I know you’re all watching American Idol right now. Why does Jason Castro force us to love him, with his dreadlocks and blue eyes and charming goofiness?
Part Four in the series goes back to basics: pico de gallo and refried beans. Every time I have people over and bring out this pico there’s a minor riot, which never ceases to amaze me – and sadden me, have we become so inured to Tostitos salsa? Will future generations know nothing except Pace Picante Sauce?
Fresh pico only takes 5 ingredients and a little chopping. Do it for the flavor. Do it for the children. Dear god, won’t someone think of the children?
The best salsa you’ve ever had takes plum tomatoes, onion (white or yellow, I prefer yellow), jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice. You can vary it according to your tastes – I hear there are people who don’t like cilantro, although I doubt their existence – although the basic proportions listed in the recipe below produce a salsa that will be wholly devoured every time. You may be tempted to get better tomatoes, but you can shove those heirlooms where the sun don’t shine. Plain old semi-mealy plum tomatoes are the Mexican standard; you don’t even have to skin ‘em or seed ‘em. For the Scrabblganza I chopped almost FIVE POUNDS of those suckers, and there was nothing left at the end of the night.
Possibly the worst picture I’ve ever taken and posted. I’m really sorry.
The half-eaten dish in the lower left holds my totally inauthentic refried beans, posted here by request. I’ve been making these beans since the fabled vegetarian days of story and song (before the great smoked sausage invasion of ’01) and my favorite way to eat them continues to be wrapped in a tortilla with roasted potatoes, onions and peppers. I made them thinking they’d be an extra option for the veggies, but nearly everyone scooped them into their frankentacos.
Like the pico, the chard and sweet potato tacos and pretty much everything else I make, these beans are endlessly variable, although I can only vouch for the basic recipe. More jalapeno, more cilantro, more lime, onion, garlic and copious amounts of salt (beans always take way more than you think is necessary, or healthy) mingle with pinto beans quickly before being mashed by hand for a creamy but rustic texture. Thinned out with a little water or stock this also makes a great bean dip, especially if you wanted to get ambitious and make some fresh chips out of whole tortillas.
Both of these dishes can be made in advance and will just get better and better as they sit in the fridge and the flavors boogie together. If you’re not serving veggies and you’re the kind of person who saves their bacon fat in the fridge, the beans are more excellent when refried in lard. If you’re the kind of person who values their cardiovascular health, you can skip this step.
COMING SOON: The final installment of the TacoGate series! Food tasting at the United Nations’ Delegates Dining Room! A Thomas Keller Smackdown!
Best Basic Pico de Gallo
4 plum tomatoes, skins and seeds and all, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
2 jalapenos, finely diced
2 handfuls cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 lime
sprinkle of salt
Mix everything together in a bowl. Adjust the lime and salt levels. Eat now, or eat later. Makes approximately 1 pint.
Note: Most of the heat of jalapenos is found in the seeds and ribs (the white stuff), so you can vary the heat level of the pico by in/excluding those elements.
Inauthentic Refried Beans
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, diced
1-2 jalapenos, finely diced
2 cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 c. water
1 handful cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 lime
1 tsp. kosher salt, + more to taste
2 tbsp. bacon fat (or more olive oil)
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and jalapeno and saute until the onion is translucent and just beginning to turn golden, about 8 minutes.
Add the beans and water, and cook everything together for 2-3 more minutes, until the beans are heated through and easy to mash. Using the back of a wooden spoon or potato masher, mash the beans to your desired consistency; add more water or some lime juice if the mixture is too tight. Stir in the cilantro, salt and lime juice, adding more to taste. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Just before serving time, heat the bacon fat or olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the beans and fry, stirring to heat and allowing a crust to form on the bottom. Serve immediately.*
*If you’re a lazy sort (as I am) you can completely skip this part and just eat them directly after you’ve mashed them (as I often do).