by Carolina Santos-Neves, Epicurious.com Photo: CN Digital Archive
Salsa, the word for "sauce" in Spanish, can add a bit of vida to almost any meal, and we're not just talking tacos and burritos. For a fresher alternative to the acidic jarred stuff that's loaded with sodium and sugar, try making your own salsa-you may be surprised how easy it is.
See also: Healthy Comfort Food Recipes for Any Day
James Peterson, the author of Kitchen Education: Sauces, Salsas, and Chutneys-Recipes and Techniques on Cooking believes salsa has no strict definition. "To define a salsa in the most general terms, I would say it's a mixture in which each of the ingredients retains a degree of integrity. In other words, you can see the stuff that makes it up, unlike in a mayonnaise or a hollandaise sauce." But at the same time, there are a few general qualities all salsas possess: They are usually served cold or at room temperature; they're often spicy; and typically they're a combination of chopped raw ingredients, such as tomatoes, onions, peppers, avocados, mangoes, and cucumbers, often mixed with some kind of liquid, like olive oil, yogurt, or cream.
In Mexico, the different types of salsas are endless. To name just a few:
• Salsa roja (cooked tomatoes, chiles, onion, garlic, and fresh cilantro)
• Salsa verde (cooked tomatillos and chiles)
• Pico de gallo (raw tomatoes, lime juice, chiles, onions, cilantro leaves, and other coarsely chopped ingredients)
• Salsa negra (dried chiles, oil, and garlic)
• Salsa taquera (tomatillos and chipotle chile)
• Mole (chiles mixed with spices, unsweetened chocolate, and almonds)
• Guacamole (ripe avocado, tomato, chopped onions, and lime)
But aside from the classic salsas, there are unlimited opportunities for improvisation. To help you expand your salsa recipe repertoire, we turned to cookbook author Marcela Valladolid's Mexican Food Made Easy and New York City-based chef Ivy Starks, author of Dos Caminos: Mexican Street Food: 120 Recipes to Make at Home.
While traditional Mexican salsa is made in a molcajete (similar to a Mexican mortar and pestle), these days all you'll need is a blender, a food processor, or a sharp chef's knife and cutting board. Read on for a few tips from James Peterson to help you become a salsa-making pro.
Related: The Best Tacos in America
• Know Your Salsa Building Blocks
While variations on salsa recipes are practically limitless, Peterson does like to follow a few foundational guidelines. He prefers to always include something hot and smoky, like a chipotle chile or two, something to provide bulk, such as tomatoes or avocados, and an acid, like lime juice. Three other salsa essentials: cilantro, salt, and freshly ground pepper, which draw out the flavors.
• Size Does Matter
Whether you're creating your own salsas or following recipes, keep in mind that firm produce and strongly flavored ingredients, such as onions, chiles, and garlic, should be very finely chopped. Softer ingredients, such as tomatoes or ripe mangoes, can be left on the coarse side.
• Smooth or Chunky?
If you want a smooth salsa, use a blender (exception: recipes with olive oil, which turns bitter in the blender). Prefer a chunky or textured salsa? Then it's better to chop by hand or use a food processor.
• Hot & Spicy
Take your pick of chile peppers-salsa can be made with all sorts, Peterson says. He likes to include both fresh peppers and reconstituted chopped dried peppers. His favorites? Chipotles. They are smoky, slightly hot, and easy to find.
• Stovetop Magic
Peterson also likes to blacken his raw peppers over a stovetop flame for a smoky flavor before adding them to the salsa mix. To make the cooked peppers easy to peel, put them in a covered bowl to "sweat" for about 15 minutes before you begin.
• Eat Salsa Fresh
Even though salsa can keep in the fridge for a few days, it's best eaten the day you make it. Don't freeze salsa, because the tomatoes will turn mushy.
• Fruity Fun
When making fruit salsa, Peterson suggests using papaya, mango, and/or pineapple.
• Salsa-fy Your Main Dish
Salsa is designed to accent, rather than reinforce, the flavors of a dish. Seafood calls for acidic elements, so Peterson recommends using tomatillos; meats may call for a salsa flavored with herbs, such as marjoram.
• Don't Stress Over Salsa
Peterson insists that "making salsas tends to be a casual affair; one shouldn't worry too much about pairing them with the exact right thing. Have fun and experiment!"
James Peterson's Tropical Salsa Recipe
If you make this whole recipe, you will have enough to feed a crowd, plus you will have half of a pineapple and perhaps half of a papaya left over. The salsa is especially good atop grilled chicken or fish.
• 2 dried chipotle chiles or chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, 2 pasilla de Oaxaca chiles, or 4 jalapeño chiles
• 2 poblano chiles, charred, peeled, and seeded and then chopped medium-fine
• 1 mango, about 1 pound
• 1/2 pineapple, preferably Golden
• 1 Hawaiian or 1/2 Mexican papaya
• 1 red onion, finely chopped
• 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro, chopped at the last minute
• 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
If you are using dried chipotle or pasilla de Oaxaca chiles, soak them in warm water for minutes to soften, then drain, seed, and finely chop them. If using canned chipotles, rinse, seed, and finely chop them. If using jalapeño chiles, seed and finely chop them. Ready the poblano chiles. Set all the chiles aside.
Halve the mango lengthwise, remove the pit, scoop out the flesh from each half with a spoon, and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Twist the stem off the pineapple half and stand the pineapple upright. Cut downward on all sides to remove the peel. Then, with a paring knife, remove the "eyes" by making diagonal cuts across the flesh just deep enough to lift them out. Cut the pineapple lengthwise into quarters, and cut away the strip of core that runs along each wedge. Cut the quarters crosswise into wedges about 1/4 inch wide, and cut the wedges into 1/4-inch dice. Peel the papaya, cut it in half lengthwise, and spoon out the seeds. Cut the halves lengthwise into wedges about 1/2 inch wide, and cut the wedges into 1/2-inch dice.
In a bowl, combine the chiles, mango, pineapple, papaya, onion, cilantro, and lime juice. Toss together to mix well and then season with salt.
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by Carolina Santos-Neves, Epicurious.com Photo: CN Digital Archive
SUPPER CLUB PICK
My after-school snack was a sacred ritual. I sat on the carpet in my parents' bedroom at a low table, the television turned to "I Dream of Jeannie," and ate a peanut butter and honey sandwich cut into neat squares. I wasn't fussy about crusts. I just loved the sticky pairing of creamy peanut butter with syrupy golden sweetness drizzled from a honey bear in diagonals across the soft white bread. Nothing else--save for maybe apples and peanut butter in a pinch--could have made for as sweet an