Sunday, March 22, 2009

Homemade Chips and Salsa: Welcome to the Apocalypse

My best friend, other than my husband, is a boy named Patrick. I know there's that "When Harry Met Sally" theory that men and women can't be friends, and I do understand the reasoning behind that. But Patrick and I are an exception to the rule. Patrick was my "Man of Honor" at my wedding (calming me in that terrifying hour before the ceremony with a beautiful cheese platter he made and peach bellinis), he's let me cry and complain about boyfriends for months on end, and he held my hand firmly through the unexpected loss of a friend. He's the only person I can count on to tell me if I'm being stupid or selfish or lousy in any way, but even as he puts me in my place, I know he loves me just the same.

Having a best friend who is also a boy can confuse people, which I understand, especially when platonic sleepovers are involved. My own dad had a theory that I would marry Patrick. And when I first became serious with Paul, I remember being nervous about dropping the bomb that my best friend is a straight male. Paul was very understanding, and simply asked that there be no future sleep-overs at Patrick's house. Fair enough.

There are a lot of things I treasure about my friendship with Patrick. But the thing that is most unique about us is our chemistry in the kitchen.

For some reason, from the very beginning, we have had the easiest time cooking together. It's effortless: we are excited by the same things, we have a rhythm that should have taken years to earn, and we inspire each other to take each dish to the next level. It's as though our friendship thrives in the kitchen.

There's no competition, no ego, no ownership of the dishes we make. We never discuss strategy when approaching a meal, we just kind of fall into our roles, one taking a natural lead on a dish with the other contributing ideas and support. There's always a lot of culinary improv with us, which I love; a lot of "how about if we throw in some of this" repartee. We can even snatch the spatula out of the other person's hand if things are going south, and there are no hurt feelings. We are equals, no matter who's the better cook, even when he's scolding me for being overly-nervous about cooking meats, or when I teach him a trick I've seen a thousand times on the Food Network. We are equals because it's not about proving anything or impressing each other, it's about enjoying the adventure together, no matter the outcome.

Our partnership in the kitchen was solidified a couple years ago when Patrick sent me some form of electronic message with these magic words: Deep Fried Cornish Game Hens. My heart started pounding. (My heart always skips a beat at the thought of food, but I get a complete adrenaline rush from making dangerous foods that I've never attempted before.) We decided we should share the idea with friends and invite them over. Patrick called the event the Cornish Game Hen Apocalypse, since the party revolved around sending the little birds to a fiery end.

When I showed up, Patrick handed me a gallon of oil, a candy thermometer, and my own pair of protective goggles, saying, "Are you ready for the Apocalypse?" And thus began a new era.

That night we deep fried six hens, and each guest got their own golden juicy bird (complete with the little paper crowns on the drumsticks). Since then, we've had an "Apocalypse" party for everything from paella to Eggs Benedict. Last night was the Colombian Apocalypse.

It was a very simple menu, typical of Colombia - marinated grilled flank steak, roasted red potatoes, fried plantains, halved avocados and the green Colombian salsa I fell in love with, called aji. And of course, all-the-mojitos-you-can-drink.

It was one of the easier apocalypse dinners, so Patrick and I didn't spend too much time in the planning of it. But about five minutes before people were to start arriving, Patrick turned to me and said, "We don't have an appetizer, do we think this is a problem?"

THIS is what I love about the apocalypse series. Nothing is too fussed about or worried over, which means that we get the thrill of desperate searches through the cupboards and refrigerator five minutes before the guests arrive, to try to improvise something delicious. Patrick had a fresh bag of corn tortillas, so I suggested we could make tortilla chips. Without skipping a beat, he gave me a simple nod and told me, "Fire it up."

So I glugged some canola oil into a pan, sliced the tortillas into triangles, threw them into the heat and five minutes later I was just salting them as the door bell rang with our guests.

And with the enormous feast we served that night, the tortilla chips were the most talked-about.

My mom used to make them all the time. I think I was in middle school before I realized you could even get them out of a bag. They're crunchy and light and full of flavor, and amazing when they're still warm. And they're so easy to make, once you make them, you'll hesitate before going back to the bag.

And the aji. Oh! The aji! Spicy and verdant with a lovely little lip smack from lemon and vinegar. We poured it on our steak and dipped our roasted potatoes in it. It's bright and refreshing and completely addictive. I would put it on tacos or grilled shrimp... I think I could put it on pretty much anything, it's that good. And takes all of five minutes to throw together.

I recommend making the aji salsa at least three hours in advance so the flavors can meld together, and making the chips right before you eat them so they're still warm. And be sure to get plenty of tortillas, as it's pretty much a sure thing you'll be making a second or third batch right away.

(This picture is not great, I know, but I blame the mojitos.)


1 doz. corn tortillas (or more, depending on desired amount)
Oil for frying, preferably conola or vegetable oil (not olive oil)
Salt to taste

Into a large skillet, pour enough oil to completely cover a single layer of tortillas, about an inch deep. Put skillet over medium high heat.

Placing a stack of tortillas on a cutting, board, cut tortillas in half, creating half moons. Then cut each stack of halved tortillas into three triangles.

To test the oil, put one triangle (or a piece of one) into the skillet. The oil should immediately bubble quite happily around the edges of the tortilla as soon as it's submerged, but should not bubble so much as to strike fear or panic into you.

Once the oil is hot enough, carefully put a single layer of tortilla triangles into the pan. After about thirty seconds, the side of the tortilla facing up should start to form bubbles. Using tongs or a spatula, flip each triangle over, and cook for another minute or so, until tortilla is just golden and hard when touched with tongs or spatula. If you take them out too early, they will be oily and chewy. If they get too dark they can taste burnt. A nice light golden color is best, and they should not bend or give when touched by the tongs.

Remove chips from oil and transfer to a platter covered with paper towels. Immediately salt to taste -- the salt will stick to the chips better when they're still piping hot. Repeat with another batch of tortillas until you've reached desired amount.

AJI (Colombian Green Salsa)

10 jalapeno peppers, seeded*
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups chopped green onions
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons salt

In a blender, combine jalapenos, water, vinegar, lemon juice, green onions, cilantro and salt. Blend until almost smooth; refrigerate until ready to serve.

*This recipe calls for a large amount of jalapenos, but is not actually too spicy, since the seeds are removed. If you like a lot of heat, feel free to include some seeds, but definitely not all.


  1. Thank you for another delicious apocalypse. You only barely mentioned them, but the plantains deserve a separate round of applause.


  2. I loved reading this post! How awesome!

  3. Thanks for sharing this fine piece of writing. I enjoyed reading about the apocalypse, and I look forward to reading more.

    I'm especially excited to try the Aji recipe. It sounds like it could become a staple on our summer table.

    take care,

  4. It took me a month to do it, but I finally tried this recipe. I was nervous about the 10 jalapenos, but all was well. It's a tart salsa that probably scares off most Kansans because we don't like to have our tastebuds overwhelmed.

    I liked it. It's a nice complement to the other salsas that were on our table.