put the garlic cloves still in their skins in the skillet, and turn them occasionally while the chiles cook. When the skins are browned in spots, take them out of the skillet. The important thing is that the cloves inside be a bit cooked and no longer raw-tasting. At times when I have leftover roasted garlic or garlic confit in the refrigerator I often use that, using several cloves instead of two to compensate for the milder flavor.

Grind the chiles in the spice grinder to a fine powder. Put the powder in the mini prep and add the peanuts. Process until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.

Peel the cooked garlic cloves, add them, and process to the fine-crumb stage. Sprinkle in the teaspoon of vinegar and add olive oil to taste. I add the oil a tablespoon or two at a time, processing briefly between additions, and add only enough to coat the “crumbs” and bring the salsa together. Many commercial versions are swimming in oil, which doesn’t appeal to me, but suit yourself. Now taste and salt as needed. I can’t guess at a quantity because it depends how much salt was on your peanuts, but this is a condiment and in my opinion it should lean salty, to balance the heat.

It’s great on a grilled tortilla as a snack or cook’s treat, and good as a table condiment with any dish that isn’t too delicate in flavor. I’ve enjoyed it with shrimp rubbed with chipotle and garlic and grilled. It would be good with simply cooked and salted earthy greens. Today I dished up simply cooked black beans from Rancho Gordo, grilled some asadero on top, and dolloped  some creme fraiche and salsa macha on the side. Simple, filling, and interesting to eat.

 

The Winter Kitchen: Posole


During the growing season I’m generally too busy planting, tending, and processing to fool around much with ingredients from elsewhere. In winter, there’s more leeway. I’m giving myself more personal leeway with food choices, too: I no longer stick to strict keto. So there’s lots of room for play.
Posole, a stew based on hominy corn, is a traditional Christmas dish in my area, but is usually based on canned hominy to get around the lengthy and tedious nixtamalization and cooking involved. But I was ordering beans from Rancho Gordo, was curious about their heirloom blue hominy corn, and decided to try it. “Hominy corn” means that the nixtamalizing, soaking the corn in a calcium hydroxide solution and rubbing the outer carp off, is finished. I soaked 12 ounces of the kernels in cold water to cover overnight, then put the corn and soaking water in my Instant Pot, added enough water to stand 1” above the kernels,  added salt, and cooked under pressure for 30 minutes.

When I was able to open the pot and taste, the result surprised me. Although the only ingredients were the corn, water, and salt, the broth tasted so rich and meaty that I sipped a cup of it as I worked. Many kernels looked whole and I thought I had undercooked them, but when tasted they were perfect, with chewy-but-tender consistency. I could happily have eaten them plain, but I set out elaborating.

I kept it easy and quick. After all, the whole point of doing some cooking ahead is to have a quick good meal when you need one. I sliced a large onion and sautéed it slowly in a few tablespoons of bacon fat until golden throughout, then added a generous quarter cup of the colorado seasoning paste that I wrote about recently and about a cup of canned fire-roasted tomatoes. The corn and its cooking liquid were added and the whole pot simmered for 20 minutes. Then it was time to dish out in cheery red bowls.

I added a generous handful of grated mild cheddar on top of each bowl as shown at the top of this post, but I have to add that it was extremely good without the cheese, and by using oil instead of bacon fat to sauté the onion and water instead of broth in the seasoning paste, you could have a vegan dish that would pass muster with the meat-eaters  at the table.

The Winter Kitchen: Colorado Seasoning Sauce

Lately I have been on a Mexican kick. Not the light, bright, tropical flavors that are so refreshing  in the summer, but the darker and earthier ones that are so warming in the winter. In my last post I wrote about the darkest and richest of my home-composed seasoning sauces, and this time I’ll give the recipe for my Colorado sauce. I call it Colorado, the Spanish word for brick-red, because it is that color and to distinguish it from red chile, which is made everywhere in my area with local chiles and is truly bright red. It is quite different from the Oaxacan mole colorado, which is enriched with nuts, seeds, and often fruits or sugar. This one is pure chile.

The selection, toasting, deseeding, soaking, and grinding of chiles can be a prolonged process. I’ve gotten around this by making a base that can be used about 85% of the time as a start, modified as needed with additional chiles and seasonings to suit a particular dish. That way I can make the base once and use it for quick meals.

First and foremost, get good chiles. This is not as easy as it sounds. For instance, a lot of places sell dried anchos, but they are generally dried out, brittle, and have lost much of their special flavor. A proper ancho chile is bendable and leathery, has a scent of good pipe tobacco, and when tasted raw has tobacco and raisin notes. In areas with a large Mexican population, you can usually get good ones, but in other areas the chiles often will be dried out, crumbly, and short on flavor. You can order from The Chile Guy and be certain of getting good stock.

