Rendering lard (or making chicharones!)

On the road to making home-made tamales, I stumbled across a very tasty little bonus. Real tamales are made with lard; but store-bought lard is hydrogenated and otherwise unappealing (the brand sold at my grocery store has “BHA, propyl gallate, and citric acid added to help protect flavor”–and still tasted rancid).  So I ended up home-rendering some. (Are you cringing? So did I, at first. But stay with me here.) Surprise: when you render lard from cut-up pork fat, you end up with mouth-watering little “left-overs”–fried bits that are called in various traditions cracklings, pork rinds, chitlins, or in Spanish-speaking regions, chicharones. (These terms can also mean fried pork skin, but I’m talking about the “fat husks” that are a by-product of making lard.)

Here’s how I made the lard, and in the process discovered these little goodies. First I went off to Rain Shadow Meats in the Melrose Market to buy about a pound of pork back fat. (“Leaf lard,” the fat from around the pig’s kidneys, is supposed to make higher quality lard, but they didn’t have any on hand and I was ready to get going.) By the way, Rain Shadow tells you where everything they sell comes from; this hunk of frozen fat arrived in Seattle from Carlton Farms in Oregon.

The experts out in Blogville laid out the process for me: cut up the fat into small pieces (half-inch cubes), put about a half-cup of water in a heavy pot, add the fat, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. How hard could that be? So I got the pot going. (I gather that the water keeps the fat bits from sticking or burning until the fat begins to melt; it evaporates off after a while.) It took about 45 minutes for the fat to start melting, and there were some pretty impressive pops and sizzles as the water trapped in the fat cooked off.

But here came the surprise!–Fat doesn’t melt like say a pat of butter does; it leaves behind a “skeleton.” Fat has structure! Why this blew me away I don’t know; fat is a body tissue, after all, and anyway I’ve certainly fried my share of bacon. But I didn’t know that the fat would leave behind these little fried cubes. At first, they float to the surface, but when they sink to the bottom of the pan, they tell me, your lard is rendered. (I used a big stock pot for my pound of fat, so the liquid was pretty shallow!–It became a judgment call to say when they “sank.”)

After all the fat has melted and the fried bits have sunk (it took about an hour and a half), you let the pot cool slightly. Then you line a strainer with cheesecloth and pour the lard through it into a glass jar.  (A pound of fat yields about a pint of lard.) The liquid lard is straw-colored. Put it in the refrigerator; after it solidifies, it turns almost white. (They tell me that leaf lard is almost perfectly white, but mine looks pretty good to me!) The word is that lard will keep in the refrigerator for three months, or frozen for up to a year.

And now about those succulent little morsels left behind in the cheesecloth! They taste like the most delicate bacon you ever fried! So now I’ve gone from a reluctant lard-maker to an enthusiastic chicharones-maker. I’m going to eat them with anything that tastes good with bacon! In fact, last night I had them with poached eggs and chard.

Poached eggs with chard and chicharones

Chicharones–the little crispy pieces that are left after you render pork fat into lard. I had no idea how good they could be! When you make them at home, they taste like the lightest possible bits of crunchy bacon fat! So I wanted to come up with a way to use them the same way we might use bacon bits, but in a simple supper dish.

I decided to have poached eggs with chard, garnished with chicharones.

So I went out to my tiny garden and collected about six big leaves of rainbow chard. After washing and drying the leaves, I cut the stems into 1/2″ long pieces, then cut the leaves cross-wise into 1/2″-wide ribbons.

I started two pots, one to steam the chard and one to poach the eggs. (We’ll have all the fat we need from the pork bits!) For the chard, I put a steamer basket into a small pot, added water almost up to the level of the bottom of the steamer, and, once the water started to boil, turned it down to a bare simmer and put the cut chard stems in. I let them steam, covered, for two minutes while I broke two eggs into individual cups and, once the water reached a very low simmer in the second pot, slipped them straight into its hot water. Then, back to the chard pot, I added the chard leaves to the stems and covered the pot again; both the chard and the eggs simmered for about four minutes more.

Done! I used tongs to transfer the chard leaves and stems to the plate, then used a strainer to fish out the poached eggs and pile them on. I added a couple of drops of sherry vinegar to the chard, and kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper over both eggs and chard. Finally, I shaved a cherry tomato and bit of red onion into paper-thin slices and added them. Then I sprinkled the dish with my fresh home-made chicharones. Bacon and eggs! (–Re-thought).

