Archive | June, 2010

Homemade Mexican Restaurant Hot Sauce

30 Jun

You know how every Mexican restaurant (at least here in San Diego) has it’s own yummy hot sauce?  Typically there will be a salsa bar with pico de gallo and red and green hot sauce, sometimes onion and cilantro, etc.  It’s different at every restaurant, but always spicy and flavorful, adding a kick to burritos, tacos, eggs…  Whatever.

The only thing is – I make a lot of Mexican food at home.  And earlier this week I was making “carnitas” in my crock pot.  I decided to make some hot sauce of my own to go with.  We had some hot peppers from a plant one of hubby’s students gave him (they all matured at once, within a few days of his getting the plant, and we ended up drying them out).  I think they’re a type of jalapeno, but they don’t actually specify on the tag (they’re some sort of hybrid).

This is so good – fresh and spicy and incredibly flavorful.  Very different from anything you’d find in a jar.  And so very easy!    You could use fresh tomatoes if you have them, but make sure that they’re very tomato-ey (not the watery grocery store ones, please!).

Elisa’s Homemade Mexican Restaurant Hot Sauce

  • 1/2 small onion, diced
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1-2 ripe hot peppers, fresh or dried (obviously how many you use depends on how hot you want the hot sauce; start with a little bit and add as necessary)
  • 1/2 large sweet bell pepper, diced
  • 1 can (14-15 oz) diced tomatoes in juice
  • handful of fresh parsley or cilantro (I used parsley because my body can’t take cilantro at all – it makes me very sick to my stomach)
  • 1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Add a small amount of olive oil to a large sautee pan over medium heat.  Add onion, garlic, and peppers to the pan with a little salt.  Cook until softened and add tomatoes, vinegar, and parsley. 

All the ingredients hang out in a pan before blending... This is why the sauce tastes so fresh!

Allow pan to cook for another 2-5 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated and you can no longer smell the vinegar sharpness.  Pour into a blender or food processor and blend until mostly smooth.  Taste for heat and seasoning.  If needed, cook more pepper in your pan and add it to your blended hot sauce.  Season with salt and pepper and allow to cool.  Serve with tacos or burritos (you could probably also use this to cook with!). 

I know it doesn't look like much on its own, but it's SO good!

Makes approx. 1 1/2 cups of hot sauce; if you don’t eat it right away, freeze small portions in baggies to use later.



22 Jun

Updated at 10:10 am; hopefully the photos are showing up correctly now and not smushing together…  Sorry if it posts twice on your reader!

I harvested my first big haul from our garden this past weekend; I filled up my jumbo 6 quart vintage tupperware bowl to overflowing with lettuce – twice.  Some of our nine heads of Red Leaf Romaine and Black-Seeded Simpson were two feet across!  I also harvested several tiny yellow tomatoes from our Sungold plant and a couple of handfuls of basil.  I’ve previously pulled a few sprigs of parsley and some thyme and chives off their respective plants, and we had a few strawberries (I don’t know that they like their pot very much, unfortunately).

However, yesterday was our first real “harvest”, with a quantity of different yummy produce straight from the back yard.

First, photos of the yard as it is right now.  You’ll remember that this is how my tomatoes used to look:

The tomato bed a MONTH ago

 Today, it looks like this:

This is the same bed, one month later.

 I know it’s from a different angle and you can see the hedge my landlord butchered (and the house next door – oops!) in the lower photo…  But you can see what my neighbor meant about the elves coming in the middle of the night to make things grow.  It’s like a jungle!  The rest of the old photos of the garden can be found here; but there are a few more new ones:

The pepper bed isn't quite as dramatic as the tomato bed, but you can see that there's a ton of fruit on the plants! Pretty soon there will be sunflowers popping up by the fence in back - they're already almost a foot high!

Look at how big those artichokes have gotten! The middle squash is getting pretty huge too, and the spinach in the back is vining up the trellis!

