vegetarian month & crispy baked quesadillas

2013 is over! This year really seemed to go by fast. In 2013, I cooked lots of cool things, taught some great kids at the best school in the north Chicagoland area, and spent lots of quality time with our wonderful little family.

Sarah and I are going to go vegetarian for January 2014. I don’t believe in juice fasts, cleanses, or really dieting in general — but no one can deny that eating fewer animal products is something that is generally a good idea. So for the next 31 days, we are cutting out meat from our diet. Fish too, although I think we’re making an exception for oyster sauce and fish sauce.

One of the first things I did when we decided to go meat-free was to look through my extensive cookbook collection. I’m a big cookbook junkie: I love flipping through them, reading them cover to cover, re-typing or iPhone-scanning my favorite recipes into my Evernote recipe database (nerd alert), and making little notes in the margins about what worked and what didn’t. For Christmas this year, I was lucky to get some great-looking books: Tacos by Mark Miller (thanks Len and Sharon!), the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman (thanks Chris and Kaitlin!) and Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (thanks Connor!). While none of these are strictly vegetarian books, they all have quite a few vegetarian recipes. In particular, I’m looking forward to trying the rajas and cheese tacos, some of Deb’s vegetarian pasta dishes, and one of the pan-Middle Eastern dishes from the Ottolenghi book, shot through with a good dose of lemon and garlic.

I’ve also been consulting my favorite food website, Serious Eats. Kenji Lopez-Alt (major dude crush) is always killing it with new recipes, and while he writes a lot about meat, he has developed some really great vegan and vegetarian recipes as well. Sarah is a big soup fan, so I’ll be making his coconut / habanero lentil soup, white bean soup with rosemary, peanut noodles, and this promising vegetable soup.

So, this month you can hope for more frequent updates, with photos, recipes, links, and rants. I’ll leave you with a recipe for easy oven-fried quesadillas. We often fill them with shreds of leftover chicken, but they also go great with a few spoonfuls of black beans. To successfully "oven-fry" something, you need a nice heavy sheet pan (I like the restaurant / bakery-style "half sheet pans") and enough oil. Don’t worry, most of that oil isn’t going to soak into your food. The oil’s job is to ensure even browning and crisping while making sure that your ‘dillas don’t stick.

No photos for this one, sorry. I will try to do a better job of documenting as the month goes on!

crispy baked quesadillas with spicy black beans

makes 6 full-size (round) tortillas, enough for 2 good-sized main courses or 4 sides (easily doubled, just use two sheet pans)

Ingredients

  • about 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 12 corn tortillas
  • 1 14-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • about 1 cup of your favorite jarred or homemade salsa, plus more for serving
  • about 1-2 cups shredded melting cheese, like cheddar, queso oaxaca, jack, or mozzarella (or a mixture)

Directions

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees. Spread 2 tablespoons of oil on the sheet pan and distribute evenly with your [clean] hands or a brush.

Brush or smear each side of each tortilla with oil. Lay 6 of them out on the sheet pan and top them in this order: a few teaspoons of cheese, about a teaspoon of black beans, about a teaspoon of salsa, and some more cheese on top. Top with the other 6 tortillas.

When the oven is hot enough, place the sheet pan on a middle rack and bake for about 7-8 minutes. Check to see if the bottom is browning nicely. The quesadillas should release pretty easily from the pan. If they’re still sticking, they probably need more time. Continue to bake until the bottom is well-crisped, which could take another 5 minutes or so.

Using a firm, thin metal spatula, carefully flip each quesadilla and return to the oven. Bake until the other side is well crisped as well, just a few more minutes (they never take as much time on the other side).

Remove to a plate (if you’re especially concerned about a few errant drops of oil, blot with a paper towel). Let cool for about a minute, then cut in half with a heavy knife or pizza cutter. Serve with additional salsa.

