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. 

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A Tomato Test

It was time for a test. Every blog and every recipe and every TV chef recommends using the San Marzano canned tomato. But really, is it necessary to seek out this special tomato? Is it that much better than any other canned tomato? I wasn’t convinced, so I pulled a classic engineering move – I conducted a quasi-scientific study.

Picnik collage

I bought two cans of tomatoes. To be fair, they were different in more ways than one. There was no control group, just two cans of tomatoes cooked in exactly the same way. One can was of the San Marzano variety, of course, which is an Italian variety of tomato that is, supposedly, a perfect tomato for sauce. The other can was organic, but it did not list the variety of tomato – I assume it was a plum tomato or something similar. Both cans were skinless, whole tomatoes – not diced, pureed, or processed in any other way. The big difference, besides the variety, was the addition of citric acid and calcium chloride to the organic tomatoes. These chemicals are firming agents and preservatives – they keep the tomato in that recognizable tomato shape. The San Marzanos I bought did not include these ingredients, though always check the labels because even places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carry canned tomatoes that use these chemicals.

For preparation, I used the standard recipe of tomato sauce with onion and butter – I figured, the simpler the better – that way, it’d be easier to clearly taste the differences. Both cans bubbled along for equal amounts of time, with exactly equal amounts of salt, pepper, onion, butter, and garlic. The results were a bit surprising.

I was expecting both tomatoes to taste exactly the same – I really didn’t think there could be that big of a difference. For one, the tomatoes without the citric acid and calcium chloride actually broke down in the cooking process, making for a nice consistency in the sauce. The organic tomatoes, on the other hand, required a blender to achieve the same consistency, as the tough ends of the tomatoes would not succumb to my prodding. That was probably the biggest difference… but what about the flavor?

In short, the flavor was really different. The San Marzanos tasted almost fresh. They were bright red, juicy, and had a great tomato-y flavor. The organic tomatoes, on the other hand, tasted almost a bit tinny – sort of like the flavor I expect in canned tomatoes. It reminded me, in a subtle way, of tomato juice from concentrate. It was also a deeper red color – not nearly as saturated as the San Marzanos.

But I didn’t hate it. In fact, I’d buy them again if I didn’t have the time to make an extra trip to find San Marzanos. And truly, if I weren’t tasting them side-by-side, I’m sure any can of tomatoes will do. And while the addition of citric acid and calcium chloride urk me, there will still be times that I buy canned tomatoes with those ingredients. Of course, if our regular grocery store ever starts stocking San Marzano’s or any other canned tomato without these ingredients, I’ll make the switch in a heart beat.

By the way… I used the sauce on a great caprese-style pizza in the end. Whole wheat pizza crust, sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, and some shreds of Parmesan. Easy.

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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.

‘The Best Pasta Sauce’ Reinvented

No excuses here – I’ve been lazy. I’ve cooked quite a few tasty items in the last few weeks, but I’ve had no motivation to edit photos and write about them. Mostly, I’ve been a wee bit obsessed with planning our upcoming honeymoon. We have the itinerary almost finalized, and I successfully looked up and priced out seventy different airlines’ flight routes. I then organized them in Excel separately by price and destination and experimented with different itineraries. Yes, I’m that nerdy about it.

Right now, looks like we’re doing the following:

Bangkok -> Hanoi, Vietnam -> Halong Bay, Vietnam -> Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, Cambodia -> Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -> Kota Kinabalu and Malaysian Borneo -> Bali -> Bangkok and Thai islands. Whirlwind, that’s for sure. A month is not really enough time for this itinerary, but we’re going to make it work and make sure we see everything we want to!

Ok, back to food. This tomato sauce has been all over the blogosphere. It is delicious as is, but of course I had to spice it up. Tossed with some pasta (whole wheat, of course), a super fresh mozzarella from the farmer’s market, and fresh spinach – boom, a meal.

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The Best Pasta Sauce
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking

1 large can, 28 ounces whole peeled tomatoes from a can (San Marzano is what all the bloggers recommend, but I used a different brand from the store – still tasted great)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (or, like I used, Earth Balance spread)
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
2 tablespoons cumin (this is the secret ingredient)
Salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion, cumin, and butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Simmer over medium-low heat for 40-50 minutes, slowly breaking down the tomatoes as the heat through. Remove from heat and take out the onion, then add salt to taste.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta al dente. Toss with the pasta sauce, fresh spinach, and fresh mozz.
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Food Party & Red Snapper Ceviche

It’s been a while since my friend Evan moved to Chicago – going on five months now – but believe it or not, he only recently bought a couch. In Evan’s mind, there is  no better way to celebrate buying a couch than to have a food-centric housewarming party (ok, so I may have had something to do with the party idea, but if you know Evan, you know the food-centric theme was all him).

