Heirloom Pico de Gallo + Mexico Pictures

Being in Central America all summer was pretty cool, I must admit, but I did miss a few things about Chicago. Namely, farmer’s markets. I never found quite the variety of vegetables in Central America that I find in Chicago – seems counter intuitive, since the fertile, sunny lands of that region seem ripe for producing some excellent veg. However, with the shear population of yuppies in the US, not to mention a perhaps new-found appreciation for farm-fresh products, the US boasts some pretty amazing produce. So when I was eating sad, mealy, flavorless little tomatoes in Panama, I could only think about the luscious heirlooms showing up at farmer’s markets at home.

The first Saturday I was home I went to the Green City Market in Chicago and bought about two pounds of heirloom tomatoes. My god.  Where did this flavor come from? I made this variation of pico de gallo featuring a variety of heirloom tomatoes, an onion, a jalapeno, and garlic – all fresh from the farmer’s market. And really, I think that’s the trick – the fact that everything came from the market is perhaps why it tasted so good. Also, though, I think there is something to be said for fresh farmer’s market garlic. I mean – wow! Wow! Have you ever had this stuff? It’s so juicy and pungent. I bought three types – I can’t remember the varietal names – but I labeled them mild, medium, and strong. I used the mild garlic for this pico de gallo, as I used it raw. It really added this silky, complex dimension that, in my opinion, really boosted this salsa to a whole new level.

Also, before my solo adventure through Central America, Eric and I spent a week and a half in Cozumel and the Yucatan in Mexico. Two very cool friends of ours were married on a beach in Cozumel, so we took the time to travel a bit after the festivities. To be honest, Mexico, or the Yucatan more specifically, has never been high on my travel priority list. I’ve always thought it was where Americans went who didn’t know how to travel anywhere else. Americans who were afraid of new cultures and languages (wait, they speak Spanish in Mexico?). You know the type. And while there were certainly plenty of those people – I mean, Playa del Carmen is practically Florida – we also discovered that Mexico is really, really awesome! I always say – it’s probably touristy for a reason – and that description is so fitting of the Yucatan. People have been coming to this part of the world for so long because it is downright beautiful. Take a look:


El otro lado – the other side – the East side of Isla Cozumel
Have you ever seen more inviting water? Whiter sand? A cuter butt?


Eric makes the snorkel in the Dos Ojos Cenote (aka sinkhole, or cave)


Fish feast in Tulum – ceviche, pescado a la plancha, y mas


Sunset on Isla Holbox


Streets of Isla Holbox – no paved roads, no cars, only golf carts!


A little video of snorkeling with whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico


Eric practices his moves in the “stadium” at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza


Church on the main square in Vallodolid


This is what Eric says is possibly one of the best meals of his life. Tortas and burritos in Valladolid.

And finally… a recipe!

Heirloom Pico de Gallo

Like I mentioned above, the fresh garlic made this dish a real winner.

2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, diced
1 onion, diced
2-3 cloves mild, fresh garlic, diced
1-2 jalapenos, diced
salt

Combine all ingredients and add salt to taste. Wait about 15 minutes before digging in to allow the garlic flavors to permeate the dish. Serve with chips. 

Giardiniera, aka Pickled Vegetables, Chicago Style

Eric and I have our ups and downs when it comes to lunch. Most days, we bring turkey and cheese sandwiches slapped between some standard whole wheat bread with mustard and spinach. Then there are the days when I’ve had turkey and cheese for far too many days in a row, and I switch it up by making tuna, bringing in leftovers, or buying my lunch. Last week, faced with another mundane turkey sandwich, I decided to go to Subway to get a few extra toppings. I won’t eat the bread or the meat from Subway – both contain way too many weird things – but their giardiniera and pickles? Yes please. So I ordered a veggie sub with all my toppings, paid $3.18, moved the toppings from the Subway sandwich to my turkey and cheese sandwich, and then realized I basically paid $3.18 for pickles and giardiniera. Not good.

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And that is the story of how I came to make pickles and giardiniera over the weekend. I’m not sure I knew what giardiniera was before I moved to Chicago, which is unfortunate because it is now one of my favorite pickly, vinegary foods. It is essentially an Italian mix of pickled vegetables, though like everything else, Chicago has personalized it to include hot peppers. I’ll share my pickle recipe at a later date – I’m still perfecting it – but the giardiniera turned out just perfect on my first try. I’ve been eating it by the spoonful in addition to putting it on my sandwiches. So far, I’m not bored.

