Whoa. I got sucked into a black hole for a bit there, a (very pleasant, very festive) black hole of weddings and out-of-town visitors. Somehow it’s now September 26, and I’m glad to be alone tonight, in a quiet house, with a so-so brownie that I’ll probably eat anyway, rain falling outside and all the lamps lit. Hello! Or, OHLO!, as June puts it.

In the weeks since I was last here, Megan and Sam got married, and Gemma and Christophe came to help us celebrate, and after that, my in-laws arrived, and now we’ve got a cousin from New York and her boyfriend in the guest-room-slash-dungeon downstairs. And because there is no one who doesn’t like tacos, for the past three Tuesdays, we’ve taken whoever is in town, including Sam’s entire family, to Essex for taco-and-tiki night.

Brandon started daydreaming last winter about doing something fun at Essex on Tuesdays, a night when Delancey is closed and Essex, at that point, was too. He played around with a few ideas – maybe a barbecue-only menu, or spaghetti and meatballs, something like that. We were both big fans of Alvaro Candela-Najera’s Monday night tacos at Sitka and Spruce (which you can now find every night at The Saint), so that got us thinking, and then Niah mentioned that he wanted to try doing a tiki night at Essex, and as it happens, tiki-style cocktails go well with the flavors and heat of Mexican food, and boom boom boom, one thing led to another, and that’s how we decided to do a special taco-and-tiki menu every Tuesday – with meats cooked in our wood-fired ovens (!) and tortillas made on-site from fresh masa (!!) and a free chips-and-salsa bar (!!!) and housemade hot sauce (!!!!).

Of course, Brandon and I know a lot more about eating tacos than we do about making them, so we turned for help to a couple of cooks at Delancey and Essex, Ricardo Valdes and Pedro Perez-Zamudio, whose families are from Mexico. To be fair, Tuesdays are now much more theirs than ours. After a couple of months of testing and re-testing, the menu was ready around mid-May, and that’s when I added the words “Taco-&-Tiki Tuesdays, 5 to 10 pm” to the hours sign in the Essex window, and we were up and running.

I’ve wanted to write about taco-and-tiki night here for a while now. But I wanted to share a recipe when I did, and it was hard to choose one that fit. Some of the best parts of the menu – the al pastor tacos, for instance, or the lamb barbacoa, or the lengua – involve a lot of steps, a wood-burning oven, a kind lady named Juana with a bowl of masa and very skilled hands, and spices that can be hard to find if you don’t have access to the kind of vendors that supply restaurants. Happily, though, Ricardo’s famous guacamole is not nearly that complicated, and he agreed to teach me how to make it.

Ricardo’s recipe was inspired by the guacamole his grandmother Guadalupe made when he was growing up in Oxnard, California. Originally from Jalisco, Guadalupe – not sure if I am permitted to call her by her first name? Maybe not? If I’m struck by lightning tomorrow, you know why – had an avocado tree in her backyard, and she grew her own cilantro, jalapenos, and serranos, all of which she used in her guacamole, along with red onion, garlic, tomato, and a generous amount of lime. Ricardo remembers watching her make it, methodically cutting each avocado in half, removing the pit, and scoring the flesh with a small knife before scooping it out of its shell and mashing it up with two forks. (I felt wistful just typing that, possibly because the only cooking I actually witnessed my grandmother do involved a packet of Lipton soup mix, a kettle of boiling water, and a mug.)

Years later, when he was hired as the chef de cuisine of a new Mexican restaurant, Ricardo was tasked with working up a great guacamole, and he started from Guadalupe’s formula. He left out the tomato, added some olive oil, and over a number of reworkings, he pinned down the quantities. The result is, and I don’t know how else to say it, really special. I mean, we’ve all made guacamole: you chuck some avocados in a bowl with stuff, and it’s good. Right? It can’t be bad. Still, this one is special. It’s bright with lime, spiked with just the right amount of herbs and heat, chunky enough to stand up on a chip but silky from a scant addition of olive oil. It’s the result of a lot of repetition, of familial memory coupled to muscle memory – Guadalupe’s taste and technique, honed and refined in restaurant kitchens.