Stuffed tomatoes for arugula lovers

I love big fat juicy heirloom tomatoes, and I love arugula!–So I decided to make a nice lunch combining the two. (The first time I ate a tomato with arugula was on the island of Crete when I was there  . . . how long ago? a decade?–at a professional conference. Do I need to add that attendance at the conference was huge but attendance at the sessions was skimpy?–A couple of earnest souls and the rest indoors to pamper their sunburns.)

Anyway, here’s where we are going: an arugula pesto for the plate, a beautiful tomato (don’t even reach for the salmon-colored golf ball), and a nice filling with chopped arugula, walnuts, bell peppers, red onion, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and a few other things. And let’s dress up the plate with tendrils of lemon zest, a scattering of arugula flowers, and (why not, since they are in bloom in pots out on my deck?) a few nasturtium flower petals.

But first things first. Here’s your list of ingredients:

  • 2 large or 4 small heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 C arugula leaves (divided)
  • A few arugula flowers, if you have them
  • 2 small cloves garlic, minced (divided)
  • 1/4 C plus 1 T mild olive oil
  • A few nasturtium flower petals, if you have them
  • Half of a red bell pepper, diced (or a mix of colors)
  • 1/4 of a small red onion, diced (about 2 T)
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon (zest divided)
  • 1/2 C chopped walnuts (divided)
  • 1/4 C bread crumbs
  • 1/4 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (divided)
  • 1/8 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

Note that the filling is not cooked! Dice or mince the vegetables small enough for you to stay happy when you bite into the raw pieces.

Make the pesto

(Note: If you don’t have breadcrumbs on hand and are going to make them,  do it before you make the pesto–it makes for an easier cleanup between steps. After I have people over for dinner, I always end up with a quarter of a baguette or some such lying around, so I frequently make breadcrumbs in my food processor and almost always have a bag of them in the freezer. Which I did today, so all I had to do was measure!)

Rinse and dry the arugula leaves.(Option: I used arugula from my garden, so I also pinched off a few of the flowers and put them in a shallow bowl of water to use later for garnish. They are perfectly edible and taste just like the leaves. Also, if you have a nasturtium or other edible flower in your garden, add a few of its petals to the bowl (not the whole flower!–just the petals).

Put one cup of the arugula in a small food processor. (Be sure to save the other 1/2 cup for the filling!) Add half the minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and a grind or two of pepper. Pulse a few times to get a coarse paste.

Then, drizzle in up to 1/4 cup of olive oil, to get a mixture as smooth as you like (I like mine kind of coarse). (Check the lid of your food processor; does it have one or two small holes in it? If so, with the motor running, you can slowly pour the olive oil onto the lid and let it drip down into the bowl. Or, if you are using a blender, stop and add the oil in one-tablespoon increments and run the motor in between.)

Set the pesto aside for use later.

Make the filling

Zest the lemon. (Use a zester/striper if you have one; otherwise, use a regular vegetable peeler and cut the wide strips into skinny ones.) Save about half the strips for garnish and mince the rest. Then cut the naked lemon in half and juice it.

Prepare the peppers by using a sharp knife to skim off the inside membrane (the whitish layer). This gives you a deeply colored, glossy surface that is very pretty.

Dice the pepper (or peppers, if you are using a mix of colors; I used red and orange). Dice the onion. Save about a tablespoon of the diced peppers for garnish. Chop the walnut pieces coarsely and divide into two portions.

Chop up the remaining half-cup of arugula leaves.

Grate the cheese. (Use real parm-reg! The stuff from the green can doesn’t taste good.) Since it costs an arm and a leg, I tend to grate it coarsely so that I can savor its taste separately!

Now make sure that you have put aside the items that we need later for garnish: half of the walnuts and half of the grated cheese for a topping on the tomatoes; and the pesto, a little bit of the diced pepper, half of the lemon zest (the strips), and the flowers for the plate.

In a small bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients for the filling: the breadcrumbs, the remaining half of the minced garlic, the remaining diced pepper and onion, the chopped arugula leaves, the remaining half of the chopped walnuts, the remaining one tablespoon of olive oil, the lemon juice and minced lemon zest, the red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and grind of pepper (or to taste).

