Winter. Ugh. I consider its redeeming qualities to be few: hearty bowls of pasta; hot chocolate (note: chocolate, not cocoa); fireplaces; and the occasional sparkling snowfall are as many as I can list. Oh, and multicolored citrus. Thank goodness for pretty citrus. When it's dull, dreary and frigid outside, regular bites of vibrancy are all the more important. Cara caras, minneolas, blood oranges and satsumas: These are barren winter's jewels.
Sumac is another pantry gem. The dried, pulverized berries of the sumac plant are fruity, citrusy and earthy, as if lemons, dried cherries, salt and dried oregano went out in the woods and got real. I grew up showering my basmati rice with the stuff, and today I throw it into vinaigrette, stir it into yogurt with garlic and salt, sprinkle it on pasta aglio e olio, on eggs with thyme...it goes on. Here's one properly bright way to put it, and those citrusy jewels, to use:
Orange Salad with Sumac Vinaigrette
Orange juice squeezed from the bits of fruit left on the citrus peels (see below)
Sumac (a hefty pinch or two)
Fruity olive oil (the best you have!)
Salt & pepper
Oranges (blood and cara cara are the two used here), with the peel and pith cut off (and saved -- see above), and fruit sliced into rounds
Radicchio leaves, torn
Dill or fennel tops, roughly chopped
Parmesan, shaved into strips with a vegetable peeler
Make the vinaigrette: Stir together the ingredients, adding more sumac than you think is reasonable (it's reasonable, I promise). Pour the vinegar with a light hand; the vinaigrette should be fruity, citrusy and just gently acidic.
Combine the salad ingredients, except for the Parmesan, and toss with the vinaigrette. Plate the salad, and top it with the shaved parmesan and another turn of the pepper grinder.
In the small beach town of Troncones, as with many of the best small beach towns, eating is the main event. Sure, there are sun and surf and sand. But in this tiny dot on Mexico's central Pacific coast, they're mostly filler between meals. This is a place where beer is cheaper than water, seafood is dreamily fresh, and margaritas are made just as they should be: with tequila, lime juice and Cointreau; shaken; and served on the rocks.
It's a special place, one that's largely undeveloped and undiscovered. In its honor, a few (culinary) lessons learned on a recent trip, and then a few pictures:
* Key limes have transformative, nearly magical powers. They turn Pacificos and Victorias into the apotheosis of beachside thirst quenching. Freshly fried tortilla chips need little more than a squeeze of them and a sprinkle of salt. Pounded in a mortar with green chiles, they are the secret to the finest camarones en aguachile and tiritas, strips of huachinango (red snapper) tangled with slivered red onion.
* Pretty much everything tastes better when doused with mojo de ajo, especially grilled lobster.
* Walking 2+ miles from Troncones to the tiny fishing town of Playa Majahua for lunch at Doña Martha, a humble, open-walled seafood shack on the beach, is a excellent decision (see previous point and below lobster photo).
* When served within sight of the ocean, machaca -- shredded beef popular in Mexico's cattle-heavy northern states -- is made with fish, and studded with pineapple and raisins. The meaty, sweet/savory/spiced/tomato-y braise is served room-temperature, with tortilla chips, and wouldn't taste out of place on a table in Tangier.
* Fruity, gently spicy guajillo chiles + garlic = true love (aka "al ajillo," Mexican style). Slice dried guajillos into rings, sliver or mince a monstrous amount of garlic, and add both to a pan of olive oil over low heat. Let it all mingle and seep and sauté; as the garlic is just beginning to color, crank up the heat and add some shrimp. (If the shrimp are staggeringly fresh, butterfly the back and cook them with the legs and the shell on. The legs, once crisped and tangled with garlicky chile oil, are arguably the best part of the thing. If not staggeringly fresh, peel away.) Finish the pan with salt and a squeeze of lemon or lime, and serve, as most all seafood in this area is (rightly) served, with fresh tortillas and a beer.