Thursday, July 30, 2009

Salsa Verde and Honeymoon Margaritas

When Noah and I were on our honeymoon in Sayulita, Mexico, we had this daily salsa and margarita ritual. We spent most of our days surfing at nearby breaks, and would return to our little villa on the hill around happy hour. We would open the french doors onto the patio, put on some music, and come up with a salsa and a margarita almost every day. We played a lot of rummi and laptop scrabble during those very happy hours. Here's Noah trying to figure out how to get a triple letter score for his "Q" tile.

We love Mexico-- the food, the people, the lifestyle, the surfing--and everytime we go a big part of our vacation is gathering and cooking up local produce and seafood. We pull over at roadside produce stands, we scour side streets for the local tortillerias, we watch for the panga boats coming in with a loads of just-caught fish, and we run after pick up trucks full of fruits and vegetables, bumbling along in spanglish with the farmers, and learning the names for things like cucumber(pepino), oranges (naranjas), or onions (cebollas).

That was almost four years ago, but I think about our honeymoon often, and sometimes, like in the middle of another busy summer, I want to bring a piece of it to the here and now. So when the day is ending, and the lowering sun turns everything all golden, I put on some music, make a new salsa, and whip up a batch of margaritas.

Salsa Verde (makes 3 cups)

I was pretty excited to figure out a good recipe for Salsa Verde (or tomatillo salsa), after a couple of failed attempts. The secret is that you have to cook (boil, grill, or roast) the tomatillos to tame their bitterness.

1 lb. tomatillos, husks removed
3/4 cup white onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled, and roughly chopped
1 cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed
2 green onions, roughly chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (more to taste)
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 jalapeno, roughly chopped, with seeds
2 teaspoons green tabasco sauce
1-2 limes, juice only (to taste)

Boil, roast, or grill the tomatillos until soft and olive green in color. Let cool. In a food processor, combine all ingredients and blitz to a salsa consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with tortilla chips.

Serving Suggestions: Add extra salsa to tortilla soup, use as an enchilada sauce, top eggs or breakfast burritos, or add to mashed avocado for a zippy guacamole.

Honeymoon Margaritas (makes 2 pint glass-sized margaritas)

juice of 2 oranges
juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon sugar
4 oz. tequila
8 oz. sparkling water
pinch salt
lime wedges

In a medium pitcher combine fruit juices with sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add tequila, salt, and sparkling water. Salt rims of glasses if desired by running a lime wedge around the rim and then pressing into a small plate of kosher salt. Pour over rocks and serve.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Burning Beast: Meat Lover's Camping

Last weekend, at my sister's behest, I attended what may have been the coolest gathering of my life thus far: BURNING BEAST, held on a 360-acre farm in the evergreen hills of Arlington, Washington. The idea of the feast, er "Beast" is essentially a bacchanalian meat-lovers picnic with a slightly medieval flair. And it... was... AWESOME.

This year marked the third annual gathering of Burning Beast, the brainchild of Seattle Super Chef Tamara Murphy (chef/owner of Brasa). Burning Beast was her way of bringing the renowned Burning Man festival to her neck of the woods, and giving it her own spin. With the help of her friends at Smoke Farm ( she had the perfect outdoor venue, and wa-lah! "Burning Beast" was born.

Imagine a handful of Seattle's best chefs, each with a different animal to cook outdoors the old fashioned way-- over flames, smoke, and/or hot rocks.

Spit-roasted pigs, stewed goat, perfectly charred rotisserie chickens, a carousel of smoked rabbits, fire roasted lamb finished in clay pots, giant Argentinian asado-style beef roasts, geoducks and regular ducks, and more. Part of the fun was seeing the "beasts" burn throughout the day, tended with the utmost care of Seattle's most adventurous and talented cooks.

A small crowd gatherd in the afternoon to watch "Oyster" Bill Whitbeck of Taylor Shellfish clean the geoducks (pronounced gooey ducks) which would later go into tacos (they rolled the tortillas themselves). The uh, suggestive mollusks were enough to make a girl blush, and Chef Tamara Murphy remarked, "Well if that's not proof that Mother Nature has a sense of humor, then I don't know what is."

With ample space and an intimately sized crowd (the event sold out at 400 tickets), the chefs were hapy to chat about how they were tackling their animals. For $75 guests were welcome to explore the farm, swim in the river, camp overnight, and of course enjoy all the food you can eat.

Kim and I spent our time on the farm, eating, drinking wine, playing cornhole (yes, it's real game), and watching trapeze artists.

But the focal point of the event was of course the feast. At around 6 p.m. the dinner bell rang and lines (which were never overly long) began to form at each of about ten stations. The organizers of the nonprofit event had encouraged guests to bring their own plates and cutlery to minimize waste (b.y.o.p.), and reasonably priced beer and wine was sold in the bar for those who didn't b.y.o.b.

My first and one of my favorite tastes was a rich, red, goat stew called Birria, traditional to the Jalisco region of Mexico. Prepared by the chefs of Circa, and served with a warm tortilla, fresh cilantro and crema, I instantly broke my promise to pace myself and ate the whole bowl. Next we tasted Kim's favorite: crisp and smoky rotisserie chicken served with a refreshing cucumber relish. We followed that with the spit-roasted pig, which had roasted to an amber crisp over the coals all day, while being mopped with coconut water. It was served Balinese-style, on a banana leaf with sambal, rice, and fried shallots.

