Asparagus Pico de Gallo

My Mom used to live in Texas. That isn't useful information to anyone, really. It does, however, explain how I came to know of Pico de Gallo. Until I went and spent my last university spring break with her in South Texas I thought that what you scooped up with nacho chips was salsa. In fact, at that point in time nachos were only served in bars, drenched in cheese, olives, and green onions with a side of insipid salsa and sour cream.

Oh how South Texas showed me the way.

First off, nachos are indeed what they serve in the bar. Fried tortillas are what nachos pretend to be. The tortillas that didn't get eaten that morning get cut into triangles and fried for snacks. Pico de Gallo is a bowl of finely chopped and uncooked tomatoes, onions, hot pepper, garlic, and lime. Pico de Gallo is always served with those fried tortillas. Sit on the beach in South Texas where you can order any beer and it will come with fried tortillas and Pico de Gallo. It is about the most perfect bar food, beach or not.

I'm nowhere near a sandy beach and I'm pretty sure any Texan would shoot me for this addition, but here you go: Asparagus Pico de Gallo. I was craving the spice, I had the fried tortillas, and I was staring at a large bunch of asparagus in the fridge. All that was left was the beer. And, of course, the beach.

Asparagus Pico de Gallo
Makes 2 cups

10 stalks asparagus (choose the skinny ones)
2 plum tomatoes
1/4 medium red onion
1 clove garlic
1 jalapeno pepper
1/2 lime
1-2 tbsp chopped cilantro (optional)

1. Steam the asparagus for 1 minute, if you prefer not to eat it raw.
2. Finely chop the asparagus and tomatoes into 1/2 dice or smaller. Keep the tips of the asparagus intact. Finely chop the onion, garlic, and pepper. Toss them all together in a bowl.
3. Juice the lime and add the juice to the vegetables. Add cilantro if you're using. Stir once more and serve.

Lollipops, Wine, and Mexico

Taking advantage of the sale at our favourite liquor store led to Sunday dinner this week. One could also argue that the near constant desire for a lollipop by The Monster and her knowledge that they have them at the same liquor store also led to Sunday dinner. Regardless.  We shopped, we cooked, we ate.

Tasting a lovely wine yesterday (Walter Hansel Cahill lane Vineyard Chardonnay 2007) I was instantly brought back to our trip to Mexico. It wasn't that the wine reminded me of the cheap imports we got at the supermercado, rather, it was the instant pairing that popped in my head. I immediately though fish, peppers, and a bit of spice. 

Sadly it was too late to get some fish for dinner last night, so we picked some up at the market today. And peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and some lime.  Sadly I forgot the cilantro.  Oh well, it still worked. I finely chopped sweet peppers, tomatoes, garlic and tossed them with a splash of olive oil, tequila, and a half a lime, juiced.

We served it with a quickly seared Opah. A bit of chili powder and cumin to season, and a few minutes per side. It would have been better grilled, as we did in Mexico (although it wasn't Sierra Mackerel), but my grill is currently inaccessible. On the side some sliced cukes, basmati, and sweet potatoes roasted with cumin and lime.

And in case you were wondering, I did not enjoy it with the wine.  One, it is an expensive wine, and two, I'm home alone with the girls so the last thing I need is a full bottle of wine to myself. Or maybe that's exactly what I need!

Taste Adventure - Jicama

Behold the simply boring jicama.  Crisp but rather bland, fresh but neutral.

I can't say the first time I had it.  I do remember an extensive search to find the first one.  Once Hubby and I gave up our weekly trips to the bar on Friday nights we often found ourselves, with roommates by our side, watching Iron Chef and the Chris Isaak Show on our crappy oak cabinet TV.  Somewhere in there we might watch Emeril Live and any other random Food Network show because the rest of Friday night TV sucked.  So I have no clue who made jicama look good, but we became obsessed with finding it.