Fill the tomatoes

This amount of filling works for two large or four small heirloom tomatoes. Cut off the top one-fourth (that’s the stem end) of each tomato. Core the tomatoes, being careful not to let the knife cut through the skin. (Especially if you are using very meaty tomatoes, save the top and core!–You can just chop them up and use in a tuna salad or something. These tomatoes taste too good to waste any of the flesh!)

Gently press the filling into the cored tomatoes, ending with a slightly rounded top. If the filling felt dry at all, drizzle each with a small amount of olive oil (about a teaspoon). Then sprinkle the surface with the remaining walnut pieces and cheese.

Turn on the broiler and broil the tomatoes just until the cheese melts and gets a little color. Watch them!–I let mine go a bit too long, and the walnut pieces got darker than I wanted. (They still tasted good though.)

Plate the stuffed tomatoes

It’s fun to play with your food! Make a puddle of the arugula pesto on the plate. (I’m not happy with my pesto; it has separated a bit. I’ll make it a few more times in the next couple of weeks to see if I can figure out what I did wrong.) Place the tomato next to it. Dry the flowers and petals, if you are using them. Sprinkle the plate with the garnishes: bits of pepper, lemon zest, and flower petals. If you like, you can add a slice of crusty bread, and maybe a light dessert like a sherbet. (This is actually a pretty hearty lunch; you won’t need much else.) Even with my beginner’s problems, this was a tasty dish. Serve it and EAT!

Ham pairs well with nectarine-papaya salsa!


Remember the nectarine-papaya salsa I talked about on June 30th?–I had a little bit left. Then in rummaging around in the fridge for lunch today, I saw that I had a little slice of my Lefever Holbrook Farm ham steak left as well. Piled on the salsa, and it was really good!

When I was growing up, for a special treat my mother used to decorate a canned ham with pineapple slices (also from a can) and maraschino cherries (from a jar, natch). She would stick each cherry with its pineapple ruff to the ham with a brightly colored toothpick. (I bet your mother did too.) We always considered it very festive! I thought of that old dish as I ate my ham with salsa, also very festive with its bits of golden nectarine, papaya, and bright red cherry tomatoes!

Cooking Mark Bittman: Glazed lamb ribs

I haven’t cooked lamb ribs in months (–actually, now that I think about it, not since I wrote about my wonderful Lefever Holbrook Farm ribs on January 16). So Mark Bittman’s recipe for glazed lamb ribs in the New York Times Magazine last week caught my eye. A little complicated!–Not hard, but lots of steps. He’s playing with deep layering of flavors and textures. But for me, the flavor of lamb is deep enough! I often add nothing to it at all (or at most a little garlic and rosemary). Why would  you do all that to succulent little lamb ribs?

Why indeed?–I decided to find out. Some time toward the end of last week I pulled my last package of Lafever Holbrook lamb riblets out of the freezer to defrost. But the recipe sat on my kitchen counter until, about to walk past it one more time yesterday afternoon, I found myself pulling out spice jars–time to do it!

As a beginner, I have to apply a kind of kitchen hermeneutics to any new recipe. He asks for “2 racks lamb ribs;” does my package of riblets qualify as a “rack?” How much does a “rack” weigh?–My package is a little over a pound; do I halve the recipe? My ribs are already cut apart; will that fatally undermine the cooking process he recommends? With a complicated recipe like this one, I can see that cooking it is going to be one long interpretive act. Well, let’s get on with it.

Essentially, we are making lamb ribs with yogurt sauce. But oh those ribs! First they will be rubbed with herbs and roasted, then they will be glazed and grilled, and then they will be dusted with a crunchy sprinkle. Finally they will be paired with a yogurt sauce (like tzatziki, but with mint and chives instead of cucumber). Here’s how it goes.

Step One

Start with “2 racks lamb ribs.” (I went with my riblets; if you decide to cook along, go see your butcher first.) The ingredients for the initial layer of flavors, the herb rub:

  • 2 T kosher salt
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely diced
  • 6 sprigs thyme
  • 3 sprigs rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves

Here’s the recipe narrative for this step: “Preheat oven to 275. Trim most of fat from the surface of the lamb racks and place them in a large roasting pan. Combine salt, garlic, and herbs and rub over lamb. Place in oven and roast for 2 hours. Remove pan from oven and turn ribs, then return to oven for 30 to 60 minutes longer, or until the lamb is just tender and starting to pull away from the bone. Remove pan from oven and set aside.”

