Is your place a little hollow and echoey now that the last guests are as gone as the yellowing Christmas tree? Can you believe how much is in that overflowing recycle bin stuffed with wrapping and empty boxes?
With the holidays officially over, we now get to stare the mid-winter blues and greys straight in the eye. And even if you have two weeks booked for Oaxaca or Varadero, one of the best things you can do for yourself this time of year is cook up an exotic storm.
It's cheap. It's easy. Best of all you'll face no border hassles and no outrageous carbon footprint from flying. It's also a great way to spice things up and get away from all those wonderful but now tired, tiresome holiday leftovers. Even a first-time cook can go Latino or Mexican in the kitchen with little stress and less mess.
Here are a couple of my favourite kitchen table getaways, centred on a good salsa. Two weeks from now I'll share my best bean recipes for a final getaway.
Good salsa: The January beast killer
A just right, full-bodied salsa is as great with simple corn chips or nachos as it is anchoring eggs, huevos rancheros style, or with fresh red snapper, Baja California style.
One of the best fresh fish meals I've ever had was when I was living in San Diego and we did a road trip down the Baja. We stopped for lunch in a tiny café perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, just south of Rosarito, which lies just south of Tijuana, and we were stunned by this sweet and savoury dish. I've been trying to replicate it since; the following recipe is pretty close.
For two people, heat vegetable oil in a frying pan and gently sauté half a large sweet onion, two-thirds of a medium green pepper, and as much jalapeño pepper as you like, all of it thinly sliced. Modern jalapeños are so large and mild, I leave the seeds and placenta in and use half a big one for that unique jalapeño flavour.
Wash and dry 2/3 to 3/4 pound of fresh, sweet red snapper (Fresh fish, by the way, always smells sweet, not "fishy"). Just before the onions and peppers are fully cooked, toss the snapper on top of them, sprinkle liberally with good salsa (see recipe below), and add fresh lime juice to taste. I squeeze on the juice of at least a whole lime using my low-tech, traditional aluminum Mexican lime squeezer. You can buy them on-line but why bother when you can grab one — along with a ton of authentic Mexican products, including the freshest corn chips north of the 49th parallel at the Que Pasa store and café at 12031 No. 5 Road in Richmond — a getaway unto itself.
Sprinkle on salt if you like. Sometimes I add fresh cumin I also get at Que Pasa. Then pop on a tight-fitting lid and cook on low-medium heat just high enough so the salsa burbles up until the fish is done. It usually takes seven to eight minutes. Don't dry it out.
You can also use your best salsa to transform ordinary fried eggs into huevos rancheros good enough for dinner. For two servings, start by cutting two good fresh corn tortillas in half. Que Pasa's fresh corn tortillas are fine, but if you can get your hands on some from El Comal (7650 Winston Street in Burnaby), even better.
If you want to go really Mexican, use lard but otherwise set your burner on medium and heat a generous skim of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Once the oil is hot, toss in the halved tortillas, cook quickly on one side, then flip onto the other. Use your spatula to keep them as flat as possible, then break four eggs — two per serving — trying for one on top of each tortilla half. This is a bit tricky, especially if you don't have a big enough frying pan, so just overlap your tortillas a bit and on top cozy up two eggs for each serving as you need. Use two pans for more servings.
Get the eggs on the tortilla halves as quick as you can, then gently spoon a generous amount of salsa over each egg, as well as some diced sweet onion, peppers — green, red, jalapeño or whatever you have — and a good sprinkle of crumbled fresh white cheese.
It's hard to find authentic Mexican cheese, but given most were traditionally made by small local operations from goat's or sheep's milk, you'll do fine using a good fresh sheep or goat feta as long as it's not too hard and dry nor too salty (Balkan is best). Toss on a tight-fitting lid and cook just a minute or two until the tops of the eggs are set.
Both of these dishes will really send you if you serve them with good refried beans, which I'll get into on the 24th, good tortillas, and/or rice.
But the salsa is queen. All kinds of commercial products are out there, but I've never found one I really like other than the fresh ones you can get at the Richmond Que Pasa store. Try the tomatillo, the salsa cruda, the Habañero, or the hot salsa. You can even try them on the spot if you stop for a bite.
You can also find all sorts of salsa recipes on line, but here's my tried and true favourite, from one Cress Walker, former planner for the RMOW, last seen on his sailboat still cruising the hot spots of the world. It even beats the one from my former Mexican neighbour in San Diego, where the sun never stops shining.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who says San Diego has the best climate on Earth.
Toss everything in a blender and whirl on high. Don't over-blend — you want some good-sized flecks in it. I like adding the juice of half a fresh lime.
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