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butternut squash soup with coconut and curry

Fall is here! This means that I get to continue my yearly tradition of:

  • trying to explain the concept of "seasons" to kindergarteners (extremely challenging, especially with a minor language barrier — even when armed with the word "otoño", seasonality is just a tricky concept if you’ve only lived through a handful of autumns, I guess).
  • enjoying "sweather weather"
  • eating all the honeycrisp apples
  • listening to everyone lose their collective shit over "pumpkin spice"

Look, people: I’m glad that you enjoy your pumpkin lattes, pumpkin vodka, and your pumpkin nonfat sugarfree coffeemate creamer. But pumpkin does not work that way! The flavors that people associate with "pumpkin" are things like nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, mace, and ginger – the spices that you might find in a pumpkin pie, or any other cold-weather dessert. I’m happy that you enjoy these autumnal flavors, but don’t misattribute them to pumpkin, which is an innocent bystander in this whole thing.

What does this mean? Well, you can keep putting spices in your coffee, but I would rather take my squash in another direction. Rather than playing up the natural sweetness of pumpkin and winter squash, I like to pair it with the bright, assertive flavors of Latin America and Southeast Asia. To me, flavors like lime, lemongrass, ginger, chile, garlic, fish sauce, curry, black pepper, cilantro, mint, and Thai basil really make this sweet vegetable sing.

This soup is one of my favorites, and we have it a few times a month during the fall and winter. It’s quick (especially with a pressure cooker), vegan [if you use water or vegetable broth and omit the fish sauce], filling, inexpensive, and very pretty. We like to serve it with grilled cheese, but it has also made an appearance as a first course at dinner parties and at Thanksgiving. It keeps for at least a week in your refrigerator (longer in the freezer) and reheats beautifully.

I like to use butternut squash for this recipe but you can also use a small sugar pumpkin. Don’t use acorn squash, spaghetti squash, or big jack o’ lantern pumpkins. To prep a butternut squash, follow these directions from the excellent Simply Recipes.

squash soup with curry and coconut milk.

Winter Squash Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk

makes about 2-3 quarts, enough for 4-6 main-course servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 small butternut squash or sugar pumpkin, about 2-3 pounds, peeled and cut into rough 1/2" dice
  • 1 small onion or a few shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
  • 2 small carrots, peeled and chopped into rough dice
  • 2 small potatoes, peeled and chopped into rough dice (optional, but nice)
  • 1 small apple, peeled, cored, and chopped into rough dice (also optional, but nice)
  • 3 tablespoons curry powder or garam masala
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (more or less to taste – omit if you are afraid of spicy food, use a little more if you want more of a kick)
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional, use soy sauce or omit if you must)
  • 2 quarts chicken stock, vegetable broth, or water (if you’re using water, you’ll want to add a little more salt later on)
  • 1 14 ounce can coconut milk (Chaokoah brand preferred, if you can find it)
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1-2 teaspoons brown sugar or honey, to taste
  • additional curry powder, pepper, salt, cayenne, and fish sauce, to taste

Directions

In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, heat the oil over medium high heat. When it is barely smoking, add the squash, the onion or shallot, and the garlic. Cook for about 3-4 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion has started to soften and the squash is beginning to get some color.

Add the rest of the dry ingredients and spices: carrots, potatoes, apple, curry, black pepper, salt, and cayenne. Cook for a minute or two until the spices are fragrant and things start to stick to the bottom of the pan.

Add the stock / broth / water, fish sauce, and coconut milk. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom to keep things from sticking. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook for about 30-45 minutes, or until everything is very soft. If the liquid level drops considerably, add additional water.

Turn off the heat. Using an immersion blender or a standing blender (work in batches if you are using a traditional blender), puree everything until completely smooth. For maximum elegance, pass it through a sieve make it very smooth (this is optional, though).

Return the soup to the heat. Add the lime and taste. Does it need more salt? Does it need to be spicier? Does it need more acid? Adjust the flavors accordingly.

Serve immediately, with a side of grilled cheese.

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music room tour!

I hope you all will forgive this departure from my typical food-based posts. Because I have something incredibly exciting to share with you:

My new music classroom!

I am thrilled about my new space. Yes, it’s not a brand-new room, the walls need painting, it’s sort of a goofy shape, the fluorescent lights have a weird yellowish tinge, and there’s no sink. But it’s MINE! After three years of not having my own classroom (going between schools and then going from class to class on a cart), I am so excited to have my own "home".

