A taste of Mexico

Summer weather has finally made it to New York, so we decided to celebrate its arrival on Saturday night with an impromptu dinner party in our backyard. We'd had plans to eat at La Esquina in Manhattan with a group of our friends, but after having no luck with a reservation, I decided the next best thing would be to invite everyone over to our place for a homemade Mexican meal prepared by yours truly (with Margherita serving as sous chef).

Normally when hosting a dinner party, I hit the streets with my trusty wheely cart, picking up all the necessary ingredients at my favorite local food shops: Los Paisanos on Smith St. for meat, followed by Smith & Vine for some wine, Fish Tales on Court St. for seafood, the local produce stand on Atlantic Avenue and Clinton St. for fruits and veggies and Sahadis for nuts, olives and other goodies. It's one of my many Brooklyn rituals, but since this particular dinner was thrown together at the last minute, Daniel and I drove Sunny (our rockin' Plymouth 1993 Sundance) to the new
Fairway in Red Hook to do all our shopping in one shot. It felt so suburban, but to be honest, I kind of liked the change of pace.

Margherita and Dante arrived at noon, just in time for the start of the US vs. Italy World Cup match. At halftime, Marg and I set to work washing the salad, shredding the cheese, and chopping the array of colorful veggies spread out on my dining table. We even took a quick break to find out what exactly jicama is: "a large, bulbous root vegetable with a thin brown skin, white crunchy flesh, and a sweet, nutty flavor that is good both raw and cooked" for those of you who are wondering. Once we were done with the pre-prep, I gave Marg a quick tutorial on how to use my citrus juicer (the food-related wedding present that Daniel and I use the most -- thanks Olivia!), so she could juice an absurd amount of limes for our salad dressing and homemade margaritas, and then I got started on a tres leches cake.

Around 7pm all of our friends had arrived and were nagging us about how they could help -- a question I don't handle well when trying to execute a fairly ambitious meal in the world's smallest kitchen. Since my apartment became the proud recipient of a portable air conditioner the day AFTER this particular soiree, she and I were sweaty, grumpy, and still a few hours away from being finished. I quickly mixed up a pitcher of the most delicious pink grapefruit margaritas and lured everyone outside to our serene backyard (where the hydrangeas are in full bloom!) so she and I could continue slaving away in peace. I'm not sure if we needed quite as much food as we prepared, or if it had to be so elaborate, but it felt extrememly rewarding to finally sit down, around 9pm, surrounded by wonderful friends and an equally delicious homemade meal. Being able to eat beneath the Brooklyn sky made it that much better.

Below is the full menu as well as some notes on what worked, what didn't, and how I might have tweaked the recipes. I'd make everything (except maybe the warm queso dip) again but next time, I'll get started a few days earlier.

Pink Grapefruit Margarita
From InStyle
1 lime, cut into wedges
Kosher salt
2 1/2 cups tequila
1 1/4 cups orange-flavored liquer, such as Cointreau or Triple Sec
1 1/4 cups ruby red grapfruit juice
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Pink grapefruit wedges or lime wheels for garnish

1. Rub rims of the 10 margarita or other stemmed glasses with the lime wedges then dip in salt. 2. In a large, ice-filled pitcher, stir together tequila, orange flavored-liquer and juices. Pour into prepared glasses, and garnish with pink grapefruit wedges or lime wheels.

Note: I opted for 100% natural pomegranate juice (not from concentrate, no sugar added) from Elite Naturel. Since I knew I'd be busy squeezing a ton of fresh limes, I bought Tropicana ruby red grapefruit juice, which worked just fine, but next time I make these, I'll definitely try squeezing my own. The whole drink was delicious without being too tart or sweet. They go down easy though, so drink slowly, if at all possible.

Warm Queso Dip
From InStyle
(Serves 10)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb. sliced white mushrooms
2 roasted poblano chiles, seeded and cut into strips
1 lb. shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1. Heat oven to 350 F. 2. Heat olve oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. 3. Add mushrooms; saute until softened, about 8 min. Combine mushrooms, chiles and cheese in an 11"x7" baking dish. 4. Bake for 5-7 min., or until cheese has melted. Serve with tortilla chips.

Note: This was probably my least favorite part of the whole meal just because it's a very heavy start to an already filling meal. Rather than toss all the ingredients together, I sprinkled the cheese on top of the mushrooms and peppers which resulted in one big, congealed lump of cheesy goodness. My advice would be to toss everything together in order to allow the cheese, mushrooms and peppers to fully mingle together. The final result is pretty similar to nachos with the chips just being on the side. If you're strapped for time, this would be the one part of the menu I'd scrap.

