A new book, AMOR Y TACOS, by Chef Deborah Schneider, contains everything you need to know to create a little 'Mexico' right in your own kitchen. While there are big plate recipes aplenty (don't miss the Shrimp Tacos Dorado!), some of my favorites are the antojitos (little bites—Mexican tapas). Our old 'heavy hors d'oeuvres' have become all the rage, but now we're calling them tapas or small plates. What has changed is the expansion into many different ethnic cuisines, and Mexican is surely one of the best.
Toritos (little peppers, stuffed with garlic, shrimp and oaxaca cheese) are colorful and delicious. Topped with mango salsa and pomegranate seeds, the flavors go from sweet to hot and back again. They can be prepared well in advance, and cooked just before serving, which also gives them extra credit on my score card.
Makes 8 stuffed peppers. Test the collective machismo of your gathering with these delicious little peppers oozing with cheese, garlic and sweet shrimp. I like to use different colors of small peppers--an ensemble of yellow guero, jalapeno, and red lipstick or other sweet miniature peppers looks particularly attractive. If you use jalapenos or gueros, they will definitely be spicy. Toritos take just a minute to make, and they can be prepared ahead and finished in the oven. The fillings can be varied according to the season; sauteed sweet corn is a very good addition.
8 small pointed peppers, about 3 inches long
1 T butter
1 1/2 tsp. minced fresh garlic
1 green onion, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 oz. medium raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, and coarsely chopped to yield about 3/4 cup
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup shredded good-quality Oaxaca, Jack, or mozzarella cheese
Mango Habaerno Salsa*
Pomegranate Seeds or Toasted Pepitas (optional)
1)Wash and dry the chile peppers, leaving the stems on. Wearing disposable gloves to keep the hot oil off your skin, cut a slit down one side of each pepper. Use a slim blunt knife or a tool such as the handle of a teaspoon to carefully scrape out all the seeds. Work carefully so you don't break the pepper or dislodge its stem.
2)In a 10 inch saute pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and green onion and cook until fragrant, but not browned. Add the chopped shrimp, season with salt, and cook, stirring often, until the shrimp are pink and firm. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, about 10 minutes.
3)Stir in the shredded cheese. The mixture should hold its shape. If it is too crumbly, turn it out on a cutting board and chop until it sticks together.
4)Use a small teaspoon to gently fill each pepper with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the shrimp mixture. The filling should be generous. At this point, if you wish, you can refrigerate the stuffed peppers, covered, for up to 24 hours.
5)Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat an ovenproof cast-iron griddle or pan over medium-high heat. Lay a sheet of foil on the griddle and set the peppers on top. Roast the peppers on all sides until they are browned in places and are starting to get soft and wrinkled.
6)Transfer the griddle or pan to the oven and bake for 5-7 minutes, until the filling is hot and bubbly.
7)Arrange the stuffed peppers on a warm serving plate and top each with a spoonful of mango salsa. Scatter with the pomegranate seeds or pepitas, if using, and serve right away with cilantro sprigs.
*Mango Habanero Salsa
(Habanero chile is very spicy--that's part of the fun--but you can substitute a milder chile, or leave it out altogether, if you prefer.)
3/4 cup firm but ripe mango, peeled and cut into 3/8 inch dicd
1/2 cup roma tomato, cored and cut into small dice
2 T finely diced red onion
1/2 tsp. minced habanero chile
1 T fresh-squeezed lime juice, or to taste
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. rice vinegar
1/2 tsp. chopped fresh mint leaves
1 T chopped cilantro
Combine all the ingredients. Taste for seasoning; the salsa should be full-flavored, both sweet and very hot. You may need to add more lime juice or salt. This salsa should be used within 2 hours.
Another favorite is Chef Schneider's Carne Asada Taco Vampiro (you'll have to read the book to better understand the name—has to do with being so good, it needs to be immortal). In this recipe quesadillas are married to tacos, the offspring being quesotacos, and super-delicous. Just imagine a cheese quesadilla topped with carne asada and finished with grated Jack cheese, thinly sliced chiles and green onions, guacamole, pico de gallo, chipotle salsa and a little cilantro (did I miss anything?). I guess you could be a pig and eat the whole thing (that's what I did), or you could half or quarter and share.
Pair all this deliciousness with a Mexican Mohito or Sangria and the rest will take care of itself!
(Deborah Schneider is a chef and author of the award-winning Baja! Cooking on the Edge (Rodale) and Cooking with the Seasons (STC), nominated for a 2009 James Beard Award. She is the executive chef and partner in SOL Cocina in Newport Beach, California. Schneider lives with her family in San Diego.)