So without further ado, here are some pictures of the space!

First, the music bulletin board in the hallway. I can’t take any credit for this; Sarah designed it and put it up. I really love it, and probably will not be able to bring myself to tell her when/if some kid rips one of the owls or leaves off the board.

Whooo can read these rhythms?

Next, the music room!

This is where I store our instruments. We don’t have very many pitched instruments (just some Boomwhackers and a few tone bars) but we do have a lot of unpitched percussion instruments. Sarah helped organize and label everything. Don’t they look great? The owl clipart is from Fancy Dog Studios, via Teachers Pay Teachers.

Instrument Storage

This back corner is where I have all my personal stuff. Coffeemaker, coffee, snacks, and a minifridge full of cold water and Diet Coke.

Untitled

In those closets I also have all my children’s books. I love using children’s literature in my teaching. I picked up a whole bunch of books at a recent library sale. I found a lot of great books, including this awesome one called Two Girls Can.

I’m a bit of an office supply junkie, so I was really happy to find these storage containers at the local thrift store. As you can see, I got about halfway into a "spraypaint all the boxes!" project and gave up. Maybe next summer.

Supplies storage

Here are my current bulletin boards. Thanks to the excellent Dr. Shehan Campbell, I try to teach as much world music as possible in my everyday lessons. We’re going to keep track of the music that we’re learning from all over the world.

Songs Around the World

I also believe in teaching students about instruments in the typical Western orchestra, and part of that is learning how we classify instrument groups. I don’t love pre-fab posters, but I picked these up at Chicago Teacher Store last time we were in Bucktown. They are pretty good, although I don’t like classifying piano as a percussion instrument.

Instruments of the Orchestra

Here is my desk area. This is probably the cleanest it will be all year. Above my desk I have nice notes and pictures from students as well as quick reference materials and a calendar from the greatest grocery store in the world. Notice also my DIY teacher planner!

Teacher work area

This is where students sit. I put gym floor marking tape down so the chairs always end up in the right spot. With my own room, I am really hoping to do more dance and movement this year. Having easily marked "chair zones" will allow even little kids to put their chairs back after a movement activity in the middle of the room.

Seating

I found this small round table on the stage and decided to put it in the back of the room. I like the idea of having a space to sit down with other teachers, eat lunch, make posters, etc. Hopefully it doesn’t just become a crap magnet. If it does, I will probably get rid of it.

Small work area

This is my awesome whiteboard. Until this past summer, it was a chalkboard, but we had the district maintenance folks install a whiteboard over the top. Above the board, I have my Curwen hand signs (they’re magnetic, so I can pull them down and place the on the board too) and space for our daily objectives.

Whiteboard

This summer I joined the school PBIS team. PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a schoolwide system that focuses on (among other things) positive reinforcement and clear expectations. One of my jobs this summer was to re-do our schoolwide signs. I’m pretty happy with how they all turned out.

Expectations / Rules!

This is my favorite part. When our school upgraded the gym sound system, the old speakers and amp/mixer were left unused. It’s not the greatest quality equipment, but it’s more than enough for my needs. These things all go into the soundboard:

  • Apple TV (more on this later)
  • Computer
  • Keyboard (in case I want to channel my inner Ross Geller)
  • CD player

Sound board / mixer

I even have a microphone (a Shure SM58 that our principal found somewhere?) that I’m thinking of hooking up, although I don’t really know how useful it would be. Maybe for assessing solo singing?

Finally, the projector. I got my projector through DonorsChoose (here is a link to the original, completed grant). I use this thing every day, along with Powerpoint, my iPad, and a cool app called Doceri. These tools allow me to have Smartboard-like capabilites from my iPad, allowing me to walk around the room, teach from behind the piano, have students write on the "board" (iPad), etc.

Instead of a real projector screen, I just covered this bulletin board with a white sheet from the thrift store. It’s not a perfect solution, but I do like that it is basically a 16:9 (widescreen) size.

