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 home to herself, and we love showing each other favourite ingredients and tricks. When she’s traveling to film episodes of her 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 chilli-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 and drink 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 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 chilli pieces that have all been gently simmered in a good amount of oil, making it more akin to Chinese chilli 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 3 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
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 chillies and nuts that you like, cook in oil until the ingredients change colour and smell toasty, then season with vinegar and your favorite 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 1 month or more, food-safety experts recommend refrigerating this for no more than 1 week or freezing for up to 6 months. (Tip: Freeze what you’re not going to eat in within 1 week, and thaw ½ cup to 1 cup at a time to then use within a week.)
Where to buy: Most well-stocked supermarkets carry a good selection of dried chillies, but you can find an even wider selection in Latin or international groceries. Amaranth seeds can be found in natural foods stores or Latin or international groceries.
Active time: 15 minutes | Total time: 30 minutes
240ml extra-virgin olive oil
120ml neutral vegetable oil, such as sunflower
5 dried ancho chillies, stemmed, seeded and cut with scissors into small pieces
4 to 5 dried chillies de arbol, stemmed and cut with scissors into small pieces (with seeds)
6 garlic cloves, sliced
80ml raw unsalted walnuts
40g raw unsalted pistachios
50g raw unsalted pine nuts
60ml apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
1 tbsp dark brown sugar or grated piloncillo, plus more to taste
1 tsp fine salt, plus more to taste
40g hulled raw unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
60g amaranth seeds (may substitute sunflower or sesame seeds)
In a medium frying pan over medium heat, heat the olive and vegetable oils until shimmering. Add the ancho chillies, chillies de arbol, garlic, walnuts, pistachios and pine nuts, and cook, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned and the mixture is fragrant, about 5 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 to 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 (2 tablespoons): 197 calories, 2g protein, 6g carbohydrates, 19g fat, 2g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 100mg sodium, 1g dietary fibre, 1 g sugar.
Recipe adapted from ‘Treasures of the Mexican Table’ by Pati Jinich (Harvest, 2021).
Avocado toast with salsa macha
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 chillies 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.
Where to buy: Shelf-stable German-style bread, such as Mestemacher brand sunflower, rye or pumpernickel, can be found in many supermarkets or health food stores.
Time: 10 minutes
1 ripe avocado, halved, pitted and sliced
2 slices German brown bread, such as Mestemacher brand, cut in half crosswise and toasted until quite crisp
¼ 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 2 tablespoons salsa macha) | calories: 486; total fat: 30g; saturated fat: 4g; cholesterol: 0mg; sodium: 375mg; carbohydrates: 52g; dietary fibre: 14g; sugar: 3g; protein: 8g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Recipe adapted by Joe Yonan, based on a dish by Pati Jinich, author of ‘Treasures of the Mexican Table’ (Harvest, 2021).
© The Washington Post