The chiles used here are anchos, guajillos, pasillas  negro, and chipotle meco, shown from left to right above.

8 anchos

6 guajillos

5 pasillas negros, often sold just as chiles negros

2 chipotles mecos

1 large onion

4 cloves garlic

1/4 cup home-rendered lard or avocado oil

3 cups chicken broth or water

1 14.5 ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon oregano

With kitchen shears cut  the stem ends off all the chiles, slit them down one side, pull out most of the seeds and veins, and flatten out as much as possible. Slice the onion fine, peel and chop the garlic, and heat up 3 cups of water or broth in a bowl.

Heat a comal or iron skillet to medium-hot. Be prepared to work very fast. Put one chile  at a time in the skillet, hold down firmly with a metal spatula, and toast about 20-25 seconds, even less if your skillet is really hot. For this recipe, you don’t want them to darken, blister, or burn. As each one is finished, toss it into the hot water. As chiles pile up, stir frequently so that they all get soaked. When all are soaking, rinse and dry the skillet. Put 2 tablespoons lard or oil in the skillet over medium heat, add the sliced onion, and sauté slowly with frequent stirring until medium gold. Meanwhile, put the chilies and their soaking liquid and the tomatoes and oregano in the blender and grind to a smooth purée. When the onions are cooked, add the chopped garlic and sauté another few minutes until the garlic is cooked. Pour in the purée  from the blender and cook the mixture over medium-low heat until it boils, then turn down to a simmer and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until it is very thick. This may take up to an hour depending on heat, but be very careful not to scorch it. Now taste and add salt.

You now have a thick chile concentrate which can be smeared on tortillas or sopes or chalupas or meat or chicken as is, but can also be added to rich broth to make wonderful sauces on very short notice. I keep it in the refrigerator in a jar, but if you don’t think you’ll use it that much, freeze it in large ice cubes and calculate about two cubes per cup of broth for a thin sauce or three cubes for a thicker one. It has a little capsaicin heat but not a lot. It’s my favorite seasoning to add to good cooked hominy corn to make posole, and can be used as is or with a little broth added to reheat leftover meat or poultry to make tacos. If you are fond of Oaxacan mole colorado you may be able to elaborate this base into some version of it, although if that’s your preference I think you’d be better advised just to make mole Colorado paste in the first place.

Don’t underestimate the capacity of chile pastes to bring vegetables to life. Stirred into a stir-fry or as part of a rub for roasted vegetables, they can help old favorites show a new side. I can also imagine a little eaten with tortitas, the wonderful Mexican vegetable fritters that are not much seen in the US. You can read more about them here, and I hope that you will, because Zarela Martinez is a truly interesting food writer. However you use your elixir, just be aware that scorched chiles taste acrid and unpleasant and don’t let this happen when using chile pastes.

The toasting step is vital in bringing out the flavor of the chiles. I always do it on the comal because that’s the way that I originally learned, but many sources recommend  oven toasting. I haven’t tried it, but here are directions if you want to experiment: Cook’s Illustrated. In my previous post on Earth and Fire Sauce toasting is replaced by frying in oil, a different and even more complex flavor.

 

 

 

The Winter Kitchen: Earth and Fire Sauce

 


In the past, when I traveled in Oaxaca, I fell in love with the moles, as nearly every traveler there does. My favorite is the rich, complex, highly seasoned mole negro, and I have made the mole paste for it a few times but find that I seldom have enough uninterrupted time to collect all the ingredients, prepare and fry them individually, grind them together, etc. There are a few good commercial brands of mole negro paste, and on the rare occasions when I want this special dish, I tend to use them.

 

But I often crave flavors that are somewhat reminiscent of mole negro, involving deep, rich, earthy tones with a spicy seasoned overlay and an element of slow, dark fire. For those occasions, I have come up with a seasoning paste that I can make in the winter, keep in my refrigerator, and add where appropriate. Properly speaking it’s a salsa, but in the American minds salsa is the fresher lighter tomato concoction, so I call it a sauce. The ingredient list is simple, although if you live in an area that lacks a substantial Mexican population you may need to order the chiles by mail. The prep may seem time-consuming, but comfort yourself that it’s insignificant compared to the time spent making mole negro. You’ll need a blender.

The long, narrow Pasilla negro and the light brown chipotle meco are the two on the right

7 chiles Pasilla Negro, often just sold as chiles negros

7 chiles chipotle meco (medium-sized and light brown, not small and dark red)

1 7 ounce can chipotles in adobo, including all the liquid

8 cloves garlic, not peeled

1/2 cup raisins

3 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon Ceylon (canela) cinnamon or a bit less standard cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground allspice

2 tablespoons grated piloncillo or coconut sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt, oak-smoked if available.