Projector screen

That’s pretty much it! I know that I sound like a real dork, but I honestly can’t wait for school to start. I can’t wait to bring students into this music room so we can start singing, dancing, writing, playing, thinking, discussing, listening, and making music. Bring it on!

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minty dark and stormies

Yesterday was Walter’s birthday.

Happy birthday Walter!

I know that it’s silly, but Sarah and I are completely obsessed with this dog. Walter is funny, sweet, and loving. In celebration of his birthday, I decided to cook something with beef, his favorite food. I made Leela’s massaman curry with brown rice. Before serving, I took a chunk of tender beef, rinsed it in cold water to remove any residual spiciness or saltiness (massaman curries are very mild, thankfully), and shredded it. Walter enjoyed his birthday beef with a small side of brown rice. Here’s a silly video, if you didn’t catch it on Sarah’s blog.

Humans can handle a little flavor with their beef, and the massaman curry turned out really nice, like a creamy, curry-flavored beef stew. To go with it, I made a drink that I’ve been calling a "Minty Dark and Stormy".

This is an awesome cocktail for casual summer drinking. It is a highball, which means that it has a larger proportion of mixer to booze, allowing you to sip on something a bit longer before getting day-drunk. The warm, spicy ginger makes it a nice holiday drink as well. Really, there is no wrong time to enjoy a tall glass of rum, lime, and ginger beer.

Dark & Stormy w/ mint ingredients

The Dark and Stormy is a simple drink, but there are a few rules:

  • Use plenty of ice.
  • Choose a dark rum, like Black Seal or Meyer’s. Don’t try to use white rum (Bacardi, etc) or spiced rum (Captain Morgan’s, etc)
  • Use ginger beer (not ginger ale). I like JCS "Reggae Style" ginger beer, which I buy in the Jamaican section of our awesome local grocery store. Reed’s is good too, and readily available in most grocery stores. Seattlites, feel free to use Rachel’s if you’re dying to pay $6/bottle.
  • Don’t stir your Dark and Stormy. It’s called a Dark and Stormy because the intermingling rum and ginger beer looks like storm clouds in the glass. Serve the drinks unstirred, and let your guests mix them up with their straws.

Finally, a note on terminology: technically, this is a minty rum buck, since it includes lime juice in addition to the garnish wedge. Call it what you want, just know that if you try to order one in a bar, you may get something a little different.

Dark & Stormy w/ mint

Minty Dark and Stormy [Rum Buck]

makes 2 drinks (if you want to just make 1, you’ll have some extra ginger beer left over)

Ingredients

  • lots of good ice (if you don’t have an icemaker in your fridge, do what we do and buy bags of ice – don’t mess around with crappy ice trays)
  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup) dark rum, preferably Black Seal or Meyer’s (do NOT substitute white rum or spiced rum like Captain Morgan)
  • 1 big juicy lime, plus a wedge for garnish
  • leaves from several sprigs of mint, plus 2 sprigs for garnish,
  • 1 12-ounce bottle ginger beer (do NOT substitute ginger ale)

Directions

Fill two pint glasses about 3/4 full with ice. Add 2 ounces (1/4 cup) rum and the juice of 1/2 lime to each glass. Rub the mint leaves between your hands to release the oils and add them to the glass as well.

Pour half the bottle of ginger beer into each glass [do not stir], garnish with a reserved mint sprig and lime, and serve.

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oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies with sea salt

It’s been a lazy late summer day at the Hershmossi homestead. This morning I went school supply shopping with some teacher pals, but with the crappy weather outside, we spent the afternoon inside working on our DIY headboard project (word to the wise: do not attempt this project. Seriously. Make this awesome bookcase instead, if you’re feeling couples-crafty) and working our way through Season 4 of Friends.

DIY headboard in progress.
Would not wish this on my worst enemy

And what goes better with LOLing over Chanandler Bong than a nice, toasty oatmeal chocolate chip cookie? Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are what oatmeal raisin cookies wish they could be. I mean, I like raisins as much as the next guy, but they do not belong in cookies.

Glad I got that out of the way.

