Labor Day dinner with all the fixin's –– it's the last, delicious meal of summer and the stuff James and I dream of. Too bad we can't agree on what to cook and the dinnertime drama sticks us with boring grilled chicken every time. (Please tell me we're not the only ones this happens to…)
When you stick a self-taught cookbook author and a classically-trained fancy chef in the same kitchen –– in the same marriage –– there's bound to be a supper stand-off or two. I want light proteins and bright flavors, James isn't happy without his pork or steak fix and, by now, our 4 year-old is begging us to make a kitchen compromise. Is there a meal to please both palates and restore marital harmony? Hell yes.
A late-summer Mexican feast with light, healthful, marinades, salsas, salads and salt rubs that lean heavily on spices and cilantro –– and go easy on saturated fats –– bridge the great dinnertime divide. Big, bold flavors equal big smiles. And the best part? You can cook nearly the entire meal outside. The dinnertime drama ends here.
1. Jalapeño Margaritas
2. 'Chorizo' Rub for Chicken, Shrimp & Beef
3. Charred Scallion-Jalapeno Salsa
4. Corn, Avocado, Tomato Salad with Basil Vinaigrette
5. Papas Bravas
6. Smoked Paprika-Garlic Aioli
THE GAME PLAN
When it's time eat, everyone gets exactly what they want as they build their own plates. Simply lay out the dishes and let everyone choose their own dining adventure. Charred scallion-cilantro salsa is the perfect thing to drizzle over a soft taco filled with spice-rubbed, grilled meat or as a dressing on lettuces for a tortilla-free meal. The smoked paprika-sriracha dipping sauce is the ultimate place to dunk crispy oven-roasted potatoes, but try spreading it on the base of a tortilla before building your taco and you'll wonder how you survived so long without it. Grilled corn, tomato and avocado salad is a versatile side that's delicious on its own, spooned over grilled fish or served in a bowl lined with chips as hearty dip. Or, do like Jamie and pile everything on a tortilla until he can barely fold it! One bite of taco, one sip of jalapeño marg, one bit of taco… For a killer, on-theme dessert with zero effort, scoop vanilla ice cream into a bowl and dust with ground cinnamon and a pinch cayenne, then drizzle with warm chocolate sauce.
4 oz (1/2 cup) fresh lime juice
4 oz (1/2 cup) lime-jalapeño simple syrup (recipe below)
2 oz (1/4 cup) triple sec
6 oz (3/4 cup) tequila (We like Don Julio Blanco)
kosher salt for glasses
lime wedges and rounds of fresh jalapeño for garnish (optional)
Combine the lime juice, lime-jalapeño simple syrup, triple sec, tequila and several ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. Shake well until chilled. Strain through the top of the cocktail shaker into salt-rimmed martini glasses or rocks glasses filled with ice. Garnish with fresh lime wedges and float a few rounds of freshly sliced jalapeno.
LIME-JALAPENO SIMPLE SYRUP
Makes enough for 4 batches
zest of 4 limes removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups sugar
1 fresh jalapeno, sliced into rounds
In a medium saucepot, combine the lime zest, salt, sugar and water. When small bubbles begin to form, and the mixture has almost reached a boil, remove from the heat. Add sliced jalapeno rounds to the hot simply syrup. Stir well so all the sugar dissolves. Remove to a glass jar or heat-proof container. Will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
• Once you've enjoyed a homemade margarita with real, fresh lime juice there's no going back. Just beware- While tequila is easy to come by, squeezing fresh lime juice takes a few minutes and requires a bit of muscle. Never run out of the good stuff by putting your party guests to work: pass out citrus presses and small bowls so everyone can help with lime-juicing duties.
• Float rounds of thinly sliced jalapeno in the margaritas for a pretty - spicy! - touch.
(for chicken, shrimp or beef)
Makes enough for 2 pounds of protein
1 tablespoon smoked paprika (pimento de la vera)
¼ teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon dark chili powder
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a small bowl, mix together all the spices. After generously seasoning protein (chicken, shrimp or beef) with kosher salt, add the spice mixture and rub until well coated. Set aside protein for at least 10 minutes and then grill, sear or oven roast protein to desired level of doneness.
• Always season beef twice for maximum flavor. When you return from the grocery store or butcher, take it out of the packaging, salt well and then wrap in butcher or parchment paper. Season again right before you cook or add a spice rub.
• Make sure to pat proteins dry -- beef in particular -- before searing on a grill pan or cooking on an outdoor grill. The best char comes from dry proteins.
