Americans find fresh new ways to dip into salsa

There's no question that Mexico's spicy staple tastes best when made from scratch.

I'll never forget when I first tasted south-of-the-border salsa. A group of friends and I had stopped at a small cafe in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. After tasting a toasty tortilla dunked into a zesty bowl of fresh-diced tomatoes, chilies, lime, onion, and cilantro, I knew my days of dipping from a jar were over. This salsa was the real thing - delicioso.

With its clean, crisp flavor and festive red, green, and white colors - the same as the Mexican flag - salsa has long been a fiery fixture on Mexican dinner tables. It's slathered on eggs, tacos, and roasted meats - and even added to soups - in much the same way those of us north of the border use salt and pepper.

Americans have been experimenting with more ethnic cuisine in recent decades, trading meat and potatoes for moo shu pork. Along the way, they have embraced Mexico's spicy staple. In December 2000, salsa became the No. 1-selling condiment in the US, replacing ketchup, according to the Association for Dressings and Sauces. Of course, Americans have put their own spin on salsa, creating milder and fruity versions, mixing in ingredients like bell peppers, mushrooms, or pineapple.

There's no question that salsa tastes best when made from scratch. Most recipes are simple - and can be used for more than just dipping chips. Salsas are tasty on meats, too. Fruity ones pair well with chicken and fish; roasted or tomato-based salsas can spruce up grilled beef or replace ketchup on hamburgers. Today, there are nearly as many kinds of salsa as there are salad dressings, leaving plenty of room for the imagination. What better time than Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's Independence Day, to savor this spicy sidekick?

Despite all the variety, a few things make salsa unique. "Salsa is a combination of raw, cooked, or partially cooked ingredients that are blended but not cooked together," says Mark Miller, author of "The Great Salsa Book." "Once it's all cooked together, it becomes a sauce."

The ideal salsa is balanced, he adds. "Salsa ingredients are like notes you can hear distinctly.... Nothing should dominate too much; accents are fine, but avoid extreme accents - like going way too hot."

Using fresh, quality ingredients is essential. For instance, the key to making traditional salsa fresca, Mr. Miller says, is to choose flavorful, ripe tomatoes and avoid watery ones. He suggests Roma or even cherry tomatoes (see Salsa Mexicana recipe). He then mixes them with white onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and serrano chilies.

"I like to rinse the onions under water to reduce the intensity a little," Miller says. This basic salsa is good with tacos, grilled meats, or tortilla chips.

It's also important to assess the level of heat you want: mild, medium, or picante (hot), says Susan Curtis, author of "Salsas and Tacos" and "Southwest Flavors." This depends on the amount and type of chili pepper you use. Habaneros are considered extremely hot; serranos are hot; green fresnos are medium; and Anaheim chilies are mild. You can also buy milder jalapeños, but the smaller and darker they are, the hotter they'll taste, says Ms. Curtis. For those who don't want any heat at all, there's the bell pepper (but you won't find it in traditional Mexican salsas).

Another tip: Don't make salsa too far in advance, otherwise it becomes soggy. "You can chop and prepare [ingredients] ahead of time, just don't mix it all together too soon," Miller says. This especially applies to aromatics such as onion, cilantro, lime, and garlic - add them at the end.

Make sure the mixture isn't too chunky. Bear in mind that "good salsa is like good risotto," Miller says, "big pieces don't work." Of course, some ingredients should be more finely chopped (hot peppers) than others (tomatoes). After combining everything, salsa should be refrigerated for 15 to 30 minutes before serving. Ideally, fresh salsa should be eaten within a few hours. It keeps in the refrigerator for a day or so, but the quality may diminish.

Don't feel salsa has to be just about tomatoes. There's plenty of room to play around, says Rick Bayless, author of "Mexican Everyday." "You can even add mangoes or oranges to give it a fruity edge," he says. This makes it distinctly more American.

For David Hirsch of The Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., the secret to perfect mango salsa is waiting for the fruit to reach its sweetest state. (See Mango Salsa recipe.) "It's hard to find perfectly ripe mangoes, so plan ahead," he says. Mangoes typically need a few days to reach their peak, so he suggests storing them in a paper bag in a warm place to encourage ripening. Mango salsa is great with chips, black beans, or almost any kind of firm, mild fish, he says.

Curtis loves to pair grilled fish, shrimp, or chicken with fruity salsas such as papaya or pineapple. And she's not afraid to experiment: The jicama-watermelon-vanilla salsa described in her book, "Salsas and Tacos," goes well with blackened salmon or pork tenderloin, she says.

"Another good technique is to roast some of the ingredients," Curtis says. "I love roasting tomatoes, tomatillos, onions." Her favorite salsa this time of year is roasted tomatillo with cilantro.

Mr. Bayless likes roasting garlic, tomatoes, and tomatillos under a broiler and mixing them with chipotle chilies to create a smoky flavor. "Salsa is not an exact science," he says. "There's a lot of variation, which makes it fun."

Mango Salsa

2 medium ripe mangoes
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 medium ripe, high-quality tomato, chopped
juice of 1 lime
pinch of salt
1/2 to 1 small fresh chili pepper, minced, or Tabasco or other hot-pepper sauce, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)

Peel and chop the mangoes. In a large bowl, mix mangoes, cucumber, tomato, lime juice, salt, chili or hot-pepper sauce, and optional cilantro. Let salsa sit for 10 minutes to allow flavors to blend before serving. Makes 2-1/2 cups. Good with fish, black beans, or as a dip. (Can be mild to hot, depending on how much hot pepper you add.)

Source: 'Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home' (Simon & Schuster)

Salsa Mexicana

2 tablespoons finely diced white onion
8 Roma tomatoes (about 1 pound), diced
1 to 2 serrano chilies, finely diced, with seeds
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Place onion in a strainer, rinse with hot water, and drain. Combine and mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Add a little more sugar if tomatoes are acidic, but make sure salsa does not taste of sugar. Chill for 30 minutes before serving, and eat within a few hours. This all-purpose salsa is good with tortilla chips, grilled meats, hamburgers, or almost any Mexican dish. Makes 3 to 4 cups. (Medium-hot. Use fewer chilies to lower heat.)

Source: Adapted from 'The Great Salsa Book' by Mark Miller, with Mark Kiffin and John Harrisson (Ten Speed Press)

Chunky Avocado Salsa

This dish needs to be made at the last minute. Ideally, don't let it stand for more than 30 minutes before eating.

3 ripe Roma tomatoes, diced
1 to 2 serrano chilies, to taste, seeded and diced
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 small red onion, diced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
3 large, ripe Haas avocados, diced
Juice from 2 limes
Salt, to taste

Combine the tomatoes, chilies, garlic (optional), onion, and cilantro. Set aside.

Cut avocados in half and remove pits and skins. Cut avocados into chunks, and add them to tomato mixture. Add lime juice and salt. Stir gently to combine. Serve immediately. Makes 4 to 5 cups. Good with tortilla chips, hamburgers, or almost any Mexican dish. (Mild to medium. Use fewer chilies to lower heat.)

Source: Adapted from 'Southwest Flavors: Santa Fe School of Cooking' by Susan Curtis and Nicole Curtis Ammerman (Gibbs Smith)

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