I’m a big fan of subbing in a little bit of whole wheat flour in cookies, not really for health reasons, but for the texture. You know how whole wheat bread can be dense and chewy? The same qualities that can make your sandwich a little annoying to eat can be really nice in a cookie. Don’t get carried away adding TOO much whole wheat flour, or you’ll mess up the proportions of your baked good (also, be careful when substituting whole wheat flour for white flour, since the densities are different – use a kitchen scale or consult a conversion guide online. This recipe only uses 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, so subbing straight across by volume is fine, but in larger amounts it’ll get thrown off).

I am really quite terrible at making sweet baked goods, so please believe me when I say that these cookies are not only delicious and quick, but very hard to screw up.

Untitled

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies with Sea Salt

makes about 5-6 dozen cookies

adapted from Betty Crocker

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup white [regular] flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or just use 1 1/2 cups regular flour)
  • 2 cups rolled oats (quick cooking or regular, not steel-cut)
  • 1 cup chocolate chips (or use 1/3 cups butterscotch chips and 2/3 chocolate chips)
  • coarse sea salt or kosher salt, for sprinking, optional (I have a confession to make: I don’t really buy sea salt. I use coarse kosher salt, and if I want to sound fancy and pretentious, I often just call it "sea salt" in recipe titles. I’m sorry. Just use kosher salt, It’ll be fine).

Directions

First things first, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and take your butter out of the fridge. It needs to be soft before you start mixing.

With an electric mixer or a strong hand, combine the brown sugar and (softened) butter and beat until very smooth. This process takes about 1-2 minutes in my KitchenAid. By the time you’re done, you should have a delicious, light-brown mixture that would probably be awesome on toast.

Mix in the vanilla extract and the egg and beat for another 20-30 seconds, until smooth. Add the baking soda and salt and mix until well combined.

Add the flour and oats. Mix on low or stir gently until just combined (don’t overwork the dough). Stir in your chocolate and/or butterscotch chips.

Line some baking sheets with parchment paper or oil them lightly with butter or cooking spray. Measure out tablespoon-sized balls of dough and place 12 of them on each pan. If you have enough sheet pans (and you should!), you can bake 2 sheets at once.

Bake at 350 degrees for 5 minutes. Rotate the pans from top to bottom and bake for another 4-5 minutes, or until the cookies are just starting to brown at the edges. Remove from the oven and sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of salt, if desired (it’s important to do this while they’re still warm and somewhat gooey, so the salt sticks). Let cool on a rack for about 3 minutes, then take the cookies off the pan to continue cooling.

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home roasting coffee: an introduction

People always seem impressed when I tell them that I roast my own coffee. I think that folks think that roasting coffee is an involved, expensive, drawn-out activity, like brewing your own beer, or cultivating your own wild mushrooms — but unlike homebrewing or DIY mycology, this hobby is neither time-intensive nor costly. Roasting coffee at home is fun, easy, and quite a bit cheaper than what you would pay for high-quality beans at the grocery store or at a coffee shop. Home roasting gets you freshly roasted coffee, rather than something that’s been sitting in a vacuum bag (or worse, a Folgers can) for weeks or months. Roasting your own beans also allows you to fine-tune the roast level, which brings out different flavors and aromas in different beans. Finally, quality green bean purveyors like Sweet Maria’s source their coffee beans directly and in small quantities. I like knowing that my coffee has been acquired ethically, sustainably, and in a way that provides farmers and workers with a living wage.

Got that? In short,:

  • inexpensive
  • fresh-roasted coffee
  • fine-tune your roast levels
  • ethically and sustainably sourced by people who know the coffee trade intimately.

So how dark should you roast your coffee? It’s up to you. Generally speaking, darker roasts have more chocolatey, rich flavors, while lighter roasts are brighter, more floral and/or fruity. What we know as "French" roast coffee (similar to most of the coffee sold at Starbucks) is very dark, which can be a good way to use mediocre-quality beans, but it also obliterates a lot of the flavor. Depending on the bean, Sarah and I like what is known as a "Full City" roast, which is a medium to medium-dark level. Fore more information on roast levels, check out this great article from Sweet Maria’s.