• Any spices that aren't stocked at your local grocery store can be ordered online from Spice Hunter
CHARRED SCALLION-CILANTRO SALSA
Makes 1 cup salsa
1 bunch scallions, trimmed
1 head garlic, roasted (recipe below)
1 bunch cilantro
2 limes, zested and juiced
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Preheat broiler or light outdoor grill.
Lightly oil the scallions and whole jalapeno and place directly on the grill grates or on a baking sheet and char until skin is blackened and almost begins to flake off. Set aside to cool slightly. Roughly chop the scallions. Remove the skin and seeds from the charred jalapeno.
In a food processor, combine the cilantro, roasted garlic, scallions and jalapenos in a food processor and pulse until well chopped. Add the juice of 2 limes and 1 tablespoon zest and stir in the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator up to 10 days.
Preheat oven to 375˚ F.
With a sharp knife, cut off the top 1/3 of garlic head. Place in the middle of a large sheet of tin foil, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Gather and seal the tin foil until it looks like a large Hershey Kiss.
Place in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cloves are tender and can be easily squeezed from garlic head.
• The best soft tacos are all about the buffet of fixin's! Along with the salsa, salad and spicy mayo, we make sure to stock up on sour cream, queso fresco or feta cheese, Cholula hot sauce and baby arugula. The spicy/cheesy/bitter ratio makes the perfect bite!
• We love to spoon and spread the cilantro jalapeno salsa on the bottom of a flour or corn tortilla - less mess and we're assured to get a little sauce in every bite
GRILLED CORN, TOMATO, AND AVOCADO SALAD WITH BASIL DRESSING
3 ears corn
1 avocado, seed removed, chopped
1 medium tomato, seeded & ribbed, chopped
1 tablespoon (packed) chopped basil
Zest of 1/2 lime
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/4 teaspoon Basque pepper powder, cayenne pepper or red chili flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat broiler or grill. Lightly drizzle corn with olive oil. Rub and season well with salt & pepper. Place corn onto a baking sheet and then under the oven's broiler. Turn frequently. Remove once kernels appear golden brown and toasted. Once the corn is cool enough to handle, shave the kernels off the cob with a sharp chef's knife. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Serve immediately with tortilla or baked pita chips.
• Our corn salad is so good and so healthy, you'll probably never have leftovers. And that's a good thing fresh corn keeps for 2 days maximum.
• If you're not in the mood for a full Mexican spread, serve this salad in a bowl with organic blue corn tortilla chips for a healthy, easy starter to any summer shindig or as main course topping for grilled fish.
3 Idaho potatoes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons garlic, finely grated or minced (about 2 cloves)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
Preheat oven to 400˚F. Cut the potatoes in half through their width. Stand piece of potato on its (flat) cut side and cut like a pie, forming 8 equal wedges. Place the potatoes in a mixing bowl; add the olive oil garlic and salt. Mix thoroughly and immediately transfer the seasoned potatoes to a baking sheet and arrange so they lie neatly in a single layer. No stacking or crowding or the potatoes won't get crisp - use two pans if necessary. Place in the oven and bake until golden brown and crisp, about 25 minutes. When the potatoes are done baking, remove from the oven and cook on the baking sheets, 5-10 minutes before removing.
SMOKED PAPRIKA DIPPING SAUCE
2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon garlic, finely grated or minced (1 small clove)
1/2 teaspoon sriracha hot sauce
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
To make the sauce, combine the lemon juice, garlic, sriracha and smoked paprika in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside for 5 minutes. Add the olive oil and whisk to combine. Whisk in the mayonnaise; when the mixture is smooth, add the salt. Keeps for 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
• Papas bravas, a.k.a. "healthy oven fries," are the perfect side for a 'meat & potatoes' meal -- even without the tortilla.
• Double up! Make a double batch of the papas bravas so you'll have a hearty side throughout the week. Set oven on 375 and re-heat on a baking sheet for 8-12 minutes or until nice and crisp. Serve with grilled skirt or flank steak that has been rubbed with garlic, parsley and olive oil for a mid-week Argentine feast.
Brooke Parkhurst and James Briscione are the authors of Just Married & Cooking, an indispensable cookbook filled with easy, fresh recipes for the newly 'coupled' and the kitchen-challenged. After meeting at age 10 at summer camp, Brooke and James re-connected over a plate of fried oysters and have been dreaming up yummy recipes ever since. James is a Food Network Chopped Champion and the Culinary Director at New York City's Institute of Culinary Education. Together, James and Brooke teach a series of 'Date Night' Couples Cooking classes classes at ICE.