Loaded with pumpkin seed kernels, cashews, and sesame seeds, salsa de semillas is a lesser-known but beloved Mexican nut-based salsa.
Gravy, as most of us know it—savory, rich, and comfortingly bland—is a bit of an acquired taste if you come from a country whose cuisine known for its unabashed love of heat, smoke, and acid.Paola’s first Thanksgiving in America was in 2010. She was living in Portland, Oregon, and, having grown up in Mexico, it was her first time tasting gravy and the rest of Thanksgiving’s classic flavors. “I just remember everything being meaty, bland, and dry,” she told me. Specifically, she was taken aback by traditional fall American flavors that are used for gravy, like sage. “It tasted like burnt herbs. All I wanted to do was squeeze some fresh limes all over my plate.”I had a similar upbringing in Los Angeles, although a Mexican-American one. The only American-style gravies I remember having were either from cafeteria lunches at elementary school or from Popeye’s, since that was my fast-food spot of choice growing up in the LA suburb of San Gabriel Valley. Aside from that, the closest thing that my mother made to a gravy was her spiced red chile adobo that she used to rub all over the Thanksgiving turkey. It would meld with the roast turkey juices at the bottom of the pan to make a delicious red chile sauce–gravy hybrid, but definitely not a traditional American brown gravy.Which now brings us to this vibrant buttermilk-poblano gravy. It’s a gravy that both Paola and I love to eat that combines the best of Mexican and American worlds. Fire-roasted poblanos add everything that a fresh green chile has to offer in terms of smokiness and flavor without the heat (unlike a jalapeño or serrano which would be an automatic turn-off to the heat-averse). The buttermilk adds a refreshing tang that will keep you ladling more and more over turkey, chicken, or potatoes. It would even be a great base for the most memorable pot pie you’ll ever have. And since it’s roux-based, it maintains the rib-sticking properties that a good gravy should always have. Go ahead and dip some tortilla chips into it, while you’re at it. No judgement here.
Be sure to heat the tortillas in a hot skillet before stuffing them with the ricotta-kale mixture. Warming them up first makes them more pliable and less likely to break during the stuffing and cooking process. Opt for high-quality organic yellow corn tortillas; they tend to be chewier and more satisfying when fried.
A funny thing happens when you marry a pata salada (Spanish for salty foot—the endearing nickname given to people who are raised on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco): You become a mariscos snob.Since meeting my wife Paola, my seafood consumption has spiked to near-ridiculous levels. Fortunately, I've been able to keep up with her Neptune-like appetite for anything from the sea. As a result, I can tell you if a shrimp cocktail is made properly or not. Meaning, if the broth is made from scratch with shrimp shells and aromatics versus just throwing a bunch of tomato cocktail mix, ketchup, and hot sauces together in a bowl.Coctél de camarón (you may know it as Mexican shrimp cocktail) has a special place in our life. It has become our welcome meal as soon as we land in Puerto Vallarta, usually famished. We arrive at Paola's family's home where a bowl of her mother's replenishing coctél awaits. It always starts off our trip to paradise on the right foot.One day back home in Los Angeles, I called my mother-in-law and asked her to coach me through her coctél process to surprise Paola. (She was mad at me that day, and I needed all the help I could get to get out of the doghouse!) The idea was to surprise her with one of our favorite dishes that we associate with so many great memories. While the shrimp shells were simmering away to make the broth, I spotted our Spanish saffron container out of the corner of my eye and figured, what the hell? I grabbed a fat pinch of the stuff and added it to the broth.As the broth chilled to room temperature—the way to properly eat a Mexican coctél de camarón, so you can taste all of the delicate flavors and fresh shrimp—I took a sip, and my eyes grew big. It was so good. Her mother's coctél is perfect as-is, but with a pinch of Spanish saffron, it became a revelatory experience. It did the trick and we forgot what we argued about after a couple of big spoonfuls.In this recipe, Paola amplifies the flavor even more by charring the vegetables a bit before using them to build an umami-filled stock. Combined with the saucy shrimp and all the cucumber, tomato, onion, cilantro, and avocado, this dish is suitable for a complete lunch. Eat it with some good tostadas or saltine crackers to complete the Puerto Vallarta experience.
Salsa macha is the kind of condiment that stops you in your tracks and as soon you taste it. It also shatters your expectations of what you think Mexican food can be. Directly translated into English, it means "brave salsa." It's olive oil. It's toasted smoky chiles. It's toasted nuts and seeds. It's fried garlic. The sum of all these delicious parts is a convenient and crunchy salsa that virtually never goes bad and tastes amazing on pretty much anything it touches: quesadillas, tacos, Mexican-style street corn, salad, pizza, crusty bread, and seafood. It's Mexico's answer to the infused olive oils of Italy and the fiery chile oils of Asia.You can experience this unique salsa in Mexico City at street food stands and in nut-growing regions like Michoacán, where macadamias are added to the mix. While it's traditionally a very spicy salsa, we like to temper the heat just a bit so we can taste the grassy qualities of the good olive oil (we love a buttery Arbequina variety). The beautiful thing about this salsa is that once you get the ratios down, you can experiment with other nuts, seeds, and chiles. It's also great because you can make it any time of the year, unlike tomato salsas that only taste their best during peak season.When you add a couple of spoonfuls to cubed raw fish, salsa macha is a game changer that transforms an everyday ceviche into an extraordinary dish. Paola created this recipe as a heartier way of getting her ceviche fix during a weekend getaway in the desert with friends. She grew up eating salsa macha at her grandfather's restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, where it is spooned over butterflied, wood-roasted whole fish. I love the meaty tuna that she uses in this recipe—it stands up to the boldness of the salsa. This ceviche is great on top of tostadas or eaten like poke as an appetizer. And the best part is that you can make the salsa ahead of time, and just stir it together with the remaining ingredients just before you're ready to eat. But no matter what you serve it on, once you make and taste your first salsa macha, it will earn its place in the corner of your fridge forever.