Chef Matt Dillon of Sitka and Spruce had coaxed beautiful and subtle flavors from his lamb, roasting and then stewing it in clay pots with what I think was fresh tomato, garlic, and dill. A dollop of yogurt and a squeeze of lemon, and his stew moved into the number one spot on my list.

Tamara Murphy had roasted her pig all night in an earth oven, over apple wood embers and hot river rocks, covered with many layers of burlap and banana leaves, and steamed with beer poured into a copper pipe she had buried beneath the pig. Um, wow. That, I thought, was the finest example of amazingly cooked and seasoned meat. I even had the good fortune of getting a crispy, salty, succulent bit of the skin in my little mess bowl.

Then I ate a mini-baguette stuffed with smoked rabbit, pickled carrot, and a spicy aioli. Then, of course, I had to hit the "Heads" station for a grilled and split sockeye salmon head. As reccommended I tried the coveted cartilage behind the eye, which was rich and full of the animal's essence, like bone marrow.

Soon after, I hit a meat wall, and spent the next few hours glazed over with a glass of red wine, watching a twenty foot tall goat burn to the ground. I missed out on the geoduck tacos and the vegetable station, and slept through the dance party that started up after the third band finished playing (dangit!). I slept it off in my sister Kim's giant tent--The Taj Mahal--listening to the rain fall harder and harder into the wee hours.

In the middle of the night I woke up with a start when the rain awning that had collected about 5 gallons of water came crashing down, through the door, and onto Kim's head!! Oh no sister!!

She jolted up, disoriented and dripping wet. When she figured out what happened she said, "That was just like Flashdance!" and then tossed her soggy sleeping bag and pad in between our two other tent mates, and instantly fell back to sleep. You're one in a million sis.

The whole thing was unforgettable: the food, the farm, the friends, the Cornhole. I will be back. Burning Beast just made my permanent roster.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Italian Chicken Brick: The Perfect Pick-a-Nick Type Sandwich

Sheesh, sorry it's been a little while. Summer is in full swing and we have had friends and family visiting over the past coupla weeks. Having visitors is a great way to shake up your daily routine. One of the best parts about that is that it reminds me not to forget the "PLAY" part of my write-cook-eat-play-repeat mantra. I love showing people what this magical corner of the world has to offer, seeing their faces the first time they see whale spout, or a glacier, or streams filled with spawning salmon. Plus it gives me some new mouths to cook for and that gets me all excited.

Last week my in-laws were in town, with two thirteen-year old boys in tow, whom I got to take sea kayaking for their first time. Mother Nature didn't cooperate as well as I hoped. The wind came up while we were out, making the seas a bit choppy, and the sun hid behind a low blanket of clouds. The biggest bummer was that the Stellar Sea Lion rookery we had paddled out to see, on Benjamin Island, was bare. The last time I had visited the rookery they were piled on the rocks and we could hear them from a mile away. I really wanted the boys to be able to witness their giant flubbery bodies, and their belchy-sounding roars, but this isn't the zoo, and sometimes the animals just aren't there. Ho hum. At any rate, we had a good paddle, a nice hike on the island with lots of tide pools to explore, and most importantly we made it back to shore safe and dry. All in all it was a great trip.

Something about eating outdoors makes food taste better, especially when you've earned some calories. So I decided to pack something special for lunch: A Brick Sandwich.

I first heard of this technique for the Brick Sandwich from Martha Stewart's website, and was further inspired by the famed Muffaletta sandwich of New Orleans. It's one of those things I've been wanting to make for years. The idea is to fill a loaf of bread (like ciabatta or focaccia) with a bunch of robust goodies, and then weight it down with a brick for at least 1 hour, and up to 24. The longer the better. All the flavors and juices and aromas marry inside the bread. It does to the sandwich what a night in the refrigerator does to home made spaghetti sauce-- it improves it, dramatically. Once sliced into portions all those zesty layers show themselves off. I didn't happen to have any bricks laying around the house, so mine became a cast-iron skillet sandwich.

Sitting on the beach of Benjamin Island, with a five-pound brick sandwich and a Tupperware full of chewy Peanut Butter Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, made for a great picnic, and I like to think it helped make up for the absence of our sea lion friends. Here's the version I came up with.

Italian Chicken Brick Sandwich(serves 4-6)

1 rectangular loaf ciabatta bread (or focaccia)
4 to 6 ounces neufchatel or cream cheese
1/2 cup oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, drained
12 fresh basil leaves
1 cup pitted black olives
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 - 8 oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and roughly chopped
2 boneless, skinless, chicken breast halves, grilled and sliced into 1/4" pieces
2 tablespoons vinaigrette-style Italian salad dressing
8 ounces thinly sliced salami

1. Using a long, serrated bread knife, slice the ciabatta loaf in half lengthwise (so there's a top and a bottom like a burger bun). Pull out some of the guts of the bread, leaving a 1/2" thick shell. Spread both the top and bottom halves with cream cheese.

2. In a small food processor or blender combine the sun dried tomatoes and fresh basil. Pulse to a fine chop. Spread the mixture onto bottom half of bread. Add the black olives and olive oil to the machine, and pulse to a fine chop. Spread onto top half of bread.

3. Toss the sliced chicken breast with the Italian vinaigrette to coat. Starting from the bottom, layer on the chicken, then the artichoke hearts, the salami, and the provolone. Place the top half of the ciabatta onto the sandwich, and wrap loosely in plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator and top with a brick, a cast-iron skillet, or similarly weighted and flat object (you can also use canned food placed in a baking dish). Let sit for at least 1 hour and up to 24. When ready to serve, slice into 2 inch-wide portions and enjoy!
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