Every grocery store we went into for years afterwards would warrant a trip to the special vegetable section, where they housed the so-called ethnic veggies, in hopes of seeing the vaguely potato-like root.  This was before we shopped around much, relying on the farmers' market and the neighbourhood grocery store only.  Now I not only know I can find it in most grocery stores, but I know more than a few speciality produce stores which carry it.  And I am thankful for that because I love that root.

The Monster loves crisp veggies, especially peppers.  And Smilosaurus handled greek salad well last weekend, so I thought both of them would enjoy jicama.  I was half right.

Jicama is common in Mexican and some Asian cuisines.  It has a simple, crisp flavour and texture - like a watered down apple or crisped up sweet cucumber.  It takes well to spicy or bold flavours like a sesame vinaigrette or chilis.

To prepare jicama you peel the thin papery skin and slice it, dice it, chop it, or julienne.  I've never eaten it cooked, but it is possible.  Truthfully, I like it as a simple raw veggie, alongside my carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes.  But my favourite way to eat jicama is to add it to slaw, maybe with some apples to compliment the simple flavour, or in a mango jicama salad.  

When I served it last night I gave some to the girls as a simple matchstick first.  The Monster happily ate the pile placed in front of her, munching away as I chopped mango.  Smilosaurus was pretty much indifferent.  I don't think she had a problem with the taste, but the texture was still too crunchy for a girl without molars.  When it came to the salad, Smilosaurus picked out the mango and left a pile of jicama on the tray of her high chair.  I was hoping for leftovers, but both The Monster and Hubby ate more than their fair share.  I guess I better hit the grocery store again.

This is an easy salad.  It is easily dressed up and added to.  If I have it, I will add in some chopped fresh cilantro, minced red onions, or diced peppers.  It is also very good with some shredded savoy cabbage, some additional lime, and fresh chilis.

Mango Jicama Salad

1 jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 ripe mango, finely diced
1 lime, zest and juice
splash of olive oil
generous pinch of chili powder
salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients together, season.  

More Chocolate

I have officially reached a point where there can be chocolate in the house and I am not constantly thinking about devouring it.  Shocking, especially to me.  That's what a week of hard core chocolate eating does to you.

On the weekend I co-hosted a baby shaker for one of my new nephews.  It wasn't about cutesy games or pastel-coordinated favours.  It was about friends and family getting together to officially celebrate the arrival of the latest member of Team A.  Rather than resort to hummus and spinach dip we decided on a chocolate theme for the food.  Who doesn't love a party with lots of chocolate?

We had cookies, chocolate covered cream puffs, a large platter of fresh fruit to make us feel somewhat virtuous, and some memorable tasty treats.  This was my chance to try a chocolate blackout cake.  I need special occasions to bake cakes and this was one I was dying to try.  It was a hit at the party, with not even one extra crumb leftover.   Surprisingly I was rather disappointed myself.  Moist cake covered in chocolate pudding covered in cake crumbs - it should have been spectacular.  It was sweet, creamy, and almost fudgy, but it didn't knock my socks off.  I was, however, in the minority with this opinion.

Another hit with The Monster was the chocolate tasting bar.  I chunked up some dark and milk chocolate from Bernard Callebaut, Choklat, and Kerstin's Chocolate for a side by side tasting. There was nothing official or even blind about it.  It was striking to taste the differences.

Bernard Callebaut was smooth and tasted exactly like you would expect the chocolate to taste. Choklat's contribution was also smooth, but distinctively fruity.  I went with their Brazillian 48% Milk and Ocumare 70 % Dark.  They really are unlike anything you've tried - sweet but far from cloying, smooth but not terribly creamy, and fruity without tasting juicy.  Finally, we had two offerings from Kerstin's Chocolate in Edmonton, the Venezuela Dark Milk Chocolate and the Ecuador 72 % Extra Dark.  It is impossible to say what was the crowd favourite, but their was none of the Choklat Milk left.  Of course, that may have been due to the proximity to the edge of the kitchen island and The Monster's sneaky fingers.