There are many devices you can use to roast your beans. You can buy a $300 Behmor drum roaster, or you can MacGuyver a solution with a gas grill, turkey fryer, or heat gun and dog food bowl My favorite method is to use a popcorn popper. I have a West Bend Poppery II that I picked up at the Capitol Hill Value Village for $5 on my way back from dropping Walter off at his old dog groomer. The Popper II is known in Internet coffee circles to be an ideal model for home roasting, but you can use any air popper that has side vents on the inside. This ensures that your beans spin quickly and consistently while roasting, which means a more even (and safe) roast.

I’m not going to attempt to describe the whole process here, but here is the basic method:

    Roasting up some coffee for the week.

  • Set up your popcorn popper near a window, fan, and/or vent hood (preferably all three). The easiest way to do this is to put the machine on one of your [off, cool] stove burners and turn your vents on high. Open some windows if you can.
  • Put a big bowl in front of the popcorn popper. This is going to collect the chaff from the beans.
  • Turn on the popcorn popper and slowly pour in some beans. Use about 1/3 cup, or as much as it takes for the beans to slowly spin in the popper. Some machines can take more or less; mine will do about 3 oz. at a time. Put the top back on the popper.
  • Don’t leave! Watch the beans carefully (you can take the lid off to peek, or if there isn’t too much chaff flying out of the top, you can leave it off altogether). After a few minutes, the beans are going to start to crack – it will sound like popcorn popping quietly. This is called "first crack".
  • Continue roasting for another minute or so. At about the 5 or 6 minute mark (sometimes it takes longer – I’ve had some decafs that take 8-9 minutes to get to this point), you will start to hear quick, quiet cracks, like the sound that Rice Krispies make in milk or a fire quietly crackling. This is called "second crack". For a medium-dark roast, you should stop the roast now. Unplug the popcorn popper. Working quickly (because now that the beans are not spinning, they can burn more easily), use a hot pad or oven mitt to remove the top of the popper. Dump the beans into a colander. Swirl them slowly for a minute or so to stop the roast.

At this point, you have deliciously roasted coffee that is not ready to drink yet. Your coffee needs to rest for at least 8-24 hours to outgas a little bit. Put the cool coffee in a jar or container and cover it most of the way with a lid (don’t seal it completely yet, since the CO2 needs to be able to escape). Let it sit overnight before grinding and brewing.

It sounds like a lot of work, but home roasting is really pretty easy to pick up. Our friend Pamela was in town this weekend and I showed her the ropes. She got the hang of it really quickly, and was able to identify the different roast stages by sound and by sight.

Roasting some coffee!

Think you want to try roasting some coffee? If you live in the North Chicagoland area, come over to our house and you can roast some with me! Otherwise you’ll need to get your own supplies. There are several places on the Internet that sell green beans, but by far the best is Sweet Maria’s. Almost everything I know about roasting coffee I’ve learned from their articles, YouTube videos, blog posts, and forum. I HIGHTLY recommend spending an afternoon tooling around their site if you’re at all interested in home roasting.

Here’s what to do:

  • read the Home Roasting Basics page on Sweet Marias.
  • buy a popcorn popper either new or used [you can even buy the popper from Sweet Maria's if you want to get it all in one order]
  • buy some beans. I recommend the 4 or 8 lb. sampler from Sweet Marias – get the regular or a regular / decaf mix
  • read the Sweet Maria’s air popper instructions and watch the video for another walkthrough of the process and so you know what to expect.

Roasting coffee is one of my favorite kitchen tasks. It’s a relaxing, meditative part of my weekend ritual and a really enjoyable hobby. I hope you give it a try!

Banana bread, pour over.

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grilled salsa, four ways

Temperatures have been in the 90s around here all week. But if you live in the United States, you probably know that already, because it’s been super hot everywhere:

When it’s this hot, it’s not even worth trying to cook. I’ve been getting by with a steady diet of cold brew coffee, iced tea, ice-cold cheap beer, cabbage-based salads, and ice water, but today I decided to fire up the grill for one of my favorite cold snacks: salsa.

