Bites & Starters
Alas, I have finally found some beautiful plump fresh tomatillos at a local Mexican market here in the States. I doggedly attempted to grow tomatillos year after year in my garden in Thailand , but with very little success. The maturing tomatillos always fell prey to marauding aphids or scummed to a feathery mold just about the time they were looking ripe and ready to pluck from the vine.
So I’ve been dreaming about making my favorite roasted tomtillo salsa for years on end. Nothing could be simpler really. A couple of ingredients thrown under the broiler or onto the grill, tossed into a blender and voila. You have a gorgeous tart fresh green salsa that enlivens so many loved regional Mexican dishes.
Tomatillos originate from Mexico and have been cultivated since pre-Columbian times by the Maya and Aztec cultures. Tomatillos are from the nightshade family with the fruit encased in a parchment like covering that is removed before use. Tomatillos, though larger, reassemble cape gooseberries, also a nightshade that has been cultivated by the Incas in Peru.
Fresh tomatillos are available in the US in Mexican markets, at Whole Foods, in some super markets, and online. They are also available canned, but I urge you to seek out the fresh tomatillos which have a decidedly more tantalizing zesty flavor of their very own.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde is delicious served with tortilla chips, with grilled meats, fish, and vegetables, tacos, enchiladas, tamales, empanadas, and quesadillas filled with Mexico’s renowned regional cheeses.
This is a quick and easy recipe that you will find yourself making again and again.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde
makes about 2 cups
- 6 to 8 plump fresh tomatillos, husk removed, and rinsed
- 1 large clove garlic, skin on
- 3 to 4 fresh serrano chiles
- 3 tablespoons finely diced onions
- 2-3 tablespoons finely sliced cilantro leaves
- ½ teaspoon flaked sea salt or more to taste
Position an oven rack about four inches below the broiler and preheat.
Place the tomatillos, garlic clove, and the serrano chiles centered on a baking tray and place under the preheated broiler. Broil for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the tomatillos, garlic, and chiles are beginning to char and deeply colored. Turn the tomatillos, garlic, and chiles over and broil another 4 or 5 minutes until deeply colored.
Promptly remove the tray from the oven and set aside. Transfer the chiles to a small bowl, cover with cling film, and set aside to sweat.
Remove the stems from the tomatillos and remove any loose chard skin and discard. Cut the tomatillos into pieces and place them in a blender or food processor.
Remove the charred skin from the garlic and discard. Mince the garlic and add it to the tomatillos in the blender or processor and pulse until the contents are relatively pureed, but still with some texture.
Once the chiles are cool enough to handle remove the chard skin and discard. Slice the chiles open lengthwise and scrape out most of the seeds and discard. Quarter the chiles and slice and dice them.
Add the diced chiles to the pureed toamatillo mixture and pulse until the chiles are combined.
Transfer the tomatillo mixture to a small bowl and add the diced onions and the sliced cilantro leaves. Stir to combine and then add salt to taste and stir until well combined.
You can add a small amount of cold water to thin the salsa if needed.
The salsa is then ready to serve or you can transfer the salsa to a non-reactive bowl or container, cover, and refrigerate for 3 or 4 days.
Serve the salsa chilled or at room temperature depending on the application.
Martha was my next door neighbor when I was growing up in rural Lancaster County Pennsylvania. I didn’t know much about cooking back then, but we kids always enjoyed having lunches together in Martha’s kitchen. The radio was always on and supper preparations were usually already well under way with wonderful aromas wafting over the kitchen table. The whole idea of cooking and the pleasures of those long gone lunches have lingered and helped shape in their own way my own passion for food and cooking.
Every fall, October-November, we kids would help Martha collect the walnuts that fell from the black walnut trees in front of our houses. To us they looked like leathery decomposing green balls with an intense acrid odor that were begging to be thrown at one another. Black walnut trees are native to North America as apposed to the milder English walnut trees that produce larger nuts that are commonly found in the shops. Shelled black walnuts are smaller and have a more intense walnut flavor. I urge you to seek them out. If you don’t have a source where you live they are available on line. If that is not an option, toasted English walnuts will do in a pinch, though there really is no comparison.
Once the walnuts were gathered they were put in an oblong rectangular wooden tray with a wire mesh screen bottom. The walnuts were then put up to cure until the green skin blackened and was soft enough to pull away revealing the hard black walnut inside. This was a very messy business and wearing rubber gloves was a must to avoid badly stained hands.
The hulled nuts were then set out to dry for several days before cracking the shells with a hammer and meticulously removing the walnut’s meat. Very tedious work that we kids usually quickly lost interest in, leaving Martha to finish the harvesting on her own.
However all of the laborious preparations paid off when digging into a slice of Martha’s gloriously delicious black walnut cake!
I make Martha’s black walnut cake every fall and revisit those fond memories from my childhood in Martha’s kitchen.