 As you can see, our combination of weed control fabric and wood chip mulch hasn’t worked to completely keep the yard grass-free.  Unfortunately the grass in this yard is just too darn persistent.  But we have far less grass right now than we would have, if we hadn’t prepared the beds as we did.  And since we snaked soaker hoses underneath the fabric, we’re able to water deeply at all hours of the day.  Obviously the plants like the garden setup!

Now, on to my harvest:


Yes, that’s all from yesterday.  A huge yellow beet (planted back in April; later this year I plan to plant more for this winter), our first artichoke of the season, another strawberry, one more yellow tomato, some Thai basil, a squash flower, and our first “ripe” pepper (purple bell) and cucumbers (two small pickling-type and one lemon cucumber… mmmm, my favorite!). 

We had a nice salad at dinner and used as much of the produce as we could.  Everything tasted incredible except for the pepper, which must have turned color too early or something.  It tasted really bitter.  I’ve never had the best luck with bell peppers, which is why out of 9 pepper plants I only planted a single bell (the rest are the longer, thinner chile-type peppers, although most of them are very very very mild).

I’m also eagerly anticipating our first okra (already set on the plant), our first beans (the blossoms of which are about to burst open any day), our first squash (hopefully already set) and our first watermelon (growing in the front yard right now!):

This melon is about 3 inches long, definitely long enough for me to know that it's been fertilized, since the first few shriveled up at one inch, but still tiny!

Garden Update!

17 Jun

I came back from my trip earlier this week; when I walked outside, I almost shrieked.  The tomato bushes that were two feet wide by three feet tall with a few blossoms on them when I left were sprawling four foot-by-four-foot tomato trees laden with fruit.  The previously-anemic basil plants next to my back door were bursting with leaves and flowers.  The chard and the butternut squash grew several inches.  The watermelon is taking over its half of the front yard.  Our oldest artichoke plant has several buds on it.  The lettuce plants, little more than a few scraggly leaves when I got on the plane, each have several dozen leaves on them – and most are bigger than a man’s hand.

Every pepper plant, all but one tomato plant, and several cucumbers have set fruit.  The squash have all flowered (although it doesn’t look like any fruit took on the squash plants or the watermelons, which means they probably flowered when it was just too cold), as have both eggplants.  The okra look a little sad, but the sunflowers a few feet away went from tiny little shoots to proper seedlings.  And the beans, the tallest of which was about a foot when we left, are now climbing up the fence and even the gutter, higher than my head.

As my neighbor who watered for us commented, it’s as if the elves came one night.  Or we’re living at a vortex.  Something awesome happened, though, because suddenly the garden is just full of life.  We’ve harvested the first golden tomatoes from our Sungold plant, juicy tangy sweet things unlike any tomato you can buy, even at a Farmer’s Market.  And tomorrow night we’re planning a pesto from all the basil flowers I picked.

Now I’m off to buy a pumpkin seedling (because sadly our seeds never sprouted).  I’ll try to share photos soon!

My Beautiful Niece

14 Jun

I just got back from a whole week of visiting with my husband’s family.  I wanted to share a little bit here about one of my favorite parts of the whole week.  My niece.

You see, my niece, D, is six years old.  Her favorite animal is the penguin, and she could spend all day at the aquarium looking at them.  She loves swimming and kept wanting me to throw her into the pool. She’s an excellent eater – the night before we got there she had frog legs with her grandparents and we couldn’t find a thing that she wouldn’t eat happily (also – one of her favorite words is “Yummy”).  She likes the pretty fireworks, but not the loud ones.  She loves to read, but her favorite thing to do is have us show her flashcards so she can identify things.  And I have yet to find a picture flashcard she has that she didn’t know.  She loves to hear “Peanut, Peanut Butter, and Jelly!” over and over.  She hates to have her long beautiful hair brushed.  She doesn’t watch much TV at all, but she did throw a pretty good pitch in Wii baseball.  She plays sports off the Wii too – this year she was part of a soccer team and a baseball team.  She gives great big puckered up kisses but every once in a while she’ll lick your face instead.  She adores canoeing and will happily splash other boats, sticking her arms and legs over the side and into the water without fear (and once, her head!).  She loves to “fly” on knees, be flipped upside down, do summersaults, blow raspberries on bellies (and have them blown on her own!), and jump from her bed to the air mattress her grandma was sleeping on for part of this week.  She has the most gorgeous smile you’ve ever seen on a kid.