If you are someone who can make great pico de gallo, my hat is off to you. I try every few months to make a really killer fresh salsa and I never can make it happen. Sarah, who is better at fine-tuning flavors, has better luck than me, but we can never replicate the pico de gallo at La Carta de Oaxaca. So more often than not, I make some sort of roasted salsa using the broiler. But what is an oven’s broiler if not an inverted grill? In addition to being an excellent meat-cooking device, a charcoal or gas grill is a great way to prepare salsas.

Tomatillo Salsa on the Grill

Today I made four different salsas, all based on recipes from Rick Bayless’s Salsas That Cook. In addition to the standard tomato and jalapeno salsa, I made a tomatillo-serrano salsa, a garlicky, herby arbol chile salsa, and a smooth chipotle-cascabel salsa.

Grilled Salsas

When you’re roasting salsa fixings on the grill (you can also do this under the broiler, or in a foil-lined cast iron pan on your stove, but it will take more time since you’ll have to work in smaller batches), you want to keep an eye on your ingredients. Here is what should happen:

  • tomatoes and tomatillos should blacken in spots and begin to collapse
  • onions should get light grill marks and become nice and soft
  • garlic cloves should color a little bit, but mostly get soft and fragrant

This can take as little as 8 minutes and as long as 20 minutes, depending on the size of your grill, how hot your coals are, the size of your ingredients, etc. Don’t feel compelled to hurry things along. Every 5 or 6 minutes, open up the grill and move things around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. If something looks done, pull it off the heat. If you discover that your grill has some hot and cool zones, use that to your advantage, moving larger and/or slower cooking stuff to the hotter areas.

Once your ingredients are grilled, it’s time to mix them up. You’re going to need a food processor or an immersion blender for this. The basic strategy is the same for all four salsas:

  • if called for, rehydrate the dried chilies
  • pulse the the roasted chiles, onions, and garlic until they’re a thick, chunky paste
  • puree the tomatoes or tomatillos
  • mix in the fresh cilantro, salt, and vinegar or sugar if called for
  • let cool completely, then taste and adjust flavors if needed (since salsas are usually served cold, they need to be flavored boldly, with a good dose of salt and, in the case of tomato salsas, some vinegar)

If you’re just going to make one, I recommend the tomato-jalapeno, which is going to be a nice, middle of the road condiment for tortilla chips or nachos. The tomatillo-serrano salsa is also nice for dipping; you can also use this sauce in chilaquiles or enchiladas. The last two salsas feature dried chiles and are smoother sauces, more suited to cooking with. Drizzle them into tacos, spoon them over eggs, or marinate some chicken thighs in them.

Finally, a word on heat: I would say these are all “medium” spiciness. If you are concerned about the heat level, roast the full number of chilies but set one or two aside when you blend the salsa up. If you think it needs more heat, whiz that last chile in the food processor and mix it back in. Otherwise, you can enjoy a milder salsa. Obviously, you can do the opposite if you like a spicier sauce. For the dried chile salsas, you can use more chilies and/or add in one or more spicier dried chilies, such as chiles de arbol.

Tomato Salsa fixins

Tomatillo salsa fixins

Unlike their fresh counterparts, these salsas keep for up to a week in the fridge. They also freeze very nicely, so don’t be afraid to make a double or triple batch. So go get a tasty beverage, a few bags of tortilla chips, and call up some friends: SALSA TIME!

Roasted Tomato-Jalapeno Salsa

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
makes about 2 1/2 quarts salsa (easily halved or doubled)

Ingredients

  • 4 1/2 lbs. tomatoes
  • 3-4 oz. jalapenos, stemmed (about 3-4 large chilies, or 4-5 smaller ones)
  • 6 oz. white onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 in. thick (1 medium onion)
  • 12 cloves garlic
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 generous tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Directions

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatoes and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove the tomatoes to a bowl and the chilies, onions, and garlic to a separate bowl.

If using a food processor, pulse the chilies, onions, and garlic until roughly chopped. If using an immersion blender, you’ll have a hard time getting it to do much since there’s not any liquid yet, so go ahead and add the water to the mixture to get it going. Either way, remove this to a large bowl.

