secret ingredient

I started college during Summer term back in 2002, about a week after I graduated from high school. That very first semester in college, I had a roommate from Mexico. She was one of the kindest, most sincerely generous people I've ever met. There were 6 of us girls in the same apartment, and she was basically our mommy. And she showed her love through food. That was one thing I loved about her. Not only because I got to eat that delicious food, but because she really put so much of herself into it. She had such a passion for the food and for the people she was serving it to. And whenever people talk about love being the secret ingredient in good food, I think of Alejandra. She did just that.
She inspired my obsession with cilantro, admittedly and ingredient I had never used before I met her. I'd eaten it, but definitely had never purchased it. And now, I can't live without it. I grow it in my garden, and still have to buy more at the store by mid-Summer. And thanks to her, I can make a mean salsa. Still somehow not as good as when she made it, but it's still pretty darn good. And I always have to credit her.
I've made a few alterations since, and let me tell you why. It's not out of disrespect, I promise. They are by no means improvements, just alterations. That's the beauty of this recipe. It's SO versatile. She always made it with avocados, but they can very easily be omitted for a simple fresh salsa. My sister once added fresh sautéed corn and black beans, and it was AMAZING.
 But then, several years after I lost touch with Alejandra, the choir I was a part of got to travel to San Antonio, Texas. The heart of Tex Mex. I know, I know, I shouldn't mix the two. Alejandra made Mexican food, Tex Mex is it's own beautiful thing. And mixing Asian food is so not my thing, so I realize I'm being a complete hypocrite. But when you learn what I learned, I think you'll forgive me. My friend who is a total foodie and also a member of my choir went to a restaurant that I missed out on. He said their salsa was just like mine, but added the juice of 1/4 of an orange to it also. I was so curious that I had to try it. And there was no turning back. That tiny bit of sweet acidity added to the lime is a miracle!
And so, out of respect for Alejandra, there is no substitute for her secret ingredient, but I found one that made me feel a little closer to the perfect flavor she got out of her ingredients.

basic secret ingredient salsa
juice of 1~2 limes, depending on acidity and juiciness of the limes
juice of 1/4 navel orange, again depending on the juiciness of that particular orange
2 lbs sweet, quality tomatoes, diced (this time I used a combination of red and yellow cherry tomatoes)
1 bunch cilantro, chopped very fine
1/2 vidalia onion, diced small (or for color I'll use a red onion. But make sure you chop it ahead and soak it in cold water, replacing the water 2~3 times, for at least 30 minutes, to remove that pungent raw onion flavor)
kosher salt to taste

  1. combine all ingredients into bowl. Season with salt to taste.
variation additions:
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 cups fresh sauteed corn
2~3 large hass avocadoes, diced

plain and simple

My mom often says, "simple is best." And as a teenager, I remember being a little annoyed with her mantras that she would enthusiastically repeat, but this one I agree with.
And though when it comes to my kitchen equipment addiction I may not be the poster child of simplicity, when it comes to the cooking itself, I try to emulate this idea. I really believe in appreciating the flavors of each ingredient. I had a new friend over for dinner tonight, and she paid me the highest compliment I've ever received--or desired to receive. She took a bite and said she's never eaten spaghetti and meatballs with so much flavor. Now, I promise you I don't have the best spaghetti and meatballs recipe out there. No way I can out-cook a real Italian grandma. Not even close. But she got exactly what my passion for food is all about. Flavor. REAL flavor. And it was really exciting to have someone get my food philosophy in one bite.
So I was inspired to share with you my absolute favorite way to cook asparagus. It makes the asparagus taste like ... asparagus! No hiding or altering or adding. I want to highlight that grassy, earthy, almost bitter but somehow sweet, complex flavor that only asparagus has. And I think the best way to do that is by roasting it. And the ingredient list is short. Asparagus, good quality olive oil, salt and pepper. And if you've never tried it, it'll change your life.

Roasted Asparagus
2 1/2 lbs fresh asparagus
2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Hold one spear of asparagus by the end and about the middle and bend it until it snaps. Cut all spears about the length that it naturally broke at. Peel the bottom inch or so.
  3. Place the trimmed and peeled asparagus spears on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Place in the preheated oven and bake for about 15 minutes, until tips are crisp and stalks are browned. Serve warm.

makes me so happy

The farmer's market here in Bloomington, IN is in full bloom now, and I might be the happiest person. I look forward to Saturday mornings. I always go to the same guy in the back corner that sells the best shiitake mushrooms I've ever tasted (outside of Japan, of course;)), and then as a family we paruse the beautiful colors and smells and buy what inspires us. My kids always ask for some peaches, and how can I deny them? This week, I bought these gorgeous string beans, purple and green.
I've made hoisin string beans, and plain old blanched beans with garlic butter. My 2 favorite ways to eat them.

My own garden is actually growing this year, too! I have heirloom beefsteak tomatoes that are till green, but getting bigger and more asymmetrical everyday, and I can't wait to make some big, fat sandwiches with on some crusty bread with plenty of Japanese mayo. And tonight, I used my own home grown rosemary, parsely, and basil in spaghetti and meatballs.

I love Summer. All of this produce is so inspiring! What's your favorite fresh vegetable or fruit to eat and cook with in the Summer?