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Giardiniera aka Pickle Vegetables, Chicago Style

1 head cauliflower, chopped
15 serrano peppers (trust me on this – the vinegar mellows the heat), sliced into thin rounds
1 head garlic, minced
3-4 red peppers, chopped into 1-inch or smaller strips
4 carrots, sliced into thin rounds
1 5-ounce jar manzanilla olives with pimentos
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/4 cup salt
fresh black peppers
2:1 ratio of vinegar to oil

Start by chopping all your veggies. I essentially sliced my cauliflower – I wanted flat pieces so they would lay easily on my sandwich. Mix them all together in a large container along with the salt, oregano, peppers, and olives (including the olive juice). I did not include actual measurements for the vinegar and oil because I didn’t actually measure it, but keep pouring them in using a ratio of 2:1 until all the veggies are covered. I used mostly white distilled vinegar, but I used a cup of apple cider vinegar as well. For oil, olive oil would work nicely, but I used a milder grapeseed oil.

Refrigerate this mixture for at least 24 hours. I let mine sit for 2 days, and after those two days were up, the giardiniera was perfect.

Rosemary White Bean Dip

Oh, the holidays. Just yesterday, a messenger delivered two cheesecakes to our office. Tomorrow, I’m expecting our first fruit cake. This is always a tough time of year for healthy eating.

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Fortunately for me, I hate fruit cake – no temptation there. Pumpkin mousse cheesecake? Yeah, that’s a different story. Two things have kept me from digging in so far this week:

1) I checked the nutrition label immediately – at 420 calories for one tiny slice, that cheesecake doesn’t look so enticing anymore, and

2) I stocked up on veggies at work. Lots of veggies. And to keep them enticing, I have been bringing in this bean dip.

I’m pretty much obsessed with this bean dip right now. It’s so good, so easy, and unlike other bean dips (ahem, hummus), it tastes better with veggies than it does with, say, pita, so it’s healthy to boot. Yeeeah.

Rosemary White Bean Dip

2 cans Great Northern or white cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3 stalks of rosemary, stripped from the stalk
juice and zest of one lemon
3 cloves garlic
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

In a food processor, combine the beans, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, and lemon juice and zest. As it is processing, pour in the olive oil. Serve with red peppers, cucumbers, and mushrooms.

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Roasted Poblano Soup

I am posting this recipe with a warning: be careful how much spice you add! I, in my infinite wisdom, added one whole pepper – it was a pepper I’ve never used before, but I thought it looked ‘cool’ in the market, stupidly using the entire thing in one soup without knowing just how hot it was. Well, I’ll tell you, it was HOT. Two weeks later, my lips are still burning. Eric wouldn’t even touch the soup after a couple bites. Sounds like a winner of a recipe, eh?

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Well, the thing is, despite that quick-hitting and lingering heat, the flavor of the soup was really fantastic. Peppers and chiles, especially poblano peppers, are really among my favorite foods – especially after our trip to New Mexico last year. So it’s really easy to make this soup edible – just add less hot pepper!

Also – it seems as if I have one excuse after the other for not updating this blog enough. My current excuse – and probably the same excuse I’ve been using for a while – is I am obsessed with honeymoon planning right now. After hours and hours of online research, we have decided to cut out our trip to Cambodia. 😦 Eric and I are both very sad about this, but we decided to prioritize and focus so that we could maximize our other experiences in SE Asia; our priority = wildlife/outdoors/nature. Ancient temples? I can only imagine how amazing they are, but we’ll have to wait until our next trip to the region to explore them. We also cut out Thailand almost entirely except for a couple nights in Bangkok. This gives us 6 full days in Hanoi to explore the City and Halong Bay; TWO weeks in Borneo to explore Deer Cave and Mulu National Park (have you seen Planet Earth? the bat poop cave? yes – we decided bat poop was more important than ancient Angkor temples), Danum Valley rain forest, and Sipadan island (supposedly some of the best diving in the world, though we will only be snorkeling); and 6 full days in Bali to do whatever the heck we feel like. Of course – we don’t go anywhere without at least a loose itinerary – I can’t help it, it’s my nature as a planner. So, in Bali, I’m planning a day in Kuta – the famed surfing town loved by many Australians (just one night, and just for the experience), a couple days to explore Ubud (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) and the north/eastern coasts of Bali, then a few days hiking to the crater rim of Mount Rinjani on Lombok. Maybe, maybe if time permits, we’ll spend a day on the Gili Islands.

And well, I’m sure most of those names mean nothing to you. Just Google the names for pictures – you’ll see why I’m obsessed!

Wow, this post is long – here’s the recipe.

Creamy, Spicy Roasted Poblano Soup

adapted from Serious Eats
*I added a big dose of spinach to this soup to up the health ante and used greek yogurt instead of Mexican crema – same effect, less indulgent*

4-5 large poblano peppers
1 jalapeno, seeded and membranes removed
4-5 cloves garlic
1 medium white onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
big handful cilantro (scientific, I know) (original calls for epazote, which I did not have)
really big bunch of spinach
1 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper to taste
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup greek yogurt or Mexican crema
tortilla or corn chips or corn tortillas

Roast the poblanos over an open flame, or if you don’t have a gas stove top, roast them in the oven until blistered and black. Transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic to let the skins steam off.