Coarsely puree the tomatoes with the food processor or immersion blender, then add to the large bowl with the other grilled ingredients.

If you didn’t add the water yet, add it now, along with the cilantro, salt, and vinegar. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or vinegar if desired.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa with Serrano Chilies

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
makes about 2 1/2 quarts salsa (easily halved or doubled)

  • 5 lbs. tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed briefly
  • 4-5 oz. serrano chiles (about 3-4 chilies), stems removed
  • 1 lb. white onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick (about 1 large onion)
  • 12 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/2 cup water, plus more if needed
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • sugar, if needed (I didn’t need it, but you might want to add 1 or 2 teaspoons if your tomatillos were really tangy – taste and see at the end)

Directions

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatillos, serranos, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatillos and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove the tomatillos to a bowl (they will be very soft and watery) and the chilies, onions, and garlic to a separate bowl.

If using a food processor, pulse the chilies, onions, and garlic until roughly chopped. If using an immersion blender, you’ll have a hard time getting it to do much since there’s not any liquid yet, so go ahead and add the water to the mixture to get it going. Either way, remove this to a large bowl.

Coarsely puree the tomatillos with the food processor or immersion blender, then add to the large bowl with the other grilled ingredients.

If you didn’t add the water yet, add it now, along with the cilantro, salt, and vinegar. Give it a good stir. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or sugar if desired. You might also need to add more water after it cools: tomatillos have a lot natural pectin, which really firms up the salsa when you put it in the fridge. It should be spoonable, so don’t be afraid to add another cup or so of water if you need to.

Chipotle-Cascabel Salsa with Thyme

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
Makes about 1 quart salsa

Ingredients

  • 6 dried chipotle chiles
  • 6 dried round cascabel chiles (if you can’t find cascabels, which are cute little spherical chilies, substitute guajillo or pulla chilies)
  • 1 lb. tomatillos,  husks removed and rinsed briefly
  • 1 lb. tomatoes
  • 12 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 lb. onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 in. thick (1 large onion)
  • 1 tablespon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 2 generous teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar, if needed

Directions

Cut the tops off the chilies and tear them open. Shake the seeds out and discard. Pack the chiles into a small bowl and add just enough hot tap water to cover. Let stand 20-40 minutes, or until very soft.

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatoes, tomatillos,, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatoes, tomatillos, and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove the tomatoes and tomatillos to a bowl (they will be very soft and watery) and the chilies, onions, and garlic to a separate bowl.

Drain the water off of the chilies and reserve.

Puree the tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies, and 1 cup of the reserved chile soaking water with the food processor or immersion blender until very smooth, about 1 minute. Add the onions and garlic and continue to process until smooth. Remove to a bowl.

Add the thyme and salt. Give it a good stir. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or sugar if desired. You might also need to add more water after it cools: tomatillos have a lot natural pectin, which really firms up the salsa when you put it in the fridge. It should be spoonable, so don’t be afraid to add another few tablespoons of water if you need to.

Red Chile Salsa with Roasted Garlic

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
makes about 2-3 cups (easily doubled)

Ingredients

  • 4 dried New Mexico chiles (or substitute guajillo or pulla chiles)
  • 1/2 lbs. ripe tomatoes
  • 2 oz. white onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick (1/2 small onion)
  • 1/2 heads garlic, peeled (about 12-16 cloves of garlic)
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar, if needed

Directions

Cut the tops off the chilies and tear them open. Shake the seeds out and discard. Pack the chiles into a small bowl and add just enough hot tap water to cover. Let stand 20-40 minutes, or until very soft.

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatoes, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatoes and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove everything to a bowl. Drain the water off of the chilies and reserve.

Puree the tomatoes, chilies, and 1 cup of the reserved chile soaking water with the food processor or immersion blender until very smooth, about 1 minute. Add the onions and garlic and continue to process until smooth. Remove to a bowl.

Add the oregano, salt, and vinegar. Give it a good stir. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or sugar if desired.

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