Oh yeah, and she has Downs Syndrome.

D is an amazing, amazing kid.  Downs or not, she’s a better eater than any ten kids I’ve known, combined, and is more fearless than many little girls quite a bit older than she is.  Like other little girls with Downs, D has her share of problems – she didn’t walk until she was 3 (although you’d never know it now, the way she tears about!).  She’s still in pull-ups.  She has trouble forming words “correctly”, although she communicates extremely well (just not all verbally – she uses a lot of American Sign Language and has taught a lot to her parents and grandparents; I took ASL for a year and a half in college, but she was making sure my hubby knew all her often-used signs before we left!).  In addition, she was born with a heart condition and had several surgeries before she was five years old.  And she’s got ADHD.  This kid has so much against her.

But D is a happy, sweet, loving little girl.  Probably more so than most her age.  She’s got impulse issues (she grabs a lot of things, like hair and computer keys and other people’s drinks), and doesn’t much like waiting.  But she’s learning – she knows not to touch things that are hot, and was very gentle with my sunglasses when she’d pluck them off my head (I’m told she used to be quite the glasses-breaker). 

And even though she doesn’t form words very well (I’m “A Li Li”, not quite “Aunt Elisa” yet), she picks things up.  She loves little songs.  On Monday my husband taught her “Peanut, Peanut Butter, and Jelly” (which she loves because it has a lot of hand motions too), and by the end of the week, if I paused at the proper places, she’d tell me that we were making Peanut Butter and “Lelly”, and that you needed to “Yew” and “Lallow” it.  She asked for that song so many times that we got sick of it, and ran the gamut of other cute/fun/interactive songs to sing with her.  She picked them each up, and before we left would ask for “Humpty Dumpty” by putting her fist on her head (to indicate the egg sitting on the wall, something my husband does when he sings the song), “The Little Green Frogs” by making the motion for their eyes (which, unfortunately, is the sign for owl, something I didn’t remember until after I taught it to her, although she does know that the song is about frogs, because she’ll do the sign for frogs to ask for it too), “The Skunk Song” by signing skunk (a very cute sign that indicates a skunk’s swishing tail and includes a held nose), and “Thumbkin” by making fists with each hand and moving her thumbs.  She also would ask her dad for the “Finger Family Up” song (even though hubby and I didn’t know it).  Of course “Peanut, Peanut Butter, and Jelly” was still the number one request!

If you read a book to her once, you can hand it to her and she’ll “read” it to you.  She’ll say or sign words she knows at the right pages – she was paying enough attention to know where they go.  And she’s quick to learn new words too – it wasn’t two days before she was trying to say “Aunt Elisa”, and before we left I taught her the sign for “smart” (which her dad said he’d never seen her do before – the first few times I just showed her, and then had her do it with me, but our last day I said that she was so smart, and she did the sign unprompted).  I blew raspberries once on her tummy and she wanted to do the same to me.

We had such a fantastic time with her – first in the Smoky Mountains where she did her ABCs and learned the PBJ song (she wasn’t all that into deer and trees), and then in Pigeon Forge where she rode the go-karts (once with her daddy and once with my hubby, who said she just wanted to go faster!), and at her baseball game (she plays in the Miracle League, where all sorts of special needs kids come together to play with one another – her favorite part is batting, and she’s good at it!),  in her pool (where she loved splashing, throwing balls, and being tossed in the water).  I made pizza with her (she got to squish her hands in the dough of her own pie, and then apply sauce and toppings – at a rate of 6 or 7 in her mouth to every one on the pizza!).  We went canoeing, which she loved (she’d tap her grandma to get her attention, and then splash her as soon as she turned around!). 