Adapted from InStyle
(Serves 10)
4 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp chopped mint
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a medicum bowl, mash 2 avocados and coarsely chop the remaining two. 2. Combine avocados with remaining ingredients. Serve with tortilla chips.

Note: No matter how many guacamole recipes I make, I always have to make some minor adjustments in order to get it just right. For this one, I added a little extra lime juice, and a tablespoon of fresh salsa just to liven it up a bit. But overall, this recipe was delicious and the addition of scallions and mint were an interesting twist.

Jicama and Watercresss Salad with Lime-Cilantro Dressing
From InStyle
(Serves 10)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 tbsp lime zest
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1 shallot, chopped
3/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
1 jicama, peeled, cut into strips
1 large bunch watercress, trimmed

1. Whisk together cilantro, lime zest, lime juice and shallot in medium bowl. 2. Gradually whisk in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 3. Place salad ingredients in bowl. Toss with desired amount of dressing.

Note: This was a huge hit, but I find that it's never necessary to make so much salad since people never eat too much of it. I brought some to work on Monday and dressed it with a balasamic vinaigrette that worked just as well as the lime-cilantro dressing.

Grilled Red Chile Steak Fajitas
From InStyle
(Serves 10)
2 1/2 lb. flank steak
Salt and pepper
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
3 red, yellow and/or orange peppers, seeded and sliced
2 onions sliced thin
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 large chipotle in adobo sauce, minced
2 tsp chile powder
Flour tortillas, warmed

1 Heat broiler. 2. Season beef with salt and pepper; rub with 1 tbsp olive oil. Place on rack in broiler pan. 3. Broil 8-12 min., turning once or until cooked to desired degree of doneness. Let sit 10 min. before slicing. 4. In large skillet heat remaining olive oil over medium-high heat. 5. Add peppers and onions to skillet; cook 4-5 min. 6. Add garlic, chipotle in adobo, chile powder and 1/2 cup water. Continue cooking until vegetables are softened. 7. Season with salt to taste. Serve with warm tortillas.

Note: Since we're always looking for any excuse to fire up the grill, we decided to skip the broiler and grill the flank steaks instead. They were delicious!

Chipotle Shrimp Fajitas
From InStyle
(Serves 10)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 oz.) fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2 chipotles in adobo sauce, chopped
2 tbsp adobo sauce
2 lb. large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut into 1/2" pieces
Salt to taste
Corn tortillas, warmed

1. Heat vegetable oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. 2. Add garlic and cook 1 min. 3. Reduce heat to medium low; stir in tomatoes, chipotles and sauce. Simmer covered for 3 min. 4. Add shrimp and simmer until shrimp are cooked through, about 4 min. 5. Season with salt to taste. Serve with warmed corn tortillas.

Note: I had never cooked with chipotles in adobo sauce before, which is why I probably went a little overboard in my addition of them. It would have been best to ask my guests how hot they like their food. If you're making this for a crowd that likes it mild, only use 1 chipotle since they pack a punch. If you're like me and can handle some heat, throw both in. Be sure to use corn tortillas which work better with the shrimp than a traditional flour tortilla.

Tres Leches Cake
From InStyle
(Serves 10)
6 egg whites
3/4 cup sugar, divided
6 egg yolks
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened, condensed milk
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 1/2 tsp vanilla, divided
2 tbsp confectioners' sugar

1. Heat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour 9" spring form pan. 2. In medium bowl beat egg whites with half the sugar until stiff peaks form. 3. In a large bowl, beat together remaining sugar and egg yolks until thick and pale yellow in color. 4. Alternately fold egg whites and flour into egg yolks. Pour batter into prepared pan. 5. Bake in heated oven for 28-32 min. or until a pick insertd in the center comes out clean. Let cake sit in pan on wire rack for 10 min. 6. In medium bowl combine condensed milk, evaporated milk, 1 cup heavy cream and 1 tsp vanilla. 7. With wooden skewer poke holes in top of cake 1" apart. Pour milk mixture over top of cake. 8. Let sit 30 min. for cake to absorb the milk. Remove cake from pan. Cool completely before frosting. 9. In medium bowl, beat together remaining heavy cream, remaining 1/2 tsp anilla and confectioners' sugar until stiff peaks form. 10. Spread over top and sides of cake. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving.

Note: The true star of the evening. I'd never made one before and was delighted to see how easy it is. Unfortunately, I put the finishing touches on this after a few pink grapefruit margaritas and missed the note about refrigerating for 1 hour before serving. None of the guests seemed to notice, though Daniel brought the leftovers to work on Monday (after it refrigerated overnight) and said it was the perfect temperature by that point. Apparently, it mellowed out some of the sweetness, which probably explains why his co-workers were able to devour it first thing in the morning.

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