2 cups avocado oil for frying

1/4 cup homemade lard or more avocado oil for searing the sauce

 

Cut the stem ends off all the dry chiles, cut them open down one side with kitchen scissors, and scrape out most of the seeds and veins. Snip each one across the length a couple of times. In a small deep sauce pan, heat the avocado oil intended for frying to about 350 or until a piece of chili put into the oil immediately bubbles and sizzles. Have paper towels ready for draining. Put a small handful of the chiles into the oil at a time, fry them until the color changes visibly turning as needed, fish them out with a slotted spoon, and drain them. Now put the cloves of garlic, still in their skins, in the oil and let them fry until the skins are somewhat browned, and drain them. Put the raisins in the hot oil and fry just until they swell and puff, then drain. Now set the saucepan of oil aside in a very safe place to cool off.

Heat the chicken broth to boiling in another pot, turn off the heat, and put all the fried chiles in the hot broth to soak for 20 minutes. Peel the garlic cloves and add them.

Put the soaked chiles and peeled garlic cloves and their fluid in the blender jar along with the seasonings, the sugar, and the canned chipotles with all their adobo fluid. Grind smooth, scraping down the blender as needed. Add a little more water if needed to keep the blender blades turning.

Now for the dramatic step that pulls the sauce together. In a large frying vessel (I prefer a wok to minimize the inevitable splattering,) heat the lard or avocado oil over high heat. When it’s very hot, pour in the purée from the blender jar. Use an apron and don’t lean over the stove, because it will sizzle and splatter viciously. Stir cautiously with a wooden spoon. After 3-4 minutes turn the heat down to simmer and simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When ready, the sauce is very thick and will hold indentations when stirred, but it’s not cooked down to a paste. Taste it and adjust the salt if needed, but in my opinion use table salt and not smoked salt at this point. If it tastes a little bit on the acrid side, you may need to add a little more dark sugar.

Now you’re done and can quickly and efficiently add notes of earth and fire wherever you think they are needed. Use diluted or undiluted. The finished sauce can be spread directly on hamburgers immediately after grilling. A tablespoon or two per serving of black beans adds immeasurably to their meaty richness,  and this combination is especially good with a dollop of crème fraîche on top. A few tablespoons per cup of chicken or turkey broth makes a wonderful sauce for roasted or smoked birds. It could be used as a rub for grilled chicken, although you need to be careful not to burn it. I think that it might make a good grilling rub for salmon or other strong-flavored fish. It adds wonderful depth to sautéed mushrooms, and I think it would be great on grilled carrots or roasted sweet potatoes, especially with a pat of butter on top. For a quick snack or lunch, nothing beats a quickly griddled tortilla with a smear of Earth and Fire sauce, a sprinkle of crumbled cotija  cheese, and a few quick-pickled vegetables. A quick soft taco also makes a great cook’s treat. If you’re hungrier than that, add some frijoles negros or frijoles refritos as shown at the top of this post. A good dollop in a bowl of good posole elevates it to a feast.

It can be frozen after preparation for use later, either in jars or in individual portions in large ice cube trays. On late afternoons when you need something warm and not too filling, a cube could be dropped in a cup of hot chicken broth to make a warming “instant” soup.

 

A few notes on ingredients:
The best chiles that I know of come from The Chile Guy
The best beans and posole corn that I know of come from Rancho Gordo
The only lard worth using is the lard that you render yourself, not the awful commercial stuff. If you don’t want to render a little, use oil instead.
My favorite tortillas are the nixtamalized heirloom corn tortillas from Masienda. In my area, Whole Foods carries them.

A Low-Carb Mexican Lunch, and a nod to Rick Bayless

Somehow, nothing looks as naked and unappetizing as a lonely egg on a plate. A lovely piece of buttered sourdough toast rounds out the picture nicely, but is off limits if you control your blood sugar by eating low carb. There are lots of potential solutions to the lonely egg problem, but one of my favorites is to put the eggs on a base of gratineed salsa and cheese, a sort of deconstructed queso fundido. The concept couldn’t be simpler. Preheat the broiler. Make mounds of thick salsa on a well-greased baking sheet, one per diner, spaced two inches apart each way.  Cover each mound with a generous heap of grated grass-fed cheddar. Cook under the broiler until the cheese is melted. Using a lightly oiled spatula, finagle each mound onto a plate, and put one or two fried eggs or a small heap of scrambled eggs on top.

If you wish to elaborate further, you can drizzle avocado oil on top and run under the broiler again for a second as you see in the top picture, but it isn’t strictly necessary. I like a spoonful of hot red chile on the side. Serve. The low-carb eaters have a glorious gooey flavorful mess, and the carb eaters can be provided with tortillas.

It occurs to me to say something about my favorite salsa, one that is always in my refrigerator in warm weather. It’s a slight variation on an old Rick Bayless recipe and is easy to make, medium hot, smoky, and delicious.

