The only thing better than a good recipe? When something’s so easy that you don’t even need one. Welcome to It’s That Simple, a column where we talk you through the dishes and drinks we can make with our eyes closed.
If there is anything more restorative than a girls’ weekend away, I have yet to experience it. A chance to catch up on everything from what novels we can’t put down (Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout for me) to what parenting books omit about raising teens (would the race propagate if they revealed all?), such weekends give me space to exhale.
For my friend Jen’s big birthday this summer, we headed to Mexico. About halfway between Cancún and Tulum is Playa Del Carmen, a touristy little beach town—and about 20 minutes north by car is Etéreo, Riviera Maya, a resort recently opened by Auberge Resorts Collection in the Riviera Maya. Jen and I share many things in common, beyond loving a beautifully composed book and having teens, but an obsession with chips, guacamole, and a salty-limey margarita just might top the list.
Minutes after we put our bags down, our guide from the hotel’s incredibly thoughtful staff brought in what looked from afar like chips and a bowl of guacamole, courtesy of Itzam, the hotel’s restaurant. On closer inspection, it was clearly something else, something darker and nuttier. He was eager to explain it was a traditional Mayan dish and specialty of Yucátan, sikil pak, a seedy salsa commonly served as a starter in homes across the area. Sometimes spelled as sikil p’ak or sikil p’aak, it hinges on pepitas, tomatoes, and chiles.
We inhaled it and debated asking for more but Jen’s birthday dinner, a six-course tasting menu from chef Miguel Baltazar, who helms Itzam, was in our immediate future and we didn’t want to get too full. According to Baltazar, what makes Itzam’s sikil pak so delicious are the native ingredients: organic dark chocolate habaneros, grown in their on-site garden, plus heirloom tomatoes and squash seeds.
Back at home, I was keen to recreate sikil pak. Baltazar promised it would be easy, even if I couldn’t get the same Mexican heirloom tomatoes and chocolatey habaneros he has access to. And while I imagine it would take months to learn how to make some of the more complicated dishes from the outstanding tasting menu, he didn’t lie about this one. It was indeed pretty simple.
Dice 1 medium onion into 1″ pieces, halve and deseed 2 habaneros (wear gloves if you’re particularly sensitive), and quarter 1 lb. tomatoes, preferably heirloom. Toast 1 cup pepitas in a skillet or a griddle for 2–3 minutes, until golden and toasted; set aside 2 Tbsp. toasted pepitas for garnish. In the broiler on Hi or on a stovetop griddle, char-roast the tomatoes, the diced onion, the seeded habaneros, and 3 peeled garlic cloves until charred in spots, 8–12 minutes. Using a large mortar and pestle or a food processor, roughly grind the toasted pepitas while still warm until sandy in texture, add the char-roasted ingredients, pound or process until smooth. Add sea salt to taste, 2 oz. extra-virgin olive oil, and continue to grind/process. The consistency should be smooth and hummus-like. Mix in 2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro to the salsa by hand. Top with fresh cilantro leaves, the reserved 2 Tbsp. pepitas, and finish with a drizzle of olive oil. Eat with preferably homemade chips, corn tortillas, or whatever crunchy compliment you have in hand.
It serves four, unless you’re having a good, long catchup with one of your best friends, in which case it barely serves two.