I love entertaining, even if I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be. I’m always a little too ambitious, where my guests find me sweating over a few simmering pots and an open oven when they arrive; too adventurous, excited to try out a brainy, untested dish over a failsafe standby; and I hate this but I sometimes I just choke in those crucial last minutes, sending rookie mistakes like under-seasoned or cold dishes out to the table. One reason I like to entertain is that it’s a muscle, and you can develop it, but more than that, hanging out at a dining table with new and old friends is one of my favorite things to do, and if I could do it every night I would.
So last weekend, after a very long dinner party hiatus, I had some friends over. I’d been rereading my Diana Kennedy books and was discovering Rick Bayless ones, so I decided a few Mexican-inspired dishes would be nice on a balmy July day. I made:
- A batch of creamy poblano rajas from More Mexican Everyday, to which I added a sheet pan’s worth of mixed roasted mushrooms; this was taco filling and I’ll write up the recipe sometime soon.
- This corn salad: a hit.
- From a pound of Rancho Gordo Bayo Chocolate Beans—one of the fruits of their partnership with Xoxoc—some vaguely refried beans. I cooked them with bay leaf and onion until creamy, then fried them in a bit of olive oil and garlic and mashed them with some of the bean-cooking liquid until creamy, but still a little chunky. Very good, and great with breakfast the next day.
- And because I’d bitten off more than I could chew, I enlisted the help of two of my guests for the rest of the menu: genius guacamole, from Kristin Miglore’s wonderful book Genius Recipes
- . . . and a platter of ceviche, served cold and heady with grapefruit zest, serrano and fresno chilies, and lots of herbs.
It was quite a feast. There was even a galette for dessert. I should have taken pictures, but—too much to do.
But to rewind to the appetizer: I needed salsa, and for the first one I made an easy, barely cooked-down slurry of tomato, onion, garlic, and roasted chiles. The other is this pumpkin seed salsa. I don’t know why I thought to google “pumpkin seed salsa” but I’m glad I did. I found this, with roots in the Yucatan, unlike any I’d ever had or heard of before. It’s thick, rich and earthy, much more like hummus than pico de gallo, and testament to how salsa is a very broad category of food.
It’s very simple: Toast some pumpkin seeds. Blister a chili and tomato. Puree it all with some fresh herbs in a food processor. The constant is the pumpkin seeds in the recipes I found, but there’s a good amount of variation beyond that—the assortment of added vegetables and chilies, and whether or not they should be cooked (or blistered or charred), and then the different ways to add brightness (lime or a swipe of orange zest). Charring the tomatoes in a dry skillet resulted in scorched tomato sludge for me, which I found easy to remedy with a splash of oil. And while no recipes stipulate waiting to puree everything until all the ingredients are cool, I found it to be a worthwhile step; the texture is cleaner, without a gummy quality. And to add a little zing and to combat its appearance—and unfortunate likeness to . . . something unappetizing—I like it top with a pile of pickled onions and a sprinkling of crumbled cotija or ricotta salata. Serve with just tortilla chips, or you can save it to use as filling for sandwiches, veggie burgers, and quesadillas.
Pumpkin Seed Salsa (Sikil Pak)
Makes a generous 1-1/2 cups, enough to serve 4 to 6 as an appetizer
This is a great recipe for people with common dietary restrictions—it’s vegan (without the cheese as garnish, of course), gluten-free, and nut-free. Adapted from this Saveur recipe.
1-1/4 cups raw pumpkin seeds
Splash olive oil
8 to 10 ounces ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks or halved if using cherry tomatoes (2 small tomatoes, or about 2/3rd of a pint of cherry tomatoes)
1 jalapeno or 2 small serrano chilies, stem(s) trimmed off
1 scallion, trimmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons roughly chopped oregano
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Pickled red onions, for garnish*
Crumbled cotija or ricotta salata, for garnish
1. Put the pumpkin seeds in a medium skillet and place over medium heat. Toast, swirling periodically, until they begin to turn golden brown and pop, 4 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate or bowl to cool.
2. Return the skillet to the heat and add the olive oil. When shimmering, add the tomatoes and chili(es). Cook until the skins take on quite a bit of color, but don’t scorch (there will be some splattering), another 5 to 8 minutes. The chilies may take a little longer than the tomatoes; simply scrape the contents into a bowl, then fish out the chilies and put them back in the skillet to finish their cooking. Cool. When safe to handle, split the chili(es) in half and scrape out some or all of the seeds, depending on how much heat you like.
3. Put the pumpkin seeds in the food processor and pulse until finely ground. Add the tomatoes and chilies, scallion, herbs, and salt, and continue pulsing until you have a smooth consistency. If it seems too dense, you can add a bit of water, a tablespoon at a time, to lighten it up.
4. Transfer to a serving bowl. Top with the pickled onions and cheese, and serve with tortilla chips. Stored in the refrigerator, the salsa will keep for several days, but its best served at room temperature.
* Lots of recipes for pickled red onions online, but my current favorite method is this: slice a small red onion into very thin rings or strips, then toss with 2 big pinches of salt and a big pinch of sugar. Let stand for about 15 minutes, until collapsed and glistening, then gently squeeze dry. Then toss with a few tablespoons of apple cider or red wine vinegar.