Posts by Cara

Salsa at Home, No Excuses

Salsa at Home, No Excuses

I’m not opposed to ready-made foods, supermarket shortcuts, already cleaned shrimp, and I do not make everything from scratch. Small kitchen, busy life, etc.

But I’ve found there’s a strangely large range in the edibles we outsource to others. Some are truly difficult or time-consuming to make at home, and I’m happy to pay for a vinegar professional to turn wine into vinegar so I don’t have to (maybe one day, Sandor Ellix Katz). But others can be whipped up fresh quickly and easily. They take just a few ingredients and hardly more effort than the opening of that purchased jar. Salsa is one of them. And the payoff is big.

(See also: Hummus.)

Especially now, when ripe tomatoes and tomatillos are coming, there’s no reason to spend money on a premade jar. I find a lot of the jarred salsas taste alike, even when they claim different flavors. And, they’re always shockingly acidic and overly salty. Even in winter, you can make a better batch from a can of whole tomatoes. The flavor of homemade is simpler and more immediate.

To elucidate the condiment that’s more popular than ketchup and do justice to “the soul of [Mexican] cuisine,” I wanted to post four different ways you can make some salsa at home. The roasted version may be the simplest, as there’s almost no chopping, but there’s not a clear hierarchy among the four types.

**Four Ways to Make Salsa at Home**

Roasted Salsa
Tomatoes or Tomatillos + Fresh Chiles + Quartered Onion + Garlic Cloves + Lime
Put about two pounds of the tomatoes or tomatillos on a baking sheet, whole, with a jalapeño or two trimmed of its stem, a peeled onion cut into fourths, and a few garlic cloves still in their skin. Toss generously with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast at a high temperature (500°F works) for about 15 minutes, until nearly black in places. Remove the garlic from the skin. Put everything in a blender and run until smooth. Add lime juice and salt to taste.

Cooked Salsa
Tomatoes or Tomatillos + Garlic + Fresh Chiles + White Onion + Cilantro + Salt
Instead of roasting the fruit, you quickly blanch them in boiling water before transferring to the blender. Instead of cooking the coarsely chopped onion, chiles, etc., you add all the rest of the ingredients to the blender raw, which balances out the mellowed tomatoes or tomatillos with a bright punch. If you prefer a chunkier salsa, use the food processor instead of the blender.

Simmered Salsa
Canned Tomatoes + Garlic + Onions +  Herbs + Dried Chiles. 
Forgive me for writing this, but making simmered salsa is a lot like making everyday spaghetti sauce, just with different herbs. Heat up some oil, add chopped garlic and onions, and cook them until just barely soft (retaining some texture is good). Add the tomatoes and herbs–you can do dried Mexican oregano or fresh cilantro, and simmer for 10 minutes or so, so the flavors meld. You can add minced jalapeño with the garlic and onion, but this is a place where I reach for my dried chile stash. Soak 1 or 2 dried chiles like guajillo or ancho in water for a few minutes, then pulse them in a food processor with some of the tomato liquid and add that to the pan with the tomatoes. Season with salt and cool to room temperature before serving.

Fresh Salsa
Diced Vegetables + Minced Onion + Minced Cilantro + Minced Fresh Chile + Lime Juice + Oil Drizzle
Pico de gallo means “rooster’s beak,” but no one seems to know why. The typical raw tomato salsa is popular in Mexico and seen at every burrito joint in the U.S. To make it, combine about 1 pound of chopped ripe tomatoes with half of a minced white onion, 1 minced jalapeño, 1/2 cup minced cilantro, 3 tablespoons of lime juice, and a solid drizzle of oil. Season with salt.

You don’t have to stick to tomato. Try fruits, from mango to peach and vegetables from radish to cucumber to corn. Mint, basil, or oregano can replace or supplement the cilantro.

How to Make the Crispiest Fish (with Tabasco Compound Butter)

Crispiest Fish with Tabasco Butter | Big GIrls Small Kitchen

How do you make the crispiest fish–the kind your order at restaurants? And what do you put on that fish to preserve its simplicity but also make it exciting?