And if you have someone smart around – someone like Ricardo, an actual professional who has the foresight to save some whole cilantro leaves for a garnish – your guacamole might even look attractive in a photograph! I had no idea that was possible.

It occurs to me that I should also share a (life-changing, guacamole-changing) tip that Ricardo gave me about avocados and ripeness. TAKE NOTE. When you’re making guacamole, of course you’ll ideally use firm-ripe avocados, but if only some of your avocados are ripe, weep not. Take the unripe ones, scoop the flesh into a food processor, add a dribble of olive oil, and blend them until they’re creamy, like soft, beaten butter. Somehow, blending them like this with oil deepens their flavor and makes them taste richer, riper, not sweet and starchy like normal unripe avocados. You can then take this blended avocado and fold it together with cubes of nicely ripened avocado, and make your guacamole from that.

P.S. I’m excited, and somewhat terrified, to be leading a discussion with one of my mentors, Renee Erickson, at Book Larder this Wednesday night, October 1, at 6:30 pm. Renee’s first book, A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus, comes out on Tuesday, and it’s every bit as good as you would expect. (Someday I will get a tattoo of my life motto: WWRD, or What Would Renee Do.) Come see us!

P.P.S. On a related note, Brandon and Co. are cooking a four-course dinner at Delancey on Monday, October 6 to celebrate Renee.  There are still a half-dozen tickets left, I believe, and you can purchase them through Book Larder.

P.P.P.S. While we’re talking about restaurant stuff, this talk by Mark Canlis, of Canlis, is so good, so smart, and so humane. If you’re interested in the industry, or even just an avid diner, it’s worth listening – particularly to the first 27 minutes. Turn it on while you’re cooking one night.



Ricardo's Famous Guacamole

Adapted from Ricardo Valdes

If you don’t mind the expense, it’s a good idea to buy a couple more avocados than you actually need for this recipe. Inevitably, one will have some gnarly spots of rot inside, and you’ll want to throw it out. Also, don’t cut open your avocados until you’ve prepped the rest of the ingredients, because the flesh browns quickly when exposed to air.

Last, note that this recipe scales up nicely. At Essex, our batches are ten times this size, and we mix them in a bowl big enough to sit in.

2 teaspoons lime zest (about 1 lime’s worth)
¼ cup (60 ml) lime juice (about 2 limes’ worth)
3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion (about 1/8 of an onion)
A handful of chopped cilantro (about ¼ of a bunch)
½ of a jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
½ of a serrano, seeded and finely chopped
½ of a garlic clove, pressed
4 teaspoons olive oil
A couple of generous pinches of kosher salt
A couple of grinds of black pepper
3 firm-ripe avocados

Prepare all of the ingredients, and keep them close at hand. Then, and only then, cut the avocados in half, remove and discard the pits, and (very carefully, with the avocado skin still on) cube the flesh of the avocados with a small knife. Use a spoon to scoop the cubed flesh into a medium bowl. Dump the rest of the ingredients on top of the avocados, and then go after the mixture with two forks or a potato masher, stirring and smashing until you like the texture. Taste, and adjust seasoning. It will likely need more salt, and you may also want more black pepper. If you’d like your guacamole to be spicier, add more chopped jalapeno or serrano. If you’d like more garlic flavor, add another half a clove. Note that the freshly made guacamole will be quite lime-y, but don’t worry, because the lime flavor will mellow with time. (That said, if you still think the lime is too dominant, feel free to add a dribble of olive oil.)

When the flavor is to your liking, press plastic wrap directly against the surface to keep air away, and chill for at least 1 hour before serving. Guacamole will keep this way without browning for at least a day, and it’ll still taste good after a few days, though it will probably discolor at the surface.

Yield: depends on how guacamole-crazed you are, but probably enough for 4 to 8 adults