Anyway, every invitee brought a recipe they had never, ever made before. Something they have never attempted. Something they never even thought about making. This set us up for potential disaster, to be sure, but surprisingly we all got out unharmed (unless you count being full past the point of comprehension). The food, in fact, was fabulous. I made a red snapper ceviche from Rick Bayless’s One Plate at a Time, which I’ll share below, but first is a little photo essay from the night.

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Cheese to kick start the evening

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Evan’s on-fire, very strong rye drink

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Evan rinsing brown basmati rice

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Danielle mincing garlic with this nifty garlic grinder

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Danielle wrapping egg rolls

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Evan not deveining the shrimp

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Lots of butter in this recipe

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Heaven

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More butter

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Shrimp in curry spices

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Dessert… cherries jubilee

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Barely fit this in my belly

Red Snapper Ceviche

from Rick Bayless’s One Plate at a Time

~1 pound red snapper, or fillets from 1 large meaty white fish
1 1/2 cups fresh lime juice, or enough to completely cover all the fish
1 small white onion, chopped
2 large jalapeños, stemmed and chopped
1/4 cup pitted green manzanillo olives
2 large  ripe tomatos, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 small jícama, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt
juice of 1 orange

In a large stainless steel or glass bowl (plastic or other metals will react with the acid and add a yucky flavor to your fish), combine the fish, lime juice, and onion.  The fish should float freely in the juice; if not, add a little more.  Cover and refrigerate until the fish is cooked – I left mine in for 4 hours, but wish I had taken it out after 2-3 as I found it to be a bit too acidic. Strain out the lime juice and set the fish aside.

Combine the green chiles, olives, tomato, jícama, cilantro, and olive oil. Stir in the fish, with salt and orange juice.  Refrigerate until ready to serve — preferably no longer than an hour or two. Serve with tortilla chips

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Heirloom Caprese Salad

I love Sundays. Sunday mornings, that is. After 4pm, I usually start feeling those hints of depression… that gloomy feeling knowing that Monday morning – work – is coming closer and closer by the minute.

Sunday morning, on the other hand, is so wonderful. I can’t describe why, but it feels completely different than Saturday mornings. Perhaps this weekend, Sunday was different because I didn’t have that pounding wine headache from Friday night’s dinner extravaganza (which, this past weekend, included a secret underground dinner event in an uber trendy loft in the South Loop). Perhaps it was the long run that felt so refreshing. Perhaps it was the sun shining and crowds of people gathered at the lakefront to see Chicago’s Annual Air and Water Show.

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Whatever the case, I made my way to our quaint little market in Wicker Park and picked up a slew of goodies that have provided enough material to post on this blog for a week! Fresh sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes, cranberry beans (yes!), three different kinds of eggplant, basil, and garlic… the few blocks home felt like a mile with such heavy bags hanging off my arms.

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If you know me, you know I love spring produce like asparagus, ramps, and garlic scapes. Even more so than spring, however, I look forward to tomato season… also known as summer. Tomatoes are one of those foods that you must eat in season. And, more and more, I believe heirloom tomatoes are the only way to go. Forget those hybrid, mealy, flavorless varieties you find in the grocery store. You haven’t had a tomato until you’ve had an heirloom tomato.

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Heirloom Caprese Salad

This recipe was very much inspired – er, practically stolen – from Love and Olive Oil.

2 heirloom tomatoes, different varieties
1 ball fresh mozzarella
~10 fresh basil leaves, or more if preferred

1/4 cup good olive oil
3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
1/2 clove raw garlic
1 small squirt of mustard
1 small squirt/drizzle of agave nectar or honey
salt and pepper

Slice the tomatoes into rounds and cut the mozzarella into rounds approximately the same thickness. Layer tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. To make the vinaigrette, combine olive oil, vinegar, leftover basil leaves, salt and pepper, garlic, mustard, and agave nectar in a food processor. Pulse until oil is emulsified. Drizzle over salad.

You’ll likely have some dressing leftover; enjoy it on an arugula salad or any other greens.