I didn’t trim any fat off the ribs; I love fat. (Will this mess them up?) I don’t have a large roasting pan, but I have a roasting pan, and the ribs fit, so it will do fine. I halved the amounts of the herbs, sort of. Also, I used fresh Tabor thyme and rosemary from my garden, but a dried bay leaf. (it says “sprig,” so that must mean to use fresh herbs, right? And if you are going to rub them on the ribs, you should mince them, right?) My riblets, although already cut apart, were kind of stuck together in a block, so I decided to leave them that way, and rubbed the herb mixture on the block as a whole. I roasted them for an hour and a half, then turned them and roasted them for about another 30 minutes; I reduced the time because I was pretty sure I had a much smaller amount than Mark had in mind, but I think they might have ended up a bit more tender if I had cooked them as long as he wanted me to. (Honestly, I could happily have eaten them at this point!)

Step Two

But now on to the glaze. Here’s the list of ingredients:

  • 1 C sherry vinegar
  • 1 C honey
  • 1 T fennel seeds, cracked
  • 1 T coriander seeds, cracked
  • 1 T freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 T ground Aleppo chili
  • 2 T unsalted butter, cold

And the narrative: “Meanwhile, make the glaze. Combine vinegar and honey in a small sauce pan placed over moderate heat. Add fennel, coriander, black pepper and Aleppo chili and bring to a slight simmer. Lower heat and allow the mixture to reduce by half. Remove from heat and whisk in the cold butter.”

I used the full quantities of ingredients because the glaze sounded so good that I wanted to save some for another use. But I didn’t have sherry vinegar, so I subbed in a really good zinfandel vinegar (how far wrong could that go?). I measured out my fennel and coriander seeds onto a cutting board, covered them with a paper towel, and thwacked them with a mallet. (Some mistakes you make only once–if you hit an unconstrained mound of coriander seeds with a mallet, it explodes like a fireworks flower all over your kitchen.) Getting back to making this glaze, I wish that I had clobbered the fennel seeds first, then the coriander; the spheres of coriander cracked but not so much of the fennel. Also, what is “Aleppo chili?” I couldn’t find it at my neighborhood store. But Wikipedia says it is a mild chili like an Ancho. Bonanza!–I have ground ancho chili right there on the shelf. Then, “reduce by half”–I didn’t actually notice the starting level of the liquid in the pan. Oh never mind, it’s supposed to be a glaze, I cooked it until it became a shiny syrup.

Step Three

Now let’s make the sprinkle. The ingredients:

  • 2 T coriander seeds, toasted and cracked, or 1 T ground coriander
  • 2 T Aleppo chili
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 T parsley, finely chopped

And the narrative: “Combine coriander, chili, salt, lemon and parsley in a small bowl and set aside.” I halved the amounts, and toasted and cracked the coriander seeds. (The sprinkle is supposed to add crunch, right?–So why would I use ground coriander?) I minced the lemon zest; it probably would have been better if I’d left it coarser. Next time!

Step Four

Let’s grill these babies! Here’s the narrative: “Light a fire in grill or preheat broiler in oven. Slice ribs into individual pieces, cutting between each bone. When coals are covered with gray ash and fire is hot, put chops on grill directly over coals, or on a pan in the broiler. Using a pastry brush, coat lamb lightly with glaze and continue to cook, turning occasionally, until the meat begins to turn golden and crisp, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Remove to a platter and sprinkle with the topping.”

Well, I have a gas grill, but we get the idea. I think “chops” is a typo? (I love it when the New York Times has a typo; this morning I had to stare for a moment at a description of a misbehaving male as a “rouge.”) At any rate, my riblets cooked to a lovely mahogany and smelled fabulous.