I start with two pounds of tomatillos. You can make a half batch if you want, but if you like salsa it’s worth making a whole recipe. You will also need 5-6 large cloves of garlic and a can of chiles chipotle in adobo. These are essential to the flavor.

Peel the husks off the tomatillos, rinse them, and put on a baking pan lined with aluminum foil. Off to the side of the pan, not under the direct heat of the broiler, put six cloves of garlic in their husks. Broil the tomatillos, turning as needed until they are cooked and have blackened spots all over. Every time you check the pan, keep an eye on the garlic cloves. Take the garlic out when the husks have blackened spots but the cloves inside aren’t blackened. When the tomatillos are done, set the pan aside and put a few of them in the blender. Peel and add the garlic cloves, and add four chipotles with their adobo, using more or fewer according to your heat tolerance. Blend until smooth. This is to avoid large chunks of chipotle or garlic in the finished salsa. Add the rest of the roasted tomatillos and blend to your desired degree of chunkiness. You can, if you wish, salt to taste and declare your salsa finished. But there is a further refinement: searing, sometimes referred to as frying the salsa.  This is a step that is necessary for many salsas to achieve their full authentic flavor, and it is useful in this case  as a finishing step that brings the flavors to life. It is messy but very simple. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until good and hot, put in a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat which goes especially well with this salsa, and when it coats the bottom of the pan, pour the salsa in. It will spatter, hiss, and snap furiously, and it does make quite a mess of the stove.  Continue to boil the salsa furiously for a couple of minutes or until thickened a bit, and pour it out into a bowl. Use hot or chill, then bring to room temperature or warm it for use later. It freezes very well. A handful of chopped cilantro is a tasty garnish.

In addition to the eggy meal above, this salsa is very tasty in fish tacos or as a base for broiled shrimp. One of its best uses is to mix with cooked greens, bake until hot, and add a topping of grated cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and browned in spots. Yum.

 

 

 

Dressing Up the Greens

My fanaticism about leafy greens is no secret,  and I have said in the past that if you keep them prepped and ready and preferably pre-cooked, you will eat a lot more of them. In the summer I try to keep horta, the Greek cooked greens mixture, in the refrigerator and see how many ways I can use it.
Although in general I eat low-carb, I do sometimes bake sourdough bread because I have a very good starter and it would be a pity not to use it now and then. Well, actually, I do it because sourdough bread is one of my favorite things and I allow myself an occasional relapse. The last time I made sourdough, I put a lump of dough about the size of a softball in the refrigerator, and a few days later I got the urge to use it.
If you have the dough and the horta ready, a greens calzone is a very easy thing to produce and looks rather spectacular. Pat the chilled dough out into a large thin circle, pile horta on half of it, top with generous layers of grated Parmesan and torn-up mozzarella, fold the bare half over the top, brush a beaten egg over the top dough and sprinkle with coarse salt, cut some slits in the top, and bake at 425 degrees until cooked through and browned. Ten minutes of actual hands-on time and some oven time when you can do other things.

If you don’t happen to have bread dough in the refrigerator, many stores and pizzerias now sell fresh pizza dough.

Species in my current batch of horta: lambsquarters, chard, walking onions, green garlic, broccoli leaves, mulberry shoots, wild lettuce tips, parsley, thyme.  Really a tiny number of species this time, but still awfully good.

Peapod Feast

One of my favorite vegetables in the world is the Oregon Giant snow pea. It makes large pods that don’t acquire their best flavor until the peas inside swell to nearly full-size, more like a snap pea. At that stage they’re the best thing in the garden, and everything else goes on the back burner while they’re in season. They do need their strings removed before cooking. Anything this delicious is worth working a little for.

Most of the time, I use them the same way that I’d use hand-rolled fettuccine. I prefer the simplified Alfredo treatment shown above: Boil enough  pods for two people in salted water for four minutes, put in a strainer to drain thoroughly, and to the hot pan add two tablespoons of butter and half a cup of heavy cream. Boil furiously over high heat for just a few minutes until the cream starts to thicken, then return the peas to the pan and boil hard for another minute. Turn off the burner and add a three-fingered pinch of salt and a generous handful of grated Parmesan, stir just until the cheese begins to melt, plate the peas, and sprinkle a bit  more cheese and some freshly ground pepper over the top. Have fleur de sel available at the table. Perfection.

As to what quantity of peas serves two people, well, how many do you have? I use this recipe for about a pound to 1.5 pounds of pods. I could probably eat a pound myself, but try not to. If you have more, scale up the sauce a bit.

If you need some variety, peas also respond well to a carbonara treatment with egg yolks and some pancetta or bacon (don’t sneer at the bacon. It’s inauthentic but delicious.)

The pods are also delicious plain with some butter and salt, or grilled in a grilling basket, or dipped raw into dip of your choice.