Those are the two pressing questions we’re answering in today’s post.

I’ve been searching for a couple years for a consistent way to make the best simple fish. I love a good fish stew, a pot of steamed mussels, a skillet of salmon roasted on greens. But to get crispy skin and a perfectly cooked interior on today’s fresh catch from Mermaid’s Garden without leaving delish detritus in the pan: that’s harder. I’ve tried cornmeal. I’ve tried dusting with Wondra flour. At last, I’ve settled on nothing but high heat, thanks to a tiny tip from one of this winter’s editions of Bon Appetit.

The kind of heat you need will probably make you uncomfortable. The pan will grow dark and brownish before you start. The oil will smoke. The fish will crackle loudly. You’ll have to open your windows and close your bedroom door. You’ll want to turn your fan around so it faces out, not in. But the cooking takes all of 5 minutes, after which the smoke will clear and the scent will diffuse, and you’ll sit down to perfectly cooked fish filets that have remarkably crispy skin and very juicy flesh.

And then what? You don’t want to sauce your fish with anything goopy, out of fear of softening that hard-earned crispy crust and diminishing the subtle flavor.

A compound butter is answer. Compound butter is just butter that’s been mixed with flavorings. You don’t need much of it to do a lot of seasoning work, so serve with a dollop. (But if you keep the bowl on the table, like we did, you’ll probably end up garnishing every bite with a new smear of butter, especially once your palate acclimates to the heat.)

Tabasco sauce–the original flavor–adds that heat, as well as the acidity that seafood craves. You use a big quantity of the hot sauce here: 3 tablespoons for the 1/2 cup of butter. Put in another tablespoon if you’re serious about heat. At first, when you sample the butter, you’ll think even 3 tablespoons was too much. But next to the crispy hot sear of the fish, you’ll find that hot butter is just what you want. The butter starts off solid but soon melts to become a balanced sauce, just the pairing your perfect filets were looking for.

If you’re wondering what’s below the fish, that’s the kind of hodgepodge I cook up on weeknights based on what’s in the fridge and pantry. For this one, I simmered about a cup of farro in salty water and sautéed sweet potatoes, onions, and kale in a skillet. I combined the two together and seasoned with some leftover shallot vinaigrette.

This post is sponsored by Tabasco as part of TABASCO® Tastemakers program. If you missed the first of the four Tabasco/BGSK recipes–Chipotle Pecans–get at it now. All opinions, as always, are my own. Thanks for supporting the sponsors who keep BGSK delicious!

How to Make a DIY Always Ready Picnic “Basket”

How to Make a DIY Picnic Basket | Big Girls Small Kitchen

You want to go to the park for a picnic or the beach for an early sandwich dinner. Eating outside is irresistible, so this desire is probably on repeat right now. But planning the meal takes more effort than daydreaming about how to source tomatoes for patafla. You need stuff: utensils, cups, drinks, bug spray.

That’s why I’ve always been tempted to own one of those fully loaded picnic baskets, the kind with patterned plastic plates and a built-in strap for your wine bottle. But given the changing seasons of the northeast, I know that such a possession would burden the clutter-free kitchen for three-quarters of the year. It’s easy to say no when there’s no space for storage and the snow is falling. It’s harder to say no when the sun is shining, even when you don’t want to overcrowd your closets.

Four Aperitifs to Drink Instead of Cocktails

Aperitifs | Big Girls Small Kitchen

If you want to mix me a Manhattan or stir me a Moscow Mule, I will never say no. But though I know I might be able to build a small kitchen-style minimalist liquor cabinet that yielded an impressively varied array of mixed drinks, I haven’t yet. Normally, I’m content to open a beer and then go make a mess in the kitchen instead of at the bar. Sometimes you just have to go with what obsesses you.

But I do love the premise of a drink before dinner, the sipping of something cold and a little bit sweet to put the day behind you and get your appetite ready for a meal. That thing just doesn’t have to be a cocktail.