We had a great time with the rest of hubby’s family too – my Sister-in-Law and I helped my Mother-in-Law look through a ton of photos, and we had nightly Wii tournaments and great food.  But D is the reason I left a little of my heart back in Alabama.  When my Brother-in-Law took us to the airport (after hubby’s other brother and mom had taken D to stay with her other grandma for a few days), the back seat (where I’d sat with her on a ton of car trips) looked so bare I wanted to cry.  I had actually cried as they pulled away.  Hubby joked yesterday that it was too quiet and he felt like he needed to sing “Peanut, Peanut Butter, and Jelly” to someone.  The sad thing is that the next time we see her she’ll be so much different, even if we do manage a visit next year (the last time we saw her before this was at our wedding over a year and a half ago, and before that I’d seen her only twice – the first of which was when her parents came out here for a visit when hubby and I were first dating).  Honestly, I don’t want to move to the South, but seeing D all the time would be the only thing that would make me consider it.

For now I’ve got 2500 photos and a dozen or so short videos, and hubby and I are planning a little something special for her (that her parents will probably hate, but who cares?).  And I miss my beautiful, incredible, smart, loving, awesome niece so much it hurts.

Yes I know I’d normally include photos in a post like this, especially since I took so many, but truthfully if I were her parents it would creep me out to have my kid’s face splashed all over the internet, so I didn’t even ask…  If you know me personally you’ll probably not escape seeing a ton of them, never fear!

Pasta Primavera

10 Jun

I hesitate to call this a ‘recipe’, because mostly it’s a “try to use up whatever is in the fridge and make it taste good” kind of a thing.  We had a ton of beautiful vegetables from our latest CSA box and I was so excited about using them!  I decided on a pasta primavera so I could taste several of the veggies at once.  Now, this is a go-to meal for me when we have fresh veggies around the house, and I never quite make it the same way twice, so I’ll just share the basic technique and a pretty photo.

Pasta Primavera

  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3-5 cloves garlic, minced
  • uncooked chicken, shrimp, sausage, or other meat (optional; I used two chicken thighs and cut them into small pieces)
  • A combination of your favorite vegetables; I used 1/2 of a red bell pepper, 1 large carrot, a handful of mushrooms, a handful of green beans, a few baby yellow squash, and a tomato)
  • handful fresh basil, chopped
  • sprig fresh parsley, chopped
  • cooked pasta
  • grated parmesan cheese

The technique is the key with this dish.  When you’re chopping vegetables, keep long-cooking veggies with long-cooking veggies and short-cooking veggies with short-cooking veggies.  I kept the carrots and bell pepper together (and if I’d had celery in the house, it would have gone in with them), added the mushrooms and tomato (this was a big tomato, without a ton of flavor, but if I’d had little cherry tomatoes I might have added them at the end so they still tasted very fresh) next, and followed that with the beans and yellow squash (which would have gone in with the mushrooms if it would have been more mature – as it was, I ate an entire baby squash whole because it was so sweet and tender).

So the idea is this: In a large frying pan over medium heat, swirl the olive oil.  Throw in the onion and cook it until it starts to soften and look translucent.  Add the garlic with just a dash of salt and some cracked pepper – I undersalt because I like to add lots of salty parmesan on top – and add the harder long-cooking vegetables and cook for 5-7 minutes or until they begin to soften (the carrots won’t be soft at the end, but rather sort of crisp and fresh).  Add the chicken or other meat (if using; if you’re using shrimp, wait a bit) and cook until it doesn’t look totally raw anymore, but it’s still not cooked through (2-3 minutes).  Add the medium-cooking vegetables (mushrooms, large tomatoes, large zucchini, etc., and shrimp, if you’re using it) and cook until they begin to soften (2-3 minutes).  Add the short-cooking vegetables and cook until they begin to soften (1-2 minutes).  Toss the cooked pasta with the primavera sauce and top with lots of grated parmesan cheese!

