Salsa Picks Up the Pace

Americans are taking the heat, and loving it. They're eating more salsa than ketchup. A Monitor taste panel rates six leading national brands.

Hot. Spicy. Tomatoey. It's salsa, the zesty Tex-Mex treat that has won over America's palates. Store-bought salsas like Ortega, Old El Paso, Chi-Chi's, and Tostitos are competing for a large and expanding market. But which brand is best?

Eleven Monitor tasters, armed with big bags of tortilla chips and cups of water to cool their gullets, recently put six of the best-known national brands to the test.

The six (all medium hot) were similar in many ways. They each combined tomato paste, onions, green chiles or jalapeo peppers, vinegar, and salt.

Some added their own special touches like chunky tomatoes, green bell peppers, red jalapeo peppers, or cilantro.

The contest was extremely close, and panelists, unlike those in previous Monitor taste tests, were sharply divided. Five of the six brands got at least one first-place vote.

When all the ballots were tallied, however, the winner by a slim margin was Pace "thick-and-chunky" style.

Right behind Pace were Old El Paso (second), Ortega and Newman's Own (tied for third), and Tostitos (fifth).

One thing the panelists did agree on was that Chi-Chi's was the least flavorful. Eight out of 11 panelists put it in last place. The other three put it next to last.

What were the differences?

The winning Pace, which is made by a division of Campbell Soup Co., was praised for having a "nice zing," for its "crunchy vegetables," for its spicy flavor, and for having a pleasant after taste. One tester said Pace had just the right combination, with vegetables that were "substantial," a flavor that was fresh, and ingredients that gave it a "good kick."

Pace ranked high with almost everyone, but those who didn't put it in first place said it was either "too ketchupy" or had too little taste ("boring," said a panelist). Another critic called it "too tomato heavy," like dipping your chips in spicy ketchup.

Second-place Old El Paso won over several tasters who liked it for having a "bright flavor," "lots of veggies," "just the right tomato level," and a "nice consistency." El Paso, which is made by Old El Paso Foods in Anthony, Texas, lost votes with some who complained that for a medium heat salsa, it was "too, too hot." And one taster grumbled that he would buy it only "if it's all the store has left."

Newman's Own, which tied for third with Ortega, drew a mixed reaction - in part because of its darker, brownish color. One taster said it "looks like leftover soup," but another praised it as "thick, substantial, worldly, and sophisticated." One commented, however, that Newman's Own looked like a salsa that had been developed "by a Yankee." In fact, it is made by Newman's Own Inc., with headquarters in Westport, Conn.

On the other hand, Ortega (made by Nestl Food Co., headquartered in California) ranked in the middle because it was "moderate in all regards," as one panelist put it. Right in the middle in spice, flavor, and texture.

In fifth place, Tostitos was considered workmanlike, but uninspired. "Obviously came from a jar," noted one reviewer. Others grumbled that it was "unimpressive," "watery," and "reminded me of ketchup with lumps." Tostitos comes from Frito Lay Inc., in Dallas.

Far behind in last place was Chi-Chi's, distributed by Hormel Foods Corp. Its texture? "Too soupy," one taster said. Its spicyness? "Mild as milk," said another. One critic called it "the salsa equivalent of Cheez Whiz."

The bottom line: Just about all the leading national-brand salsas deliver an enjoyable taste and texture. With a little selectivity, it's hard to go wrong. But some people may want to watch out for the heat. Even some of those labeled "medium" in this test were judged to be quite hot by a number of our testers.

If you don't care for your food on the hot side, some of our testers suggested that it might be best to start out with a mild version, then work your way up.

PACE SALSA INGREDIENTS: Tomato pure (water, tomato paste), fresh onions, fresh jalapeo peppers, tomatoes, distilled vinegar, salt, dehydrated onions, and garlic.

Homemade is Best

Salsa means sauce - not necessarily tomato sauce, and can be served as a condiment to an appropriate entre, as well as a dip.

Jenny Green's Salsa

2 14-ounce cans stewed tomatoes

1 large fresh tomato (chopped)

Juice of 1 lime

2 bunches scallions, chopped

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

2-3 jalapeos, finely chopped

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon Lawry's seasoned salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon coriander

1/2 teaspoon cumin

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Pulse to desired consistency. Serve with tortilla chips. Serves 8 to 10.

-Texas-raised Jenny Green, is on the e-Monitor staff

Tropical Fruit Salsa

2 large tomatoes (about 1 pound), seeded and chunked

1/2 cup chopped red onion

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 medium-large jalapeo chile, stemmed and chopped (include the seeds)

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 medium banana, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium mango, pitted, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 cup chunked (1/2 inch) honeydew melon

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

In a food processor, combine the tomatoes, half the red onion, the lime juice, jalapeo, and salt. Puree until smooth.

Transfer to a bowl, cover, and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour or refrigerate overnight. (Return to room temperature if chilled.)

Stir the banana, mango, melon, cilantro, and remaining onion into the salsa. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6.

Note: As long as the total quantity of chunked fruit added to the salsa remains about three cups, the proportions can be adjusted to accommodate whatever you find ripe and juicy in the market. Peaches or pineapple can replace the mango, and cantaloupe can stand in for the honeydew. Don't tamper with the banana. It makes the salsa work.

- From 'All On The Grill' by Michael McLaughlin,

HarperCollins Publishers

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