So I thought I’d tell you about four aperitifs that you can pour straight from the bottle this summer. Each of these herb-infused liquors, most based off of wine, seem more special than wine or beer, yet they’re a whole lot less work than any cocktail. (All are great cocktail mixers, though, if we ever change our minds about mixing.) You can pour them right over ice. Or, if you want to do a little work, you can pour a half-inch of seltzer or champagne to make fizzes, and/or garnish with orange or lemon slices or rinds.

10 Delicious Foods That Should Be Taco Fillings

Baja Fried Fish Tacos | Big Girls Small Kitchen

This week, I interviewed Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos for my complete guide to tacos on First We Feast. At his Los Angeles taco truck, I learned, he changes the menu constantly, based on inspiration from what’s available or what he finds himself eating in his regular life. He told me he’s made tacos from leftover fideuà and from the Armenian sausages he buys in Glendale, his neighborhood. I loved how he talked about the creativity involved in translating his world into food, particularly tacos. Here’s how he puts it:

Wear what you dig. Cook what you like. If you like really spicy stuff, go for it. If you like exotic things, go for it. As far as you being the cook – professional or home – when you’re cooking something that comes from the heart…that’s when you can make something tasty. If you have good ingredients, and you can simply cook it, and not try to do some BS fusion crap you saw on TV but cook something you like, then you’re in the right direction.

As I so often do when I’ve been testing something for a piece, I ended up subsisting on tacos and leftover tacos materials for several days. I’m not sick of them. In fact, I’ve forgotten all about rice bowls and sandwiches, my usual vehicles for edible miscellany. Now, I want to wrap everything in a corn tortilla, just like Wes. Cooking what you like, right?! Here are 10 dishes from the archives I really like, which are suddenly begging for the taco treatment.

1. Chicken & Cauliflower YakitoriVegetables and chicken baked in a sweet soy sauce should come off the skewer and into your taco. Instead of salsa, drizzle on sriracha.

2. Manchurian CauliflowerThe Chinese-Indian favorite features crispy cauliflower in a sweet and tangy sauce. A dollop of yogurt would be welcome on top.

3. Paneer Bhurji. Paneer kind of reminds me of Mexican fresh cheese, and this dish evokes a spicy egg scramble, so maybe it belongs not just on any taco but on a breakfast taco.

4. Corn Pudding. Corn on corn! Add something crunchy to make the textures work, like pickled shallots or radishes.

Kitchen Stuff: The Handheld Mixer

Handheld Mixer

In a small kitchen, you don’t need a lot of equipment to cook great food. Still, you do need some pots, pans, utensils, and dishes–obviously. In the BGSK book, you’ll find a bare bones list of necessary tools, but I’ve long wanted to bring you a similar resource on the web.

So we’re going one by one, stocking up our virtual pantries and maybe our real ones too.

Over the weekend, we celebrated my mom’s birthday. While I zested lemon for the batter, my sister Kate tried to cream three-quarters of a stick of butter in a very old handheld mixer in my sister Jill’s kitchen. Once the cake (raspberry-swirled lemon cake with lemon cream cheese icing) was in the oven, we realized we’d had a really weird case of kitchen blindness. Jill has a stand mixer out on the counter.

The cake turned out great without the stand mixer’s super powers though. Handheld mixers are hardly as brawny, but they get the job done. And though stand mixers, particularly those in beautiful hues, make a generous housewarming present if you move into an actual house, when you’re cooking in a small apartment kitchen, they simply take up too much counter or cabinet space to justify their $400 price tag. That’s why, if you bake even a few times a year, I recommend directing your love to a much more accessible handheld mixer, one costs less than $40. You may have to beat your butter and eggs for a few extra seconds, and you’ll likely have to replace the mixer every four years when its motor peters out. But in the meantime, you won’t be put off by buttercreams or meringues–whether because you don’t own a mixer or because you don’t want to pull your heavy stand mixer out of storage.

(It should be noted, of course, that if you’re completely baking equipment phobic, you can always cream butter and whip cream with your spatula or whisk and your very strong arm.)

Here’s what you’ll make with your cheap and nimble handheld mixer: