Photo: Eduardo Rgz/Shutterstock

Take a Super Cheap Vacation to the Kitchen

by Aaron Hamburger Feb 25, 2014

These past few months, the continual onslaught of snow and freezing temperatures in Washington, DC, have been driving me nuts. However, I don’t have the money or time to go on vacation somewhere warm to remind myself of what the sun feels like, not just what it looks like when it peeps its head between the snowstorms to melt the accumulation on the ground into gray slush.

So to cure my winter blues, I’ve been cooking my way to Mexico, specifically via my favorite Mexican cookbook, Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: Flavors from the Griddles, Pots, and Streetside Kitchens of Mexico, by Roberto Santibanez.

Recipes aside, what attracted me to this book initially were its vivid, plastic-colored photos of Mexican street life: a plate of tacos resting on a waxy, Crayola-hued tablecloth; men and women expertly chopping, stirring, and tending food with the concentration of Jedi knights; streetcarts and hole-in-the-wall eateries emblazoned with signs in all caps demanding attention be paid to chicharron, homemade tortillas, even “QUESO EXTRA.”

And then there’s the food: pale, crumble-edged corn tortillas topped with glistening wedges of potato, mushroom, or chopped meat, sprinkled with a confetti of shredded cabbage and cilantro, and then anointed with lustrous sprays of orange or green sauce. Thick tortas (which sound like a kind of cake but are actually sandwiches) stuffed with mashed black beans, pork carnitas, or salt cod. Fluffy corn tamales steamed in corn husk packets, filled with shredded chicken or strawberries.

This winter, I’ve been steadily cooking my way through the book, discovering winner after winner of a recipe. My favorites so far include the savory slow-cooked lamb, tangy marinated skirt steak, cinnamon-orange-scented duck carnitas, and the adobo-marinated chicken that will redefine the way you think of chicken.

But best of all are the array of condiments and sauces that can be easily whipped up from scratch and sit in your fridge all week to dress up everyday breakfasts and lunches. On a depressingly white northern day, toast up a quesadilla on a dry skillet, then sprinkle with a bit of chopped tomato and the following avocado-tomatillo salsa, whose bright notes taste the way sunshine at tropical latitudes feels. Close your eyes, take a bite, and you can almost believe you’re in Mexico.

One note: I’ve tweaked the original recipe a bit to add a note of lime and just a touch of sugar, to cut some of the tartness of the tomatillo. Also, I leave out the seeds of my jalapeno to reduce the firepower, but if you’re a spice-lover, by all means leave them in.

Fresh Green Salsa with Avocado

(adapted from Roberto Santibanez’s Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales)

Yield: about 1 ½ cups

½ pound tomatillos (5 or 6) husked, rinsed and coarsely chopped (Look for tomatillos that aren’t too bruised or dried out. You can find them canned as well, though fresh are much better for this.)
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro (I just rip a handful of the stuff off the bunch, rinse it, and throw it in. The stems have as much flavor as the leaves, so you can add those too as long as they get chopped up.)
4 fresh jalapeno or serrano chiles, coarsely chopped (Seeds in for heat, seeds out for a milder salsa.)
1 large garlic clove, peeled (Don’t make the mistake I once made of adding extra garlic — this is plenty.)
2 tablespoons of chopped white onion (Red is fine too.)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ medium lime, juiced
1 or 2 pinches of sugar to taste
½ cup water
1 large ripe Hass avocado

Put the tomatillos in a blender first, then add the remaining ingredients. Pulse to chop up the tomatillos, then blend until very smooth, at least 1 minute. Season to taste with additional chile, salt, or sugar (be careful — not too much), and blend again. My salsa stays in the fridge for about 5-6 days.

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