I have learned not to take anything for granted. Not even simple things, like seeing a stranger’s smile, having a relaxed drink with a friend at a bar, or sitting in the dark with a crowd to watch a movie. And then there is the privilege of travel.
Robert and I are dedicated travelers; even with a four-month-old baby, we made it work. We pick our destinations — Beirut, the Scottish Highlands, the Mississippi Delta — because we are curious about the people, the culture, the landscape. And food is at the top of my list. (Yes, I ate haggis.) This winter, my kitchen has become my passport.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mexico. I was lucky to spend time studying with the indomitable Diana Kennedy here in the U.S., which inspired me to keep learning when we traveled there. I am awed by the depth and variety of Mexican cuisine, and the wisdom and passion of that country’s cooks. There is lots of debate and needed correction about who tells food stories, but I still believe food can be a bridge across borders both physical and personal.
On one trip to Mexico City, we spent a day with Paco de Santiago, a culinary expert and former bullfighter. Paco shared his deep knowledge and passion for the culinary treasures of that great city. I still dream of the charred tacos al pastor with the bright fermented pineapple drink, tepache, and of breakfasts of blue masa tlacoyos, patted out by hand and filled with fava beans by the women who held court at street corner stands.
Paco took us to the Mercado de San Juan, a jewel of a food market near the historic center. We drank huge aguas frescas made with the sweetest fruits, eyed the pristine seafood with envy, studied the craft of the artful butchers, tasted creamy local cheeses, and reveled in the quality and variety of the chiles.
At a small corner spot with a wall of jams and salsas, Paco introduced us to Manuel, the proprietor, who shared tastes of coffee marmalade, Yucatan honey, and mamey preserves. The flavors were thrilling, but it was a salsa, or condiment, made mostly from seeds — sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds or pepitas — that captured my full attention. It was crunchy and spicy with tiny chile pequin, and had a rich nuttiness from all the toasted seeds. Seeds and nuts are used in moles and in salsa macha, but this version put sesame seeds center stage. I was totally smitten and bought multiple jars.
Back home, I brought back the tastes of our trip by scattering the condiment over everything from grilled fish to duck enchiladas to salads, or to perk up the simplest roast chicken. I have even stirred it into my morning oatmeal with delicious results. When I ran out, I was bereft. But I did have an empty jar with its list of ingredients and a very tight photo as an inspiration to recreate a version in my kitchen.
In Mexico, I also fell for salsa verde, made from tomatillos, the small green fruits with papery husks essential to many fresh salsas there. The smaller ones are on the sweeter side and suited for salsas. I like to char them in the broiler, along with chiles, onions, and garlic — a technique that adds smokiness and tempers the raw garlic and onion.
The two sauces are quick to make and versatile. You can store them in the refrigerator for up to a week, though mine never last that long. They complement each other wonderfully. Pairing them with roasted chicken is a good start, and if the bird is spatchcocked, all the better — the skin will get extra crispy while the breast stays moist. You won’t want to stop at that. I put these on fish, eggs, quesadillas, and sweet potatoes.
I can’t wait to book a flight to Mexico again. But for now, I figure, we’ll always have these salsas. And the Taco Chronicles on Netflix.
Makes about 2 cups
1 fresh poblano chile
1 small yellow onion, peeled and halved, or half a white onion
2 garlic cloves, in their skins
1 lb. tomatillos, husked and well rinsed
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus to taste
½ cup (loosely packed) fresh cilantro leaves
¼ cup (loosely packed) sprigs flat leaf parsley or mint
Husk and rinse the tomatillos, peel and halve the onion, but leave the garlic skins on and the chile whole.
Heat the broiler on high. Put the poblano, onion, garlic, and tomatillos on a baking pan and set on the top shelf under the broiler. Char the vegetables, turning them until their skins blacken in spots, about 10 minutes. (Remove the garlic first if it gets charred before the other ingredients.)
Transfer the chile, onion, and garlic to a bowl and cover with a plate or pan lid until cooled.
Rub the skin off the poblano, discard the seeds, and put the flesh in a blender. Pop the garlic from its skins and add it to the blender along with the chile and onion. Blend until smooth. Add the tomatillos, cilantro, and parsley and blend again. Season with salt to taste.
Note: This salsa uses the relatively mild poblano chile. For more heat, add some jalapeño, or for more smoke add some chipotle en adobo to the mix.
Makes about 1 cup
1 garlic clove, peeled
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup white sesame seeds
3 Tbsp. pepitas (green shelled pumpkin seeds)
2 Tbsp. sunflower seeds
½ to 1 tsp. chile pequin or red pepper flakes, or to taste
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Mince and then smush the garlic and salt together with a knife.
Toast and toss the seeds, each variety separately, in a small dry skillet over medium heat until lightly browned. About 2 minutes for the sesame and sunflowers and 1 minute for the pepitas. The seeds will dance and pop in the pan. Combine them all in a bowl.
In the same skillet, combine the olive oil, garlic, and chile. Warm the garlic over low heat to flavor the oil. If the pan is very warm, you can turn off the heat and cook with its residual heat. The gentler the better, so the garlic does not get bitter. Stir the oil and garlic into the seeds. Season with salt.
Spatchcocked Roast Chicken
Serves 2 to 4
One 4-pound chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or melted butter
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Use kitchen shears or a heavy cook’s knife and cut along each side of the backbone to remove it. Open the chicken, legs away from you, and make a notch in the breast cartilage. Cut along the breastbone and then remove it. Trim the wing tips.
Season the inside of the chicken with salt and pepper. Then put the chicken, skin side up, in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or on a sheet pan. Brush the skin with olive oil or butter and season it well with salt and pepper. Roast in the middle of the oven until the temperature reaches 155 to 160 degrees F, 50 minutes. If you have a convection option on your oven, use it for the last 10 minutes or so to get really crispy skin.
Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes. Carve and serve with both salsas.