Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Tropical Table: 3 years of culinary discovery

When I started writing this column three years ago, my intent was to share recipes for dishes and info about ingredients that could be found in Mexico. “The Tropical Table,” then, didn’t necessarily mean Mexican cuisine — just what could be made with what we are able to find here.

Personally, I often find it easier to go out to eat, say, excellent tamales or chiles en nogada rather than to try and make them myself. And while I love most Mexican food, sometimes I crave a spicy Thai curry, authentic Italian pasta dish or classic cookie I remember from my childhood.

I’d estimate that this year I spent somewhere around 1,000 hours looking at recipes or writing about food. That’s about 20 hours a week. (No wonder I eat so much!)

Some recipes have stood out and become a beloved part of my life, because they’re delicious or easy, unusual or fun. I share them with friends and family; they circle through my regular menu of dinners, desserts and party food. Things strike me as I peruse recipes or research ingredients and set me off on tangents that lead to other tangents and before you know it, four hours have gone by and I’m stiff from sitting at my desk. I may have started off looking for recipes for achiote and ended up reading about bread pudding, turmeric or olive oil.

homemade tartar sauce
This column has led the writer on many culinary discoveries, like that store-bought tartar sauce is no comparison to the homemade stuff.

Unexpectedly, Cornflake Macaroons jettisoned into my — and my friends’ — repertoire of favorites. A lifetime lover of meringue, I was intrigued by the idea of adding cornflakes to a meringue cookie, and I also couldn’t imagine how just four egg whites could whip up into 48 cookies. OH MY.

Prepare to give them away or you will, like me, find yourself eating them. All. Day. Long.

Almost frantically, I gave them away to neighbors, while at the same time regretting that I was doing so. Just writing about them has caused me to wander into the kitchen, dig out the container I hid in the back of a cupboard and help myself to two of these delicate, delicious cookies.

Tequila Lime Cake changed the way I looked at masa harina, or corn flour, and opened my eyes to the versatility of its nutty taste; 5-Minute Fruit Mousse intrigued my skeptical mind (how could that recipe possibly work?!) and then became a go-to quick ‘n’ easy dessert to make for myself or bring to potlucks. The original recipe called for frozen mixed berries; I substituted frozen mango chunks for an impressive and tropically delicious result.

It’s not all sugary sweets in my house, though. Gnocchi with Burst Cherry Tomatoes (below) changed the way I think about packaged gnocchi and the little “potato pillows” in general. This recipe’s technique changes the texture from mushy to delightfully crispy on the outside and pillowy-soft in the center. (I’ve found myself snacking on them as I cook.)

Also eye-opening was the idea of cooking fresh cherry tomatoes over high heat till they burst — a versatile revelation that I now use with other recipes.

I learned that I wasn’t imagining it: Mexican oregano and Mediterranean oregano are not the same; they’re two different varieties with completely different flavors and aromas. And yes, the Philadelphia cream cheese in Mexico is a different formula than what’s sold in other countries. (More gummy.)

Writing about capers led to this Tartar Sauce recipe (“One word: Fabulous!”) and also this classic Caesar Salad; I now keep a big jar of capers in my fridge at all times.

Tequila Lime Cake
Believe it or not, this mouthwatering Tequila Lime Cake is made with masa.

Other favorites? Swordfish Piccata — which I’ve made so many times I know the recipe by heart, and with an abundance of fresh fish in the seaside town of Mazatlán, where I live, it’s easy-peasy; this Tomato Tart, which comes out as pretty and delicious as can be and is as good the next day for a simple lunch as when it first comes out of the oven.

I tracked down the original kale salad, the recipe that started the trendy dish that’s now a staple on healthy tables everywhere, and ever-so-slowly developed more love for my InstantPot.

This reliably delicious and versatile Peanut Sauce, which works just as well on a healthy dinner of steamed veggies and brown rice as it does over a chicken stir-fry or grilled fish filet, has become a staple too, and I usually have a jar in the fridge, ready to go at all times.

Some dishes seemed simple but still intimidated me; classic Sinaloa-style aguachile was one of those until I buckled down and asked a local chef friend to be my teacher. Now I know how basic it is — if you’ve got the right ingredients and know the proportions and can whip up a platter in no time.

While I’ve made (or tried to make) various non-beef burgers through the years, none have really hit the spot until these Tuna Burgers with Grilled Pineapple — the pineapple is the clincher — and also these Black Bean Burgers, rich and tasty with cashews and adobo chiles.

So what does 2023 have in store? We shall just have to see! Wishing you all a Happy New Year, Feliz Año Nuevo!

Gnocchi with Burst Cherry Tomatoes
Featuring cherry tomatoes sauteed to bursting, this gnocchi dish changed the writer’s mind about the packaged pasta.

Gnocchi with Burst Cherry Tomatoes

  • ¼ cup+ olive oil
  • 1 pkg. gnocchi
  • 4 Tbsp. butter
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • Pinch red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes
  • 6 Tbsp. water
  • 6 Tbsp. julienned fresh basil leaves

Heat 2 Tbsp. oil over medium heat. Add gnocchi, cover and cook 3–4 minutes until puffed and brown. Flip, cover and cook 3–4 minutes more. Transfer to a bowl, resisting the urge to put paper towels under them, as they will stick as they cool.

Add butter to pan, then garlic, red pepper flakes salt and pepper. Over medium-high heat, stir in tomatoes and water. Cook, stirring, 5–7 minutes, squishing tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon as they become soft.

Once tomatoes have broken down, stir in gnocchi and basil until hot. Serve immediately.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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