A mini take on Mexican food

Living in Chicago, one of the many things I’ve come to appreciate about this city is the sheer diversity of the food, especially in the neighborhoods: Polish, Italian (the two closest to my heart and heritage), but also Vietnamese,  Thai, Greek, Indian, Cuban, Chinese, Mexican. I’m sure I’m leaving out some great ones, but there are just so many to choose from!

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But back to Mexican food for a second. I don’t know what it is that I find so appealing–maybe it’s the comfort-food aspect, the rich stick-to-your-ribs-ness that pairs so well with its fresh, sharp, spicy flavors. It’s great from a greasy spoon restaurant (I’m looking at you, El Norte), where they make the posole, chicken soup, and refried beans completely from scratch, and the employees are the sweetest people on earth; the gourmet versions from restaurants like Frontera or Topolobampo are just as excellent. Whatever the appeal, Rick Bayless could probably explain it better than I could anyways.IMG_0004 (13)IMG_0014 (14)

While these two recipes (really just condiments in the grand scheme of things) are not “authentic” Mexican by any stretch–people get seriously huffy about guacamole in particular for some reason–they are still two of my favorites, especially with some grilled flank steak, peppers, fresh salsa, and locally made tortillas. Or just a big bag of really good, hefty tortilla chips.

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Turns out, taking appetizing pictures of a bowl of green dip is really hard. So here, at least, are some of the ingredients.

Chunky Guacamole
Makes about 1 1/2 cups. Don’t be afraid of the jalapeno or raw onion; by mashing the jalapeno, a more mild heat is evenly distributed throughout the guacamole, instead of biting into a big chunk of pepper, which I’m not a fan of. Soaking the onion also removes the sharp raw taste, which can be a bit much.

4 tablespoons white onion, diced, soaked in cold water or lime juice, and drained
2 tablespoons jalapeno, seeded, deveined, and minced
5  tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2-3 ripe avocados, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon lime zest
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/4 cup diced tomato
Salt to taste

In a small bowl or mortar, combine 2 tablespoons onion, 1 tablespoon jalapeno, 2 tablespoons cilantro, garlic, and salt. Smash the ingredients with a pestle or wooden spoon until they are well combined and the mixture is slightly juicy; the course salt helps to break everything down.

In a larger bowl, add the onion/jalapeno/cilantro mixture to half of an avocado and mash together to combine. Add the remaining diced avocado, remaining onion, jalapeno, cilantro, lime zest and juice, and tomato. Stir to combine, but try to avoid smashing up the avocado too much. Taste and add additional salt if needed. If not serving immediately, squeeze a bit more lime juice over the top and press plastic wrap against the guacamole to keep the avocado from turning brown.

Pickled Red Onion
Makes about 1 1/4 pints. These are obviously great with fajitas, but also just about any grilled or barbecued meat (including burgers or hot dogs!), turkey or roast beef sandwiches, salad, or just straight out of the jar. Slightly adapted from David Lebovitz.

1 1/2 cups white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 bay leaf
10 allspice berries
10 whole cloves
5 black peppercorns
2 small, dried chile peppers (I used chile de arbol)
2 medium red onions, peeled and thinly sliced into rings (a mandolin really pays off here)

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, salt, spices, and chile to a boil. Add the onion slices and lower the heat, stirring to ensure all the onions are mixed with the vinegar and spices. After 30 seconds, remove from heat before the onions soften too much.

Transfer onions and liquid to a jar, and refrigerate. They’ll keep for at least a month, possibly longer, but I always eat them too fast to find out.

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