BOSTON — SALSA is hot - in more ways than one. Apart from its pungent personality, the zesty Mexican staple's popularity is also sizzling in eateries across the country - from roadside diners to four-star restaurants.
To most Americans, salsa conjures up images of a chunky tomato-based relish spiced with onions, chili peppers, and garlic. But, in recent years, restaurant chefs and aficionados of salsa (which translates to ``sauce'' in Spanish and is also a vibrant style of Latin music) have concocted over 300 twists on the traditional south-of-the-border blend.
One outgrowth of the explosion of new salsas is the publication of salsa cookbooks. Just this year, several books as colorful and varied as the salsas they espouse have arrived at the bookstore.
Reed Hearon, a former chef at Santa Fe's celebrated Coyote Cafe and owner of his own restaurant, Cafe Marimba, in San Francisco, recently came out with a cookbook titled, ``Salsa'' (Chronicle Books, 84 pp. $12.95).
With a bold Southwestern color theme and artistically styled photographs, Mr. Hearon illustrates 35 recipes for the dish he calls ``Musica for Your Mouth.''
After a useful section on ingredients, technique, and equipment, he opens his ``fiery salsa'' section with a recipe for the most familiar partner to the crisp tortilla chip, ``salsa fresca,'' also known as ``salsa cruda.''
But it doesn't take Hearon long to flaunt his flair for innovation, introducing recipes for wild-mushroom salsa, grilled pineapple salsa, or chocolate-pistachio- mint salsa.
The nation's growing appetite for salsa can be attributed to two societal shifts, according to Hearon, whose salsa savvy is rooted in his Texas childhood, when the sauce was ubiquitous at family dinners.
First, he says, it's part of the increasingly open dialogue between North Americans and Mexicans, stemming from the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the States.
``The aesthetic in Mexico is being communicated here, and in typical American fashion, we are saying `Let us reinvent what you have,' '' he says, adding that his Mexican chef friends are amused by the American craze for a sauce that for centuries has been a basic element of their culinary culture.
Secondly, Hearon says that in the past decade Americans have become not only more health-conscious - many salsas are nutritionally sound - but have also developed a more derring-do attitude toward other culture's food, and as a result have more sophisticated palates.
Food and restaurant consultant Clark Wolff credits the salsa boom to both the American craving for chunkier foods and to another ethnic cuisine that's taken off in recent years: Thai. The dipping sauces common in Thai dishes have opened the way for other dipping sauces, he says, adding that in many restaurants salsa is as present on tables as the familiar ketchup bottle. Ketchup still no. 1
Contrary to many recent media reports, however, salsa has not yet overtaken ketchup as America's favorite condiment.
Salsa is a more expensive product, therefore, its total dollar sales exceed those of ketchup - $500 million last year versus $460 million for ketchup, explains Heinz spokeswoman Deb Magness. But, salsa's blander cousin remains no. 1 in terms of consumption - 10 billion ounces versus 4 billion ounces for salsa, she says.
Nonetheless, a friendly rivalry is brewing between the two condiments. Heinz has responded to the competition by bottling its own salsa-style ketchup.
But the Heinz product is not one that food writer P. J. Birosik would be eager to spread on her hamburger.
``They're just jumping on the bandwagon. They think that by simply making ketchup spicy, it's going to catch a market,'' says Ms. Birosik, author of ``Salsa'' (Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., 133 pp., $10).
Birosik says that most salsas sold in grocery stores today are ``watered down'' offsprings of the original picante sauce, which first crossed the American border from Mexico back in the late 1960s.
A ``true'' salsa is thick and contains only fresh ingredients, she explains, whether it is uncooked, cooked, or a combination of both. It also has to satisfy four out of five taste sensations: bland, sweet, sour, spicy, and salty.
In her cookbook, she offers several recipes that promise to do just that - all inspired by over 20 years of travel throughout the Southwest and Mexico and refined in her Arizona kitchen.
Birosik thrives on the challenge of tracking down salsa recipes in their land of origin. ``I take my four-wheel-drive truck, with its steer horns on the front, into the mountains and talk to all kinds of people - farmers, home cooks, produce sellers,'' she says. Beyond a dip for chips
Birosik aims to enlighten readers about unusual ingredients (like cacti, kumquats, and cherimoya) that may not land in their grocery-store shopping carts.
She writes, ``Prickly pear fruit, also known as tunas, are small oblong globes about 2 inches in length that turn reddish purple when ripe. After the spines are removed and the globes are peeled, the deliciously sweet fruit can be diced or mashed and used in salsa.'' She suggests ladling prickly pear salsa on pork loin, boneless chicken breasts, Cornish game hens, or even angel food cake.
Like other cookbook authors, Birosik offers a multitude of uses for salsa beyond the common chip dip. Unique to her book, however, and punctuating her batch of nearly 100 recipes, are drinkable (alcohol-free) ``salsa cocktails,'' mixed in a juicer or blender.
Other creative uses for salsa can be found in ``Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys, & Chowchos: Intensely Flavored `Little Dishes' from Around the World'' (William Morrow and Company, 155 pp., $20) by restaurant chef Chris Schlesinger (East Coast Grill, Jake & Earl's Barbecue, and The Blue Room, all in Cambridge, Mass.) and freelance writer John Willoughby.
Written in a casual, colorful tone that jibes with its subject, the authors sum up: ``The most important thing to remember about salsas is that, like the Latin dance that shares their name, the best ones are wild, loose, and loud.''
They are reluctant to draw any profound conclusions about the recent salsa boom.
``I'm not sure if this is the harbinger of a great tidal wave of cultural realignment, as some experts seem to feel, but to most lovers of food it is a welcome change,'' they write.
A guide to salsa cookbooks would not be complete without mention of Mark Miller and Mark Kiffin's ``Coyote Pantry'' (Ten Speed Press, 129 pp. $25.95), published last summer.
It is a terrific resource for any home cook wishing to stock a pantry with Southwestern ingredients and make the same award-winning dishes served at Santa Fe's famed Coyote Cafe.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Kiffin, the restaurant's enterprising chef team, encourage an experimental approach to the sauce they call a ``mini-fiesta of colors, flavors, and textures'': ``You can make salsa to go with anything from eggs to enchiladas, from filet mignon to chips,'' Miller and Kiffin write.
But even they have limits: ``Remember, about the only thing salsas don't go with are hot-fudge sundaes!''