Step Five

Now, the yogurt sauce:

  • 1 C best-quality whole milk yogurt
  • 1/2 C creme fraiche
  • 1/4 C mint, minced
  • 1 T chives, minced
  • 1/2 clove garlic, finely diced or grated on Microplane
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce, to taste
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

The narrative: “Combine yogurt, creme fraiche, mint, chives, garlic and lemon zest in a medium-size nonreactive bowl, then whisk to a smooth consistency. Season to taste, transfer to small bowls and serve with lamb ribs.” Except that I didn’t add any Tabasco (add Tabasco, after slaving over all these spices?!?), I stuck to the script. (Actually, later on I added a little sriracha to the yogurt sauce, to follow through on the recipe’s concept. Delicious!)

The Result!

Worth the effort?–Absolutely! Mark, we love you!

(I drew the recipes directly from Bittman’s article “Aye, There’s the Rib” in the June 26th issue of the New York Times Magazine. Bittman adapted these recipes  from originals by Jim Leiken of DBGB Restaurant in New York.)

Fourth of July grill! Halibut with Nectarine-Papaya Salsa

Try something different for the Fourth of July!–How about grilled fish with a grilled-fruit salsa? This is a flexible, relatively simple dinner with lots of tasty variations!

Here’s where we are going: grilled fillet of halibut on cilantro pesto, with grilled nectarine-papaya salsa and a salad of field greens and shredded red pepper with honey-lime dressing. I just came up with these recipes and made this dinner tonight! (Practicing up for the Fourth.) Let’s take it step by step–I’m a beginner, so I’ll suggest a couple of variations along the way in case you don’t like some of the ingredients, but I hope you’ll suggest some other ways to go!

Shopping list

This is a pretty comprehensive list of ingredients; note that you divide up these quantities to use in the different components of the dinner.

  • 1 bunch cilantro (divided) (or if you don’t like cilantro, I think you could go with Thai basil, or regular basil)
  • 1 C nice olive oil, or a bit more (divided)
  • up to 4 cloves garlic, minced (divided)
  • about 2 tsp of salt (ideally, kosher) (divided)
  • 3 to 4 limes, depending on size and juiciness (divided)
  • 1-1/2 (one and a half) tsp honey
  • 1/8 tsp fish sauce or to taste (optional)
  • dash of cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 lb. salad greens (I used a mix of field greens, some from my garden)–enough for four people
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1/4 red onion, medium-diced (or other onion, but the red is pretty)
  • 2 red jalapenos (ditto)
  • 1 C cherry tomatoes (a mix of colors is nice)
  • 4 ripe nectarines (or peaches)
  • 1 Mexican OR 2 Hawaiian papayas (the Mexican ones are bigger) (or cantaloupe)
  • Canola oil or similar “hot” oil for prepping the grill
  • Halibut fillet (about 1/4 lb. per person) (or other mild white fish)

Let’s take the components one by one, in what seems to me the best order (for flavor development and stress reduction, as well as having the one component that should be hot, the fish, actually come off the grill at the right moment and not be sitting on the counter over-cooking while you frantically mince cilantro.)

Cilantro pesto

You can make the pesto ahead (I make it every time one of my cilantro plants is about to bolt, which is about every 15 minutes or so!). It is very simple! Pinch off the leaves of a cilantro plant (or small bunch from the store) and put them in a Cuisinart bowl (I have a “mini-prep plus” that is great for small jobs like this). Add a chopped clove of garlic and a pinch of salt. Have on hand about a half-cup or more of nice olive oil; drizzle it into the mixture as you chop it up. (The cover of the Cuisinart has a little hole in it for this purpose.) I like a fairly coarse, thick pesto; if you want it to be thinner, you can always add more oil. That’s it! Put it in the fridge if you’ll use it within say a week, or freeze it in an ice tray and store the cubes in a freezer bag in the freezer.

For this meal, you want enough to make a puddle on each plate below the piece of fish. The amount above should do for four.

Honey-lime salad dressing

A sweet-tart salad dressing seems like a natural to go with grilled fruit! You can also  make this ahead, and it’s nice to have around this time of year (I’m assuming that you live somewhere where “this time of year” means “sunny and warm”). Again, it’s simple! Combine these ingredients (this is at least enough to dress a salad for four; multiply for more people):

  • 1 T fresh lime juice
  • 1-1/2 (one and a half) tsp honey (I used a nice local raspberry honey)
  • 1/8 tsp fish sauce (or to taste) (optional, but gives it a nice base)
  • 1 minced small clove garlic
  • pinch of salt
  • dash of cayenne pepper (optional–but not to me!)