Truly, though, my favourite thing about the food was this chili chocolate sauce.  I didn't even make it, my talented mother-in-law did.  When the other co-host and I decided on the chocolate thing we tasked my mother-in-law (and grandma of the star of the show) with bringing something savoury.  We knew she would be up for the challenge, and boy did she step up!  

At the party she served the sauce with some chicken skewers.  On Monday I spooned some warm sauce over grilled pork chops.  And then I cooked some black beans and made a dip by pureeing the sauce and the beans together.  It needed a touch more chopped cilantro at that point, but it was still fragrant and yummy on some rye bread at Julie's house the other day.

Chili Chocolate Sauce
(Adapted from this recipe)

1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 poblano chili - grilled, peeled, seeded, and diced
1/2 onion, diced
2 ounces red wine
1/4 cup chopped milk chocolate
2 tablespoons chili powder
3 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1. Combine the salt through red pepper flakes into a seasoning mix.
2. Over medium-high heat saute the poblano, onions, and a pinch of the seasoning mix.
3. Add the red wine and chocolate and stir until combined.  Add the chili powder and remaining seasoning mix.  Stir until thickened.  Add the chopped tomatoes and stir.  Continue to cook for another 5 minutes.
4. Remove from heat, puree, and stir in cilantro. 

PS  Who am I kidding? I'm digging out some of the leftover chocolate right now.

Baja Adventures - Mexican Sushi

“Which one is my fish?”

So rang the constant tune of my nephew for three days in Baja. This is what happens when you take a 6 year old deep sea fishing and he actually catches something. As long as we were eating fresh the rest of us didn’t care whose was whose, but this was vitally important information for a 6 year old boy. Puts a whole new meaning to the adage that if your kids help you cook they will be more likely to eat what comes to the table.

It’s not surprising that we ate a whole lot of fish in Baja. If Hubby or my dad had their way it would have been every single day that we ate seafood. Between meals out and our own fishing adventures we captured almost half the days.

There were the shrimp tacos at beachfront palapas restaurants that were so sweet you thought it was miniature lobsters inside the tortilla. When you risk your rental car and the wrath of a two year old who is sick of bumpy roads to check out the next beach and see the shrimp boats right there you have full confidence in the freshness of that shrimp.

There was the grilled sierra mackerel, dorado, and tuna that you caught that day. Okay, so the boat broke down and Hubby had to drive the boat by literally holding the motor in a straight position. At least you had your fish. Although, that was iffy when the boat and the truck brought down to haul it got stuck in the sand once you finally made it back to the launch beach – and the fish was still on board. The antics of many locals and one wiry American with a winch on his truck just for this purpose finally got things sorted out and we were on our way home with our fish. After a quick blitz of garlic, lime, and tequila we grilled filets of all three. My brother made a fantastic salsa with sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, corn, cilantro, lime, garlic, and tequila. Halfway through dinner we had to throw more fish on the grill because between 11 people the fish was quickly disappearing. That’s okay, it meant I had leftovers to make an improvised fish taco for breakfast the next day. Can I just say that sierra mackerel is my new favourite fish? Light but full-flavoured, oily but just a bit fishy to allow you taste the ocean in every bite.

Oh, and there was the fish that Hubby caught on his two day adventure to spear fish in the rocks right in front of our place. It wasn’t the big one that almost got away, but was grabbed by a moray eel before Hubby could spear it again. Yes, I said moray eel. He was spear fishing and I was snorkeling, I saw it all. We let the eel have it. Instead, we had to settle for the 8 inch grunt that he first caught. My dad set to cleaning it for him and we grilled it whole. Tasty, but barely enough for more than a bite by the adults in our group. Not bad for two whole mornings spent with the spear... We won't discuss the attempts at surf-casting.

