Imagine biting through a soft corn tortilla and into charred pieces of steak or salty, juicy chunks of pork. The thought of those flavors and textures is already making you hungry — I know it’s making me salivate! — but they are just the kindling. Salsa is the spark that ignites the fire of flavor…
In the U.S., salsas seem to come in just two types: green and red. But Mexico’s arsenal of salsas is incredibly vast and varied. They can be silky smooth or thick and chunky, sweet and tart or tangy and smoky, deep-green or brick-red to bright yellow or nearly black. These incredibly diverse salsas are united by two things: an exhilarating intensity (just a small spoonful is meant to electrify an entire taco, sandwich, or bowl of soup) and techniques that are more similar than you might expect. Ingredients, either raw or roasted, are chopped up or pureed in a blender. Occasionally the result is fried in a little oil. That’s all it takes to create condiments that will bring your favorite dishes to new heights.
The Spanish name for Pico de Gallo (shown above) means “rooster’s beak,” and originally referred to a salad of jicama, peanuts, oranges, and onions. But today, whether you’re in Minneapolis or Mexico City, if you ask for pico de gallo, you’ll get the familiar cilantro-flecked combination of chopped tomato, onion, and fresh chiles. This tart, crisp condiment (also known as salsa Mexicana) has become so common on Mexican tables that it seems like no coincidence that its colors match those of the national flag. Besides finding firm ripe tomatoes and seeding them, the key to this salsa is adding plenty of lime juice and salt, and not skimping on the chiles. Because without a burst of acidity and heat, you’re just eating chopped tomatoes.
For an unforgettably sweet and tangy salsa, try this Burnt Chipotle Salsa from the highlands of Veracruz (shown below). You toast chipotles mecos — the tobacco-brown chiles that are a bit large than their small, purplish cousins — to the brink of burnt, until they’re brittle and blistered with black patches. Blended with sauteed onion, agave syrup, and apple cider vinegar, they create a thick salsa like no other — just four main ingredients that add up to a wildly complex flavor where tartness tugs at sweetness, and where gentle bitterness, warm spiciness, and bold smokiness keep every bite exciting. The stunning dark color demonstrates why it’s also called salsa negra.
One more: Roasted Tomatillo Salsa (shown at the top) is simply tomatillos and garlic roasted without oil, and chipotles toasted briefly in a pan. Blended together, these three ingredients add up to flavor so complex that your friends will think it took you hours to produce. I love using smoky chipotles, but chiles de arbol add nuttiness and serious heat, while pasillas de Oaxaca, if you can get your hands on them, one-up chipotles with smokiness and a touch of fruitiness. The choice is yours.
Try all three recipes:
Roberto Santibañez is the chef/owner of Fonda in Brooklyn, NY and author of Truly Mexican, a new cookbook of authentic Mexican dishes for the home kitchen. He is a native of Mexico City and a graduate of Le Cordon Blue in Paris. Roberto spent five years as the culinary director for the popular Rosa Mexicano restaurants in New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Palm Beach, and is the culinary partner of The Taco Truck in Hoboken, NJ.
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