Roughly chop the onions and garlic and start sauteing in a soup pan in the olive oil – until onion is transparent. It doesn’t matter if they’re finely chopped at this point – everything will be blended. Toss in the jalapeno and cumin and cook a couple minutes longer.

Meanwhile, remove the skins and seeds from the poblanos. Toss those in the pot as well. Stir everything around and let the cumin coat all the veggies, then dump in the stock. Bring this to a boil then let simmer for five minutes. Take the soup off the heat and add the spinach, yogurt, and cilantro. If you have an immersion blender, just blend everything together in the pot; otherwise, transfer to a blender. Add salt and pepper and adjust seasoning accordingly.

If using tortillas, cut in to strips and fry them in a bit of canola or vegetable oil until crisp. Place the crispy strips or chips on top of the soup with another dollop of yogurt/crema.

Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Soup

I must say, I really felt sad when the weather started feeling like fall and I realized that summer really was over. In the last couple weeks, though, I’ve embraced the cool air – I can wear that really cute jacket I bought at the end of spring earlier this year, running is perfect for a few weeks, and best of all, it is soup season.

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I would easily consider soup to be one of my all time favorite foods. Any soup, really. I love soaking it up with a really good piece of bread and even better, it pairs perfectly with my other favorite food – salad. So when I was at the market last weekend rubbing shoulders with Rick Bayless – yes, we live in the same neighborhood and yes, I had my first sighting of him at our local market (!!), I picked up the last load of summer tomatoes.

I saw this recipe for tomato soup earlier in the summer but wanted to wait until fall, when I can bear a warm soup and am okay with the idea of cooking the perfect-as-they-are heirlooms. I think this soup would also work well with good canned tomatoes – I will definitely be trying that throughout winter. I served this soup with some fantastic sourdough bread from La Boulangerie, a new bakery in Logan Square that bakes up fresh loaves three times daily – and they post the times they’re fresh baked, so you can scoop one up just as it comes out of the oven.

Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Soup

adapted, quite a bit actually, from Serious Eats

3 pounds tomatoes, quartered
2-3 whole  carrots, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
15-20 garlic cloves (yes – a lot of garlic!)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 large eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch chunks
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
2-3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup greek yogurt
crumbles of blue cheese or feta

Combine the olive oil with tomatoes, carrots, garlic, salt and pepper, eggplant, and chickpeas. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for ~45 minutes at 425°F. To be careful, you could roast all these separately until each one is perfectly tender, but I’m a timesaver and roasted all together – it worked fine.

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Once roasted, put about half of the veggies in a blend and puree until smooth. The original recipe called for pureeing everything except the eggplant and chickpeas – you could do that as well. Just depends on what chunks you want in your soup, if any. Pour the pureed soup and extra veggies in a pot with the curry powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, and chicken stock – add more or less stock to get the desired consistency.

Bring to a boil then let simmer for 5-10 minutes. At the last minute, stir in the yogurt for a creamy finish. Garnish with cilantro, cheese, and if you’re feeling frisky, a drizzle of good olive oil.

Sauteed Shrimp with Mojo de Ajo

For Christmas, my husband and I gave my sister and brother-in-law a reservation to Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo – a reservation we had to make four months in advance. With it, we offered up our stellar babysitting services for the kiddos and told them to go ahead – have a good time. I won’t name names or go into details, but let’s just say a few mojitos and wine pairings later, they did, in fact, have a good time.

To thank us, they gave me an autographed Rick Bayless cookbook! One recipe I picked out early on was this shrimp with mojo de ajo, mostly because it seemed really simple and incredibly indulgent. Then, I recently saw the same recipe posted by this blogger who varied the recipe just slightly – and it seemed even easier! I promptly went to the market that weekend to buy five heads of garlic.

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Alf was, of course, immediately interested.
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The great thing about this recipe is that it can be used with anything. The shrimp tasted amazing, but I also tossed the oil with some pasta and veggies and drizzled it over fresh tomatoes.

Picnik collage

I paired the shrimp with some simply-cooked wheat berries – they cook much like rice, only it took a little longer. I just set my rice cooker to cook during the day while I was at work and when I came home, perfect wheat berries!

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Sauteed Shrimp with Mojo de Ajo

adapted from Mexico-One Plate at a Time

5 large heads garlic
3 cups fruity olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
juice of two limes
3-4 chipotles in adobo (from a can), sliced finely

~1 pound fresh, deveined shrimp

Peel and crush all the garlic – it doesn’t have to be minced, but it helps if it’s all smashed to let out the garlicky juices. Heat the oven to 325 degrees and arrange the smashed garlic in the bottom of a glass pan. Pour the oil and salt over the garlic, then bake for approximately 45 minutes. When the garlic is roasted and soft, pull it out and toss in the lime juice and slivered chipotles.  Bake for another 15-20 minutes.

Toss the oil with fresh shrimp and cook for a few minutes, until the shrimp is no longer translucent. Store the rest of the oil (and there will be a lot left!) in a glass jar or container.