Whisk these ingredients together, then slowly whisk in (so that it makes a nice emulsion):

  • 3 T good olive oil

You could make this well ahead of time (even a day ahead); just re-whisk it before using.

Grilled nectarine-papaya salsa

I first ate papaya in Guatemala in 2005–for breakfast, like cantaloupe! It’s really good with lime juice, which gave me the idea for this salsa.

Prep the basic salsa ingredients

As far as I can tell, a salsa pretty much always has most of these ingredients: minced garlic, lime juice, cilantro (or another herb), diced onion, maybe diced tomato, and some kind of pepper, in addition to the starring ingredient. This one is no different!–Here’s what I did this time, for the supporting cast:

  • 2 minced cloves of garlic
  • 1/4 C lime juice
  • About 1/4 C coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
  • About 1/2 C medium dice of red onion (about 1/4 of a large onion)
  • 2 red jalapenos, cored and seeded, then shredded (or less, for less heat)
  • 1 C halved cherry tomatoes (I used a mix of yellow pear and cherry tomatoes)
  • Salt to taste

Gently toss all this stuff together.

Grill the fruit

For four people, get one Mexican papaya or two Hawaiian ones. Also get about four nectarines. Be sure to get ripe fruit!–The end result will be only as good as the fruit.

If you aren’t familiar with papaya, here’s a half-peeled Mexican one. (Be careful in peeling and slicing it; it will be a slippery devil!) It has seeds like a cantaloupe; cut it in half along the length of it and scoop them out. Then turn it cut side down and slice it into thick slices (at least one inch thick–you’ve got to be able to turn them on the grill without too many of them breaking apart).

If you hate papaya or don’t want to try it, use cantaloupe instead–it also grills really nicely!

Cut the nectarines in half around the stone, twist them off the stone (“unscrew” the halves), peel them, and slice them thickly (I get just about two slices per half). While you are at it, cut a lime in half and slice one or two thin pieces off each half. You can grill them briefly to make a nice garnish!

Oil your grill rack and get it VERY hot. (I have a gas grill; I let it get up to 500 degrees.) Open it and quickly put down your slices of papaya, nectarine, and lime. (I use two small spatulas to handle the pieces so I can work fast and very few go down in flames.) I leave the top up because I don’t really want the fruit to cook; I just want to get some char on it. I leave them there for about two minutes, then turn them for another two minutes. (Sometimes I lower the hood briefly if the grill is cooling too much.) But don’t depend on time; look at them and make sure they are getting some char before you take them off. I take off the lime slices much more quickly than the other fruit–just as soon as they pick up some charred color.

Then I rush the plate into the house and put it in the fridge–I don’t want the slices to cook, just pick up some color and flavor from the grill.

I use the brush to clean the grill, but leave it on–we’ll need it for the fish.

Now I have a glass of wine.

Pull everything together

Get the grilled fruit out of the fridge and carefully dice it so that you have evenly sized pieces with good color. Gently fold it into the basic salsa (I hardly stir it!–just place the pieces so that I can spoon a good cross-section of the mixture onto each piece of fish). Let that sit at room temperature while you do the rest of the prep.

Get out your salad dressing and cilantro pesto and also let them sit at room temperature. Re-whisk the dressing if it needs it.

Wash and dry your salad greens and tear into bite-size pieces. Core your red pepper, trim out the white edges and discard all the seeds, and shred it into very thin slices. Mix the greens and red pepper pieces.

Grill the fish

Oil your grill again and get it moderately hot (I shoot for around 400 degrees to start).

Portion your halibut fillets (or whatever mild white fish you prefer). Have at least a quarter-pound piece per person. Rub the fish with a small amount of olive oil and dust the pieces with salt and pepper.

Put them on the grill and close the cover. For a piece of fish about one inch thick at the thickest point, cook it one one side for about five to six minutes, then turn it over and cook for another say four minutes. You want it to begin to flake but be a little translucent in the middle–it will continue to cook for a bit after you take it off the fire.


While the fish is grilling, toss the salad with the salad dressing.

On each plate, make a “puddle” of cilantro pesto.

When the fish is done, put one piece on each plate on top of the cilantro pesto. Spoon some of the salsa over the fish, and add a lime slice or two.