For this recipe all I have is a penciled list of Martha’s ingredients and my own recollections.
Martha’s Black Walnut Cake:
- 4 ½ ounces / 128 grams unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 ½ cups flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup chopped black walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350 f/ 180 c
Prepare two well buttered 9 or 10 inch round layer cake pans, or buttered and lined with a circular parchment paper.
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium high speed until fluffy. This may take 4 or 5 minutes.
With the mixer running add one egg at a time and mixing until fully incorporated. Add the second and third egg, again mixing each until fully incorporated.
In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and stir until combined.
With the mixer set on low speed begin adding a third of the flour mixture alternately with an equal part of the milk and mixing until combined before adding the second and third additions of flour mixture and milk. Try not to over mix the batter so it retains its airiness.
Stop the mixer and add the walnuts. Stir the walnuts in in by hand until evenly distributed.
Spoon the cake batter evenly into the prepared cake pans. Giggle the pans slightly to even out the batter.
Transfer the pans to the oven and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. Test by sticking a skewer into the center of the cake. If the skewer comes out clean the cake is done. Keep an eye on the timing so the cake is not over baked which will dry it out.
Transfer the cake pans to a wire rack and allow to cool to room temperature while you make the frosting.
Fluffy White Mountain Frosting:
Don’t be skeptical about making a cooked frosting. This is a tried and true Fannie Farmer recipe that never fails. I like the light fresh taste of this frosting that compliments the flavor of the black walnuts perfectly.
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tarter
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 egg whites
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- ¾ cup chopped black walnuts
Combine the sugar, water, cream of tartar and salt in a stainless saucepan set over medium high heat. As the mixture heats up swirl the pan to mix the ingredients. Let the mixture come to a boil, swirling the pan now and again, until the mixture is completely clear- about 4 or 5 minutes. Put the lid on the pan and let cook another minute.
Uncover and attache a candy thermometer to the pan being sure the tip does not touch the bottom of the pan. Let the syrup continue to boil uncovered until the temperature reaches 240 f /115 c .
Meanwhile, using a stand mixer, beat the egg whites in the chilled bowl until stiff moist white peaks form. When the syrup is ready, continue beating at medium high speed and pouring the syrup into the egg whites in a slow steady stream. Continue beating for a couple more minutes until the frosting has cooled a little and stiff enough to stand in peaks. Beat in the vanilla.
At this point the frosting is ready for spreading.
For this cake you can frost the cake and then garnish with chopped black walnuts or simply stir the chopped walnuts into the frosting as I have done.
You will have some frosting left which you can cover and refrigerate for a week or so.
Ideally use a cake storage container for storage so the frosting is undisturbed.
Serve at room temperature!
Molletes are a must have for a quick breakfast or a snack on the run just about anywhere in Mexico.
The Mollete is an antequera round bread from the Andalusian region of southern Spain. There the mollete is sliced into halves, spread with with butter or lard, and topped with savory meats and cheeses. The Spanish took the molette with them to the new world where the Mexicans adapted the idea and made it their own. Molletes are in essence Mexico’s bruscetta. Usually associated with northern Mexico but molletes are popular throughout the country.
Mxican molettes are made with crusty oval shaped bollilos, also known as pan Frances, that were introduced to Mexico by French Emperor Maxmillion’s cooks. Maxmillio’s reign was short lived. He was executed in 1866, but the Bollilos went on to become Mexico’s favorite bread and sold in panaderieas throughout the country.
Mexican molletes are so easy to make. Slice a bolillo in half lengthwise, butter the cut side and toast until golden brown. Top with refried beans, scatter grated cheese over the top and return to the oven until the cheese has melted. Serve with a salsa fresca and your done.
If the thought of cooking dried beans is putting you off by all means use canned refried beans instead. I have fond memories perfectly delicious canned refried beans on numerous camping trips.
You are probably thinking to yourself, it’s just beans on toast, so what’s the big deal?” Well, you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. This is an addictive taste of Mexico you are going to be making again and again, and again I promise you.
Molletes: serves 4
- 4 bolillos or other oval shaped crusty rolls, sliced in half lengthwise
- 2 tablespoons butter at room temperature
- 1 garlic clove peeled
- 2 cups refried beans (click here for recipe), or canned
- 1 ½ cups shredded cheese; a Mexican cheese if available, or provolone,or Monterrey Jack
- salsa fresca (see recipe below)
Preheat oven to 375 f/ 190 c
Slice the bolillos lengthwise and place them on a baking tray cut side facing upward. Spread butter evenly over the cut side surfaces and transfer the baking tray to the oven and bake until the surface is a light golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.
Remove the tray from the oven and rub the garlic clove over the toasted surface. Discard the remaining garlic.
Spread the refried beans over the bollilos generously and top with shredded cheese.
