Grilled Salsa

Grilled Salsa 10 2009-12

Toward the end of the harvest season chiles, tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro can be found in abundance. Inspired by the vibrant colors and pungent flavors of Mexico, I particularly like grilling the salsa vegetables to give them a rustic and earthy taste and feel. Easy to prepare and full of flavor, this is a salsa that stands out in a crowd.

Grilled Salsa 10 2009-3

Grilled  Salsa

Serves 4

3 hatch or Anaheim chiles, stemmed, seeded and halved lengthwise

2 torpeo or cipollini onions, peeled and trimmed

3 three inch diameter tomatoes, sliced in half

Cook the chiles, onions and tomatoes on a medium heat grill. When lightly blackened on one side, carefully turn the vegetables and use a flat spatula to turn the tomatoes. Blackened again and place in a bowl. Place ingredients on a cutting board and coarsley chop, then return them to the bowl.

Grilled Salsa 10 2009-4

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup fresh lime juice 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced

Mix cilantro, lime, sea salt and garlic together in a bowl. Add grilled vegetables. Serve after 1/2 hour to give time for the flavors to integrate. Serve at room temperature or hot.

Grilled Salsa 10 2009-10

Pepita and Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

My first experience with a pesto-style dish was in my Greek grandmother’s house.  Yia Yia prepared every family member’s favorite dish and my father’s was skordalia, the traditional Greek garlic sauce.  As a child in Crete, where almonds are plentiful and full of flavor, her mother taught her the art of the dish; she learned to prepare the skordalia by pounding garlic, almonds and olive oil with a mortar and pestle.  We always knew when we walked into her home that she had prepared the skordalia because of the heavy garlic smell in the air. It seemed to stay in our mouths for days and even crept out of our pores as garlic-tinged sweat.  Over the years, my dad was the only one adventurous enough to indulge, which he would do on a Friday so he could return to work on Monday with minimal effect.

The Italian word pesto is often used to describe a combination of ground garlic, basil and pine nuts, although the preparation method of grinding ingredients into a paste is universal and cross-cultural.  Ever since man discovered how to grind and pound food products with stone and wood, this method has been employed in traditional cuisines around the world to create sauces, condiments, bases and pastes which enhance flavor profiles. Every culture put their stamp on the method with the common denominator being a mortar and pestle or grinding stone and it is a superb way to add a savory and flavorful edge to a dish without frying or grilling.

A Sicilian version is pesto rosso which substitutes almonds for pine nuts and adds tomatoes with less basil.  In Mediterranean France, a cold sauce made from garlic, basil and olive oil is the base for the much-acclaimed pistou soup in Provence.

In India, I watched cooks deftly handle a flat grindstone with a rectangular pestle to create intensely flavored mint chutneys, robust masala pastes and pesto-like fillings for a variety of breads and savories.  The grinding stones would absorb the right amount of moisture and unique flavors would be developed by the grinding action.  I was so enamored by the amazing quality of these preparations that I carried two of these heavy stones home on a flight.

Central and South American cuisines have a long history of grinding spices, pastes and mole bases using a metate or mealing stone. Chimichurri sauce is one of the well known sauces to use this method.  One can imagine my pesto recipe being made on a metate grindstone in an adobe kitchen a hundred years ago.  Nutty toasted pepitas with crushed garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, brightly flavored cilantro and smokey fire-roasted poblano chiles provocatively meld together to create an explosion of flavor in any dish that it is served with.  I particularly like it as a foil to corn dishes and often pair it with Quinoa-Corn Arepas and Chocolate Cherry Salsa from my cookbook Vegetarian Traditions.  The bright flavor of the pesto is the perfect companion to the natural sweetness of the corn and deep, dark anti-oxidant-rich salsa.

Today, I often make pesto with a food processor, which is a compromise for the sake of modern efficiency.  However, if you have a metate, or mortar & pestle and a little extra time, I encourage you to use it–not just for the earthly connection and romance of hand-working one’s food, but also for the flavor.

This easy-to-prepare recipe works well in sandwiches, as a mezzes-style dip, a quesadilla filling or a layer in a tortilla casserole.

Pepita & Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

1/2 cup pepitas, toasted
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 poblano chile, fire roasted, stemmed and seeded

In a food processor, grind pepitas to a meal, add all pesto ingredients and pulse to a coarse consistency.  Store in an air-tight container and keep refrigerated.

Making Tortillas

 

Jenny, Sara and I walked through Old Town as we tend to visit tourist destinations when guests come into town.  The streets were bustling with families and bar hoppers.  Not many people shopping, but large populations in the bars.  Mexican food is abundant and many restaurants have women in traditional Mexican dress making fresh tortillas right on the street.  The rich aroma of toasted corn wafts throughout the entire neighborhood.  Each tortilla maker uses their own method.  Some use tortilla presses with wax paper, others roll with a pin, but the most impressive were those who formed each tortilla in their hands, perfect each time before they flipped it onto the griddle.  

 old-town-tortilla

Reminiscent of days when we cooked chapatis in quantity, I started to contemplate making tortillas for dinner.  As the evening approached, I made the masa ahead.  In addition, our neighbor Joe had given us Tabasco peppers, Italian mild peppers and habanero chiles, so I also decided to put up Tabasco sauce, Pepperoncini and Hot habanero sauce.  The kitchen air soon filled with spicy aromas laced with vinegar, causing the casual passerby to immediately start coughing.  Sometimes, that is what it takes to clear a room! 

The dinner menu took shape as tortillas were hand rolled and cooked one at a time.  The main course of corn, pepita and lime enchiladas with walnut sauce would use the fresh tortillas to help define the dish.  The filling was made with corn off the cob and pepita-cilantro-lime pesto with a fresh, green flavor.  The creamy walnut-shallot sauce was ladled on top of each filled tortilla and the dish was garnished with fresh local avocado. 

The home brewed Tabasco was served on the side, for those with a passion for heat.

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Inspiration often can be unexpected as food is intimately entwined in the life of every person.