Add a helping of dressed salad. Here we are! Serve with a piece of good crusty bread; have a dessert if you care to. I have to tell you, this was a very fresh-tasting, pleasant meal!

If you try this recipe, please comment on how it went! This is my first attempt to actually write up what I do and call it a “recipe,” and I’d really like to get your feedback.

Panza verde on Cinco de Mayo

So the buzz-kill commentariat has spent all week making sure that we understand that in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo isn’t really that big of a deal. But people, let’s focus on the real meaning of the holiday:  a ready-made excuse to INDULGE for every panza verde–lover of the avocado! I decided to celebrate by making a meal out of the Big Three–guacamole, sopa Azteca, and mango-avocado salsa.


Everybody has a guac recipe! Mine actually focuses more on technique, since the ingredients are pretty much standard. How to get the meat out of the avocado?–After cutting the avocado in half and twisting the halves apart, I thwack my (very sharp) knife into the pit and give it a quarter-turn. Out it comes. Then I dice the fruit still in the skin, and use a spoon to scoop it out. Sprinkle with some lime juice so it doesn’t darken. Done.

While that’s going on, I roast the tomatoes, garlic, and peppers (hot!–about 450 for 15 minutes or so, until I’m getting some char). This time I used a serrano pepper; not hot enough. Next time, back to jalapeno (or ratchet up to a habanero?–try a small one). Chop all that up. Dice some onion, chop some cilantro, juice a lime. Add some salt.

Stir it all together with a fork, mashing the avocado as you go, until you get the texture you want. (I like chunky.) If you roast the tomatoes, you trade off the texture of fresh for the flavor of roasted. I go back and forth; both are good!

Then you eat it!–And in the process, maybe you use up the whole first batch of fried corn tortilla chips that you made for the sopa Azteca.

Sopa Azteca

Do not let people tell you this is tortilla soup!–So much tastier! I found my recipe in Oaxaca back in 2006; it’s in Spanish, so some interpretive maneuvers come into play. To start, “muela y fria el tomate”–”grind and fry”? Okay, make that “chop and fry.” So, take a couple of pounds of ripe tomatoes, chop them up, and fry them in hot oil with a chopped onion and a couple of garlic cloves (“dientes” or “teeth” in Spanish). You end up with a very fragrant thick tomato slurry.

Add a handful of epazote leaves (nature’s beano), some salt, and a little water (“un poco”–I add about a quart and a half. Decide by the thickness you want). Some recipes go for chicken stock instead.

While that’s simmering, remove the seeds, veins, and stems from about three dried chiles guajillos (find them in the ethnic aisle). Toast them in a dry pan until they are fragrant and your throat is catching a little from the vapors. Cool them and cut them into little strips or squares. Add them to the soup and continue simmering for say 15 minutes minimum.

Cut four fresh corn tortillas into wedges (or strips, if you want more crunch per spoonful). Heat one or two inches of oil until it’s hot. (I’m afraid of hot oil!–I use a candy thermometer and go for no less than 350.) Add the pieces of tortilla in batches; they should foam and bounce exuberantly. Stir them until they are getting golden, then skim them out and drain them on a brown paper grocery bag. (I don’t know why either, but that’s how it’s done.)

Then dice some avocado and some queso fresco (use mozzarella if you can’t find it). Put the tortilla bits, avocado, and cheese, as well as some chopped cilantro and lime wedges, each in its own dish on the table. Ladle the soup into shallow bowls and let everybody garnish it the way they like. For me, it’s always all the way!

Mango-avocado salsa

I don’t remember where I got my recipe for mango-avocado salsa, but it’s probably a lot like yours. Diced avocado, diced mango, diced red onion. Add chopped cilantro and lime juice. A little salt. All this talk about habaneros!–I seeded one and minced the flesh. Never going back!

A salsa goes on something; in this case, a little halibut steak. Salt, pepper, a dusting of flour. Fry it until it is almost completely opaque, then let it sit there on the plate for a minute or so–it’ll finish cooking through.

After the sopa Azteca, I was way too far into hot oil! My steak picked up more of a crunchy skin than I really wanted. Note to self: take it easy (and maybe skip the dusting of flour). But very moist and tasty nonetheless! Bueno apetito!