And then there was the Mexican sushi. Hubby and I went out for dinner by ourselves one night and decided to go to the palapas that had sushi. A risky venture, no doubt. There was no Japanese master behind the cooler of fresh fish, but there was wasabi. The rolls were on par with cheap ones we can get at home – fine, but not great. The sashimi of snapper, tuna, and dorado (all local) was fantastic. The fusion of the fresh fish, decently cut, with a cilantro sauce was spicy, clean, and new. With some of our remaining catch I tried to recreate the dish back at the beach house. I didn’t quite capture it, but my brother said my version was even better.
Serve this sauce with a fresh, sushi quality fish. Preferably you will cut it with a proper knife and not some crappy serrated blade that is all you can find in the rental house. Do not, however, let the fish sit in the sauce for long. There is a lot of lime in it and this will effectively cook the fish like a ceviche. We were also going to try it on some grilled fish, but it didn’t last through the raw stuff. Even my nephew was eating it. Of course, his reaction was only meh after he found out it wasn’t with the fish he caught.

Cilantro Sauce for Fish

1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 garlic clove
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
½ jalapeno pepper, seeded and ribbed

1. Blitz the ingredients together in a blender.
2. Pour on to a platter, lay freshly sliced sushi quality fish on top, and serve.

Baja Adventures - Road Food

If Jane and Michael Stern ever went down to Baja they would look for the place advertising local cheese and selling their homemade sweets, then stop at every place within walking distance to check them out as well. We found El Oasis in our guide book, but could have happliy eaten at the Tienda across the street or the other two restaurants down the road.

El Oasis is a fitting name for its location. Up in the Sierra la Laguna moutains the town of San Bartolo is a respite from the sandy haze of the Baja desert and the ocean winds. Lush and filled with wildly blooming flowers, citrus, and appropriately for the season, pointsettas San Bartolo promised a view and some tasty road food. Oh how it lived up to its promises.

We were travelling with some slightly less adventurous eaters; adventurous in tastes, not necessarily in locale. I think my family was nervous at first, stopping at essentially a diner in the middle of Mexico. Inside it was filled with dulces, empanadas, and the cleanest kitchen serving tamales, tacos, and fiery salsa. All fears were allayed with the hairnets. And tastebuds were alive with the olfactory tease of broiling pepppers.

We ate the best tamales any of us have ever had - and my mom used to live along the Texas/Mexico border, accompanied by the purest salsa ever. Broiled jalapenos and tomatoes, put through a grinder. That's it. Nothing else. Heat, sweetness, and the taste of the mountain sun.

Fortified for the day we drank our cervesas and iced teas in the mountain breezes while the neighbourhood chickens serenaded us. Onward for a drive. Not without a dozen tamales wrapped in a plastic bag and some salsa for snacks upon the return to the beach house.

One of our other Baja road trips took us to the Sierra la Laguna Biosphere Reserve. We drove through Santiago, decorated for Christmas with a more than life size nativity scene in the town square and out of place snowmen lights. Beyond the fields of palms and down more sandy roads we paid our entrance fee to the reserve. A small parking lot with a surprisingly stylish looking outhouse marked the entrance to the trail down to a freshwater oasis.

When the guidebook said a short ten minute hike it neglected to mention that it was narrow, phenomenally rocky, and not suited to fancy jogging strollers,people with bad knees, or hot toddlers. With the stroller parked and the kids and Baba assisted we arrived at the waterfall.

It wasn't a palm tree and pond in the middle of the dessert, it was better. A 30 foot waterfall plunging into a dark pool of freshwater, surrounded by granite, grass, and cool air. Impatiently we got the kids and ourselves into bathing suits (this isn't a place for modesty). Only my brother and Hubby were brave enough to climb the rocks to the top of the waterfall and jump. It proved to be a dangerous mistake for my brother after he slipped on the wet granite. Thankfully it ended well, albeit in a badly bruised back. For the rest of us we savoured the fresh water and dust-free hours.