It’s a beautiful way to use fresh veggies, a fast and easy dinner, and so incredibly flavorful.  Use whatever you like, or whatever you have in the fridge.  Just be careful to separate your veggies as you cut them so you can add them at the right time.

Caprese Salad

6 Jun

Caprese salad is a feature on lots of Italian restaurant menus; the classic combination of tomato, basil, and mozzarella cheese is hard to beat.  So often, though, I’ve had mealy, tasteless tomatoes with large hunks of rubbery cheese and a sprinkling of tired basil – and that’s just not worth my time or money.  But if you do it right, caprese is a flavorful, refreshing summertime meal.

This is my go-to dish for parties and potlucks.  It’s quick and easy, especially if you have a local Trader Joe’s to shop at (I use one box of basil, three boxes of tomatoes, and the cheese that looks the best to me).  This recipe makes enough for a ton of people – at least 10-15 – so half it if you’ve got a significantly smaller group (or plan on leftovers!). 

Elisa’s Caprese Salad

  • 36 oz cherry, grape, or pear tomatoes (the best-tasting ones you can find, please!)
  • 18 oz good mozzarella cheese (you’ll see below that in the photo I used the ciligine size; I actually prefer the fresh log-shaped mozzarella, as I find it tends to taste a little better and be easier to work with…)
  • 4 oz fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp granulated garlic (this is the dehydrated stuff – NOT garlic powder or garlic salt…  Otherwise you can use one clove of fresh garlic, minced or pressed very fine, but be careful – fresh garlic can take this dish over!)
  • 1/4 tsp dry parsley (I suppose you could use fresh here, but I worry about fresh parsley overtaking the basil flavor, as it often can)

The method to this dish is simple.  Cut, drain, mix.

First, cut the tomatoes.  Depending on how large they are, I either cut them into halves or quarters.  Just make sure they’re all as close to bite-sized as you can get them.  It’s important to cut the tomatoes to allow them to really marinate in the dressing, so even if you find really tiny ones, take the time to do this.  As you cut them, lay the cut side down on a paper towel and let them sit for at least 10 minutes, or until you’re finished cutting the rest of your ingredients.  This will drain some of the juice out of the tomatoes so that your caprese salad isn’t swimming in tomato juice.

Drain your halved tomatoes on paper towels before adding them to the bowl

As your tomatoes drain, cut the cheese into bite-sized pieces.  I like to cut my mozzarella into pieces just slightly smaller than my tomatoes, but do whatever you prefer.  I’ve used all sorts of mozzarella in this dish, and I prefer to cut pieces from the log-shaped cheese rather than use small pieces of cheese, even though using cheese that’s already shaped into small pieces is less labor-intensive, because I find that the flavor is better.

Mozzarella cheese

Separate your basil into piles of large leaves and small leaves before trying to cut it.  I like to cut my small leaves all at once, chopping with my knife as best I can, while I roll my large leaves into a cigar-shape and chiffonade them (cut into thin strips).  I tried to take photos of this but just couldn’t handle the camera and the knife at once – if you’re curious, though, you can certainly google “chiffonade” and come up with the step-by-step technique.

Basil chiffonade

In a separate bowl or measuring cup, mix the dressing together.  Add all the remaining ingredients (oil through dry parsley, above) and whisk until blended.

Oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic, and parsley

Many restaurant caprese salads don’t include balsamic vinegar, but I think that it brings excellent flavor to the dish.  Once the dressing is whisked, add the tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil to a large bowl, pour the dressing over the salad, and mix carefully with a big spoon until combined.

Pour dressing over salad ingredients

Refrigerate 1-3 hours or overnight (the basil stays nice and green for the first few hours, but wilts in the fridge, even though the flavors of the whole dish intensify).


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