Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pumpkin Seed Dip with Jicama

The food of Mexico never ceases to amaze, or perhaps it's the way the Mexican people have constructed a cuisine that seems to make a great deal out of very little.

Americans raised on big, fat burritos, heaping platters of fajitas and giant pitchers of frozen margaritas would be shocked to learn that the real deal is nothing like that. The pre-Columbian food of Mexico did not know dairy products or pork or beef. An entire culinary tradition was erected around corn, chili peppers, tomatoes, avocados. To this day, an urbane family meal in Mexico City may consist of something as simple as a bowl of chicken soup and fresh tortillas folded around a bit of cheese.

One of our favorite dishes is this astonishing concoction made from toasted pumpkin seeds, cooked tomatoes and habanero pepper. The recipe apparently originates in the Yucatan, a culinary province all its own. I originally stumbled upon it while writing an article about my molcajete, the Mexican version of a mortar carved out of volcanic basalt stone.

I remember being completely incredulous that such common and utterly simple ingredients could yield much of anything. Pumpkin seeds, after all, are so dry and lifeless, something you chew on when you have nothing better to do, right? And how much lift could one expect out of a couple of tomatoes?

But that is the genius of this marriage, because the individual ingredients once pounded and carefully massaged together transform one another. The finished product is not much to look at--it has all the glamor of the proverbial lump of clay. But in the mouth, it is sublime. It is unctuous and meaty, the habanero imparting a bit of fruitiness along with its heat. To taste it is to know that there are food cultures out there still wrapped in mystery, a vein of food knowledge we moderns can barely fathom.

Of course, this "dip," as I call it, is best made in a molcajete. I'm confident that a traditional mortar and pestle would work as well. You could also try a food processor, although honestly I never have. Part of the joy of this dish is the hand work, the time spent bending over the molcajete pulverizing the toasted pumpking seeds, then incorporating all the bits of the cooked tomatoes and chili. It is a meditative act, a labor of love.

The habanero is one of the hottest of all chili peppers. The recipe calls for a single pepper, but if you are sensitive to the heat, you might cut the pepper in half. Wear rubber gloves while working with the peppers and take care to remove all the seeds and interior veins, where much of the heat is concenrated.

Be sure to use the hulled variety of pumpkin seeds. We buy them in the bulk section at Whole Foods.

We like to serve this with jicama, cut into large matchsticks for dipping, to lend a contrasting coolness and snap. And of a course a cold beer.

1 ¼ cup raw, unsalted, hulled pumpkin seeds
1 chile habanero
3 ripe plum tomatoes, (about 12 ounces)
1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 large jicama, peeled and cut into thick, 4-inch matchsticks for dipping.

In an ungreased sauté pan over moderately high heat, toast the pumpkin seeds, tossing frequently, until they are lightly browned. Spread pumpkin seeds on a baking sheet to cool.

Meanwhile, bring 1 quart water to a boil. Place tomatoes in water, reduce heat and simmer until tomatoes are very soft, about 13 minutes. Drain and set tomatoes aside to cool. Remove skins.

In a small skillet or pan over moderately high heat, toast habanero chile, turning frequently, until it is soft and lightly charred, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. Cut chile open and remove seeds and veins (unless you like things really hot).

Place all but one tablespoon toasted pumpkin seeds with salt in molcajete and grind to a rough powder. Add toasted habanero and grind until pepper is completely incorporated. Add tomatoes and grind until they are completely incorporated with the seed mixture. Use a spoon or rubber spatula to blend in 2 tablespoons cilantro and the chives.

Garnish with remaining cilantro and toasted pumpkin seeds. Arrange jicama matchsticks so they are standing upright in a bowl or drinking glass to serve.

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