THE WASHINGTON POST – “Just leave it to me, and I will spoil you.”
When you’re grieving, those are soothing words, especially when they’re delivered by one of your closest friends – and she happens to be an expert at feeding people. When Pati Jinich returned from traveling in mid-January and learned that my mother had died of complications from covid-19 two weeks earlier, those words were the second sentiment she expressed to me. The first was, “I’m so very sorry, Joe-Joe.”
Pati and I have made an off-and-on habit of cooking together, usually on days when she’s got her Chevy Chase home to herself, and we love showing each other favourite ingredients and tricks. When she’s travelling to film episodes of her public television show, Pati’s Mexican Table, we can’t get together quite as often, but we always make up for lost time.
She’ll break open a find from her latest trip to Mexico (exquisite chlli-covered tamarind candies, or a spectacular mezcal), I’ll take her something from my garden (red poblanos we used to make what I, in my bungled Spanish, nicknamed rojo rajas), and we’ll taste and cook and laugh.
On this visit, though, she didn’t let me pick up a knife. Instead, she plied me with food for hours as we talked about our families and shed no small amount of tears. I’ll spare you the details because, one, all you would do is get jealous about the most of the food, and two, some things get to stay between friends. But I will say that she started with one of the most delicious dishes I’ve tasted in a while, and she agreed that I could share a recipe for it.
The appetiser was based on two things Pati and I both love: avocados and salsa macha. If you haven’t had the latter, it’s high time you change that. Salsa macha is an outlier among Mexican salsas.
It’s chock-full of chunky nuts and dried chile pieces that have all been gently simmered in a good amount of oil, making it more akin to Chinese chili crisp than to, say, a sharp tomato salsa.
With a little sugar and vinegar added, it possesses a layered balance of all four of the primary elements of good cooking espoused by Samin Nosrat’s blockbuster book and TV show Salt Fat Acid Heat.
Before she pulled a jar of the salsa from her fridge, though, Pati had a crucial question for me about the third ingredient in this little snack: “What do you think about this thin German brown bread? Do you like it?” Like it? I love it, using the Mestemacher brand most recently as the base for a breakfast of nut butter, smashed bananas, drizzles of honey and toasted coconut. Pati grinned, put some pieces in the toaster and started cutting avocados, fanning them over the toast and drizzling them with the salsa.
Granted, I was hungry – for emotional as well as physical nourishment – so maybe I’m overstating this, but I don’t think so. The combination of crunchy toast, creamy and cool avocado and chunky salsa macha, itself so complex, made me swoon.
At the end of the night, Pati sent me home with a little jar of the salsa, but I went through it in mere days and needed to make a batch of my own. The recipe, found in her latest cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table, is quick and easy and makes almost three cups of salsa – which gets better-tasting with storage. I’ve made the toast for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks ever since and have taken to spooning the salsa on leftover pasta, hummus, beans and more.
A few days after my dinner with Pati, another friend asked how I was coping with grief, and when I said, “I think I’ve turned a corner,” I realised just how healing of an evening it had been. My feelings are summed up in the cookbook’s title. It’s clear to me now that to her many viewers and readers, and to me as her friend, the most valuable treasure of all isn’t any one dish. It’s the woman on the cover.
SALSA MACHA WITH MIXED NUTS
Active time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Servings: 24, about three cups
This salsa might become your new favourite condiment, as its spicy-sweet-tart flavour and chunky texture can make any dish shine.
This recipe is ripe for experimentation: As cookbook author Pati Jinich writes, “Choose the dried chillis and nuts that you like, cook in oil until the ingredients change colour and smell toasty, then season with vinegar and your favourite sweetener.”
Jinich likes to include tiny amaranth seeds, which are popular in Mexican sweets, but if you can’t easily find them, use sunflower or sesame seeds instead. Apply the salsa pretty much anywhere, but it’s especially stellar on guacamole or avocado toast, hummus, soups, eggs – even ice cream. Note that the flavour continues to develop and deepen with time, so while it’s great immediately, it’s even better after a day or two.
Storage Notes: While traditional recipes for salsa macha suggest refrigerating for up to a month or more, food-safety experts recommend refrigerating this for no more than a week or freezing for up to six months. (Tip: Freeze what you’re not going to eat in within a week, and thaw half cup to a cup at a time to then use within a week.)
– One cup extra-virgin olive oil
– Half cup neutral vegetable oil, such as sunflower
– Five dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and cut with scissors into small pieces
– Four to five dried chiles de arbol, stemmed and cut with scissors into small pieces (with seeds)
– Six garlic cloves, sliced
– One-third cup raw unsalted walnuts
– One-third cup raw unsalted pistachios
– One-third cup raw unsalted pine nuts
– One-quarter cup apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
– One tablespoon dark brown sugar or grated piloncillo, plus more to taste
– One teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
– One-third cup hulled raw unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
– One-third cup amaranth seeds (may substitute sunflower or sesame seeds)
In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the olive and vegetable oils until shimmering. Add the ancho chiles, chiles de arbol, garlic, walnuts, pistachios and pine nuts, and cook, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned and the mixture is fragrant, about five minutes.
Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar, sugar and salt to combine. Stir in the pumpkin and amaranth seeds. Taste, and season with more vinegar, sugar and/or salt as needed.
Let the mixture sit for 10-15 minutes, to slightly cool and infuse with flavour. Transfer to the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times until coarsely ground.
Use immediately, if desired, or transfer to a lidded jar with and refrigerate until needed.
Nutrition | Per serving (two tablespoons) | calories: 197, protein: 2g, carbohydrates: 6g, fat: 19g, saturated fat: 2g, cholesterol: 0 mg, sodium: 100mg, dietary fibre: 1g, sugar: 1g.
AVOCADO TOAST WITH
Active time: 10 minutes
This easy snack or light meal for two people tops creamy avocados on German brown bread with salsa macha, a chunky blend of nuts and dried chiles fried in oil.
The dish depends on each of the three elements being just right: The bread should be toasted heavily, so it’s very dark and crunchy. The avocados should be perfectly ripe and creamy. And the salsa macha should be homemade.
– One ripe avocado, halved, pitted and sliced
– Two slices German brown bread, such as Mestemacher brand, cut in half crosswise and toasted until quite crisp
– One-quarter cup Salsa Macha (see related recipe)
– Flaky sea salt (optional)
Scoop out the avocado slices from each of the halves. Fan the avocado slices on the toasted bread, and drizzle with the Salsa Macha. Sprinkle with the salt, if desired, and serve.
Nutrition information per serving (2 pieces avocado toast, using rye bread, and two tablespoons salsa macha) | Calories: 486; Total Fat: 30g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 375mg; Carbohydrates: 52g; Dietary Fibre: 14g; Sugar: 3g; Protein: 8g.