When it was time to return we stopped in Santiago. No restaurants around the plaza, but a few tiendas to choose from. We'd hoped to luck into some ice cream for the kids. Note to self, be cautious when opening unmarked freezers in small Mexican towns. Ice cream? No. Freshly butchered meat, unwrapped and still smelling bloody? Yes. All was made better when we found what we thought was fresh yoghurt in a front cooler. Marked with Christmas colours and covered tightly with foil we grabbed a few for the kids and headed to the plaza to munch. Okay, so it was probably packaged Jello with some milk, but it was fantastic to us and the Monster.

There were more good meals to be found along the road. Small beachfront palapas with amazingly sweet shrimp tacos and cold beer, gas stations with fiery burritos and soft sandwiches, and even a bakery making tender gingerbread cookies.

Some people told us to be afraid of the road food - will it be clean? what about the water? We had no fear and were rewarded greatly. Indeed, I would say it was some of the best food we ate there. I can still taste the salsa and Hubby wants more of those burittos. Next time, in the Airstream for sure.

Baja Adventures -Limons

We’ve returned from our two weeks in Baja. The East Cape area is not Cabo – thankfully. It’s not really a place for tourists, either. Rather, it is home to a few small towns and farms hanging on the edge of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains and desert, desert, desert leading straight into the ocean surf. Other than the locals it is filled with sportfishers, rich Americans, and a few divers. Along with my entire family we rented the home of one of the Americans. This meant we could cook on our own instead of relying on taquerias and the few restaurants around (but those were good too). It also meant I could make many, many lime pies.

Aside from a lot of time spent walking the beach looking for shells and sea glass or swimming there wasn’t much to do. We drove around on the rally certified sand roads and sketchy Highway 1, visiting nearby towns and the hidden gems we could hike to. Mostly we played with all the kids (5 kids under the age of six), tried to read, and ate and drank - a lot. We took turns cooking and making the margaritas. There is actually quite a bit about our trip that I want to share. Today I will focus on the limes.

Limons: tiny green orbs of tart, sweet sunshine. In Baja they called them limons; they looked like key limes to us. Fantastic in a margarita, but irresistible in a lime pie. We saw the limes in the supermercado and bought a dozen every day or two.

So began the hunt for the rest of the ingredients for the pie. Generally this involved trying to pretend to read Spanish labels and hoping someone had heavy cream or graham crackers. Eggs, no problema. Zuca (sugar) no problema, Leche Light (condensed milk) no problema. Graham crackers were a challenge. I had settled on using some other random cookie to make crumbs when my mom hit another mercado and found some graham crackers. Heavy cream was never found, delivery of dairy products random in that area.

We were lucky that the kitchen in our house was relatively well-stocked. After the first pie I found the citrus juicer. Phew, that saved my fingers and a fork a long time spent juicing those teeny limes. And while there was no fancy microplane rasp, I did have a choice of zesters. I am pretty sure that it wouldn’t take as long to make the pie here, with access to pre-made crumbs or at least a food processor that works.

We did miss the whipped cream accompaniment, but we survived. Yeah, it was pretty rough. In total I think I made 4 pies. I think the recipe may have come from Martha, but I've made it for so long that I can't remember. Each one gave us the emotional equivalent of a sigh after the kids were all in bed. And for myself and my sister-in-law, it also gave us breakfast a few times, strength to fortify us for the swimming, tantrums, and innumerable sandwiches we tackled every day with the kids.
Now that we are home I intend to make this again this weekend. We are having the neighbours over for a thank-you dinner. They did shovel the walks and bring in the mail, after all. The least I can do is feed them pie, with whipped cream.

Key Lime Pie
(serves 8)
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
4 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp fresh lime zest
4 egg yolks
14 ounces sweetensed condensed milk

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine crumbs with 2 tablespoons sugar. Stir in melted butter until well combined. Press into 8 inch pie plate. Bake 12 minutes. Remove oven and set aside to cool.

2. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons sugar with lime juice, zest, egg yolks, and condensed milk. Mix until well-combined. Pour into cooled crust. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until just set.
3. Cool completely and serve with whipped cream.