Carne en su jugo translates to “beef in its own juices,” and it’s the kind of dish you crave when it’s cold out and you need the nourishment that only a steamy, juicy bowl of beef can bring. The filling, comforting dish is the lifeblood of Guadalajara, Mexico’s old capital city in the sunny west-coast state of Jalisco. If you’re ever there, there’s a 99 percent chance you will go to Karne Garibaldi, the restaurant that made this dish, known around the world for breaking the Guinness World Record for serving it in 13.5 seconds after ordering. But that is another story. You’re here to cook!The dish is somewhere between pho and a plate of carne asada tacos. It’s a brothy stew of finely chopped skirt steak and tender beans in an intensely savory beef stock fortified with Worcestershire and soy sauces, onions, garlic, and tomatillos. (And there is true magic in those tomatillos—they add a layer of delicious tartness that’s dangerously good against the richness of the beef.)The interesting thing about carne en su jugo is that a tiny bit of beef gets blended into the broth. You heard me—blended! I’m sure that liquefying beef breaks every rule in the book but the Tapatío (gent from Guadalajara) who came up with it was really onto something because it adds so much body and depth to the stew. Add the beans toward the end of cooking so they don’t fall apart. For the best texture, make a pot of beans from scratch. (A pressure cooker can accomplish this in about 30 minutes.) But if you’re strapped for time, canned pinto beans will do the trick.To serve, pick up some of your favorite bacon, crisp it up real nice, chop it up, and make it rain over the carne. Add a couple of tablespoons of diced onion, cilantro, and lime juice to your liking. On the table, you can also have guacamole, some grilled onions, and tortillas lightly toasted in a bit of oil. And don’t forget a cold beer. You can never go wrong with that.
Learning to work with dried chiles in the kitchen is one of the most rewarding techniques you will ever learn. And contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t always lead to breathing out fire with every bite or spending entire days making mole. In this case, it’s as easy as toasting a few dried chiles on your cast iron, throwing it in all in a blender with some spices and garlic, and making one of the most flavorful dishes in Mexico: birria.Birria was the first dish that my wife Paola made for me when I visited her on a frigid, rainy day in Portland, Oregon. Paola hails from Puerta Vallarta, in the coastal Mexican state of Jalisco, and her version of her home state’s famed dish isn’t as brothy as ones you’ve probably had at Mexican restaurants in the States. Instead, she treats the sauce like a thick, wet rub that resembles the old-world style of birria tatemada, a style of birria where goat is slow-roasted in a clay oven until crusty and tender. It has a lot in common with a bold Jamaican jerk marinade or even an Indian vindaloo paste. It’s a fruity, spiced flavor bomb in every sense of the word, but a controlled one that keeps you coming back for one more bite until it’s all gone.That first night, she made it with lamb shanks, but these days, almost eight years later and married, we’ve been experimenting with seafood versions of Mexican classics. On one of our date nights at the supermarket, we bought some of those thick, rib eye–like slabs of swordfish that were on sale but didn’t know what to do with it when we got home. We had some leftover birria paste—naturally preserved by a healthy dose of vinegar—in the darkest corner of our fridge, and in a moment of sheer hunger and desperation, this amazing seafood variation of the meaty dish was born. The adobo is both in the paste and the salsa, so there is no escaping it.Part of the pleasure of this dish is piling all of the elements onto corn tortillas: The onions, radish, and lime go a long way, so make sure to have plenty of them. Buttery slices of avocado add that satisfying richness. For your fish, look for the thickest slabs of swordfish at the counter, and use a thermometer to get the swordfish just right. And when buying chiles, look for chiles that feel chewy—that’s the sign of a freshly dried chile that will add the richest flavor to the warm and spicy sauce. —Javier Cabral
Something beautiful happens with protein is smeared with citrusy achiote paste, wrapped in banana leaves, and roasted. The famous Mexican pork dish cochinita pibil is prepared this way, and in the coastal states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán, fish gets the same treatment for a flavorful entrée. Achiote, also called annatto, are yellow-orange seeds that lend sweet, peppery citrus notes to dishes. Along with orange and lime, the bright flavors provide contrast to the tea-like aroma from the banana leaves, which are available at Asian supermarkets.
What’s better than sipping a good paloma while relaxing to the sounds of the sapphire-blue waves on a secluded beach only reachable by boat? How about a freshly baked pie made with fruit gathered just a few hundred feet away? Yelapa, a tiny beach community about 45 minutes away from Puerto Vallarta via water taxi, is known for its tropical pies. This version from Javier Cabral and Paola Briseño González features caramelized bananas and vanilla custard. The sturdy crust is salted and shortbread-like because the pie has always been eaten while sunbathing, with no utensils around. Take big bites—it’ll taste better.