Turn the broiler on in the oven and move the oven rack to the upper position. Place the tray of molletes under the broiler and broil until the cheese is melted and lightly colored.
Serve at once with a spicy salsa fresca
Salasa Fresca with Roasted Radishes makes about 2 cups
This is a a favorite Salas Fresca with a hint of smoky flavor and earthy heat from the radishes.
Prepare the salsa at least an hour before serving and chill.
- 6 radishes, flame roasted
- 2-3 jalapeno chiles, flame roasted
- 1 medium size onion flame roasted
- 4 tomatoes, flame roasted
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
- 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
Heat up an outdoor grill or place a grill rack over a gas burner on the stove top.
Place the radishes, jalapenos, onion, and tomatoes over the hottest part of the grill, or flame on the stove top, and grill all until the skin is charred and blistered on all sides. Transfer to a large bowl and cover with cling film and set aside to sweat.
Once cool enough to handle rub or peel away the charred skin of all.
Slice the radishes and then dice and transfer to a non-reactive bowl.
Slice the jalapenos open lengthwise and remove the seeds and veins. Slice into thin strips and then dice, and add to the bowl.
Remove the outer layer of the onion, dice, and add to the bowl.
Slip the skin off the tomatoes and quarter them. Remove seeds, dice. and add to the bowl.
Add the chopped cilantro, lime juice, and salt and stir to combine. Taste and add more lime juice and salt if needed.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
This is a Key lime tart I’ve been making for 30 some years that never fails to please and it couldn’t be easier to make. There is no baking involved so the tart can be completed in less than an hour. The filling is a simple fresh lime curd that is then poured into a crumb crust and refrigerated…and Voila!
The Florida Keys, and Key West in particular, have enjoyed a legendary notoriety associated with the novelist Ernest Hemingway and a bunch of his famous, as well as infamous, cronies that used to hang out until the wee hours of the morning at Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s in Key West in the 30’s and 40’s. So, by association, the Key lime pie is fondly embraced as an American classic with a smooth creamy custard like filling made with Florida Key lime juice and sweetened condensed milk. The sweetened condensed milk adds a certain element of decadence to the pie, but I myself much prefer the unadulterated flavor of lime curd filling just as it is.
While the Key lime certainly holds a certain cache, this type of lime is easily found throughout the West Indies, Mexico, and as far afield as Thailand. Obviously certified Key limes are going to be hard to find, so when you go shopping what you want to look out for are smaller thin skinned limes which will have a more acidic intense lime flavor and aroma than the larger Persian limes you are probably more familiar with. Bottled Key lime juice is available, but don’t be tempted. There is no substitute for freshly squeezed lime juice for this recipe.
Key Lime Tart
The following recipe works equally well using lemon juice or try using fresh passion fruit juice. (click here for recipe)
Needed: one 9 or 10 inch tart pan
- 1 ½ to 2 cups crumbs made from either Graham Crackers or Digestive biscuits
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 teaspoon sea salt
- 6 tablespoons/ 3 oz/ 85 g unsalted butter, melted
Break up the crackers or digestive biscuits into the work bowl of a food processor and pulse until you have a fine crumb. Add the sugar and salt and pulse until combined. Then pour the melted butter over the crumbs and pulse until the crumbs just begin to clump together.
Press the crumb mixture into the tart pan, being sure to distribute the crumbs evenly, so the crust has an overall uniform thickness.
Transfer the crumb lined pan to the refrigerator and chill until the crust has firmed up, about 40 minutes.
Lime Curd Filling:
Zest a couple of the limes before you juice them and set the zest aside.
- 4 eggs
- 4 egg yolks
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, strained
- 6 tablespoons (3 ounces/ 85 g) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
Choose a non reactive stainless mixing bowl the will fit snugly over a wide pan placed below it.
Partially fill the wide pan with water and place it over medium heat on the stove top. Heat the water without coming to a boil.
meanwhile place the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar into the mixing bowl and whisk together until the sugar is thoroughly combined. Then add the lime juice and whisk until completely incorporated into the egg mixture.
Place the bowl over the hot water (being sure the water is not boiling below) creating a Ban Marie. Whisk the mixture in a continuous circular motion without creating a froth. After a few minutes the mixture will begin thicken rather quickly, so once the mixture has the consistency of a soft custard like curd, promptly remove the bowl from the heat. Scatter the small cubes of butter over the surface and once melted gently fold the butter into the curd until completely incorporated.
Remove the chilled crumb crust from the refrigerator and pour the lime curd filling into the crust shell. Giggle the pan gently to even out the filling and, if necessary, gently smooth the surface with a spatula.
Distribute the lime zest over the surface and return the pie to the refrigerator until the filling has firmed up. You can then cover the pie with cling film and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
As pictured serve the tart with a strained strawberry or raspberry puree along with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche.