¡Esto es un Salsa Espectacular!
Open your fridge and look at the door side – Chances are good that what you’ll see there are condiments – in ours, you find mustards, relish, horseradish, harissa, ketchup, mayo, sriracha, and of course, salsa. Those last three illustrate big changes in what folks in this country like and buy most of, in the ever-changing condiment world. In 2011, mayo was King. By 2014, salsa had surpassed all, (for the second time – More on that later), and as of last year, sriracha topped regular old salsa for the win. Interesting, is it not? Think about it and it makes great sense. Sure, the old standbys still star on sandwiches, and as constituents in sauces, salads, and the like – but salsa can do much more than any of those, and, well, sriracha is good with damn near anything.
Of course, salsa is still king, because sriracha is, after all, exactly that – Salsa, and not very different from the predominantly Mexican varieties we’re used to here. I say varieties, but truth be told, us folks up here in El Norte are far from well schooled in the stunning pantheon that is Mexican salsa – And that’s just speaking of Mexico, let alone the rest of Central and South America. Trust me when I tell you that you’re really missing something spectacular if that’s the case for you. Today, we’re out to fix that.
I’ll provide links to several recipes that you’ll find here, and add a few new ones as well. The rest of this is kind of a primer, designed to hopefully show you something new, pique your interest, and get you digging for a variation you can call your own. You’ll also notice I’m not going to describe a whole lot of parings, and that’s done on purpose – What you like salsa on – what kind on what things – That’s your gig, and discovering for yourself is a hell of a lot more fun than reading what I think you should eat, yeah?
Many Americanos assume that the term salsa is purely Mexican, but it’s definitively not. Salsa means ‘sauce’ in Spanish, Italian, and Greek. The term derives from the Latin word ‘salsus’, meaning salted. I think it’s an interesting fact that, while touched with sweet, heat, herbs, and spices, it’s still that salty, savory bass note that defines the salsa rhythm section. Of course, sauces didn’t start out that way anywhere that lacked tomatoes – That makes the salsa we’re used to a true native of Mexico, Central, and South America. It wasn’t until the Spaniards caused all their mayhem in the new world that the tomato made its way over to Europe, and then basically conquered the world.
Salsa began with the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan peoples. The Spanish were intrigued, and termed the piquant blend of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, and spices ‘salsa’ as far back as the late 16th century – Then they took it back home with them. While those three legendary civilizations largely didn’t survive, their salsas did, and continue to flourish throughout the Americas. It’s these Mexican staples that largely flavor things up here in the north.
One version of the stuff, ubiquitously known as ‘hot sauce,’ ( Basically chiles, vinegar, and salt, AKA, what’s in sriracha), caught on quite early here in America – Maybe earlier than you’re aware of – That’s particularly interesting in light of the fact that, by the mid 20th century, a fair number of those chiles and brands were very hard to find, having been driving out by post WWII food homogeneity. Yet the first bottled hot sauce, powered by cayenne chiles, was offered for sale in Massachusetts, back in 1807. In 1849, Louisiana banker Colonel Maunsell White planted the first crop of Tabasco chiles north of the border – Ten years later, Maunsell marketed the first bottles of ‘Tobasco’ chile Sauce, and Edmund McIlhenny plants some seeds obtained from Maunsell on his property – Avery Island, Louisiana. In 1868, McIlhenny poured his aged sauce into used cologne bottles and sent it out as samples, resulting in thousands of orders. By the 1860s, you could buy bird chile powered sauce in New York City. By 1898, a former McIlhenny employee started up B. F. Trappey & Sons, and another legendary sauce was born.
In 1917, Henry Tanklage introduced La Victoria Salsa Brava, a traditional Mexican style salsa still in production today. La Victoria’s red, green, and enchilada sauces, along with Old El Paso, (which was formed in 1917, but didn’t start making Tex-Mex stuff until 1969), are the stuff that introduced generations of gringos to Mexica and Tex Mex cooking. It’s reasonable to say that the full circle of originators can be closed with David and Margaret Pace’s introduction of his namesake salsa in 1947. Pace noted that, “In ’47, my sauce bottles exploded all over the grocery shelves because I couldn’t get the darned formula right.” Those were simpler time, without a doubt. By the mid 1980s, the salsa craze was in full swing, and by the early ’90’s, salsa outsold all other condiments for the first time.
Salsa, as most of us know it, is a play on Salsa Roja, a tomato based, cooked salsa, usually containing onion and chile, with hints of garlic and cilantro. It’s what you get when you sit down at damn near any Mex joint in the U.S. As simple as it is, the range of quality and taste is huge. I argue that you can reliably learn much about the restaurant you’re about to patronize by how good that first dish of salsa is – If it’s inspired – nuanced, with obvious care given to balance and the overall flavor palette, you’re about to eat good food. If it’s dull, lifeless, tastes old or made from crappy ingredients, well… I’ve been known to get up and go elsewhere. The lions share of American store bought salsa is salsa roja, regardless of how schmancy it may sound. Other popular roja derivatives include ranchera, taqueria, and brava. Many, many derivations on this theme have been made and are sold, most of which feature various levels of heat, (from mild to truly stupid), roasting of the constituents, or exotic additions. Those are all great, but if you find something you like, what’s far greater is for you to dissect that recipe and make one of your own – That’s what the folks who sell that stuff did, so why shouldn’t you?
Probably the next most well known version is Pico de Gallo, which literally translates to ‘rooster’s beak.’ There are competing tales for the origin of the name, from the fact that serrano chiles kinda look like a birds beak, to the ‘chicken feed’ consistency of well made Pico, to the early propensity to eat it by grabbing a pinch between dialing finger and thumb – You get to decide on that one… Pico is a Salsa Cruda, raw salsas that need nor want cooking. From a straight mix of tomato, onion, chile, and cilantro, to blends made with corn, fruit, seeds, nuts, or more exotic veggies, they’re a delight and a must make. Our raspberry Pico is stunningly good, and illustrates why you see some kind of acid in most of them – Be it citrus, mango, berries, or a splash of vinegar, that slightly sweet counterpunch and bite makes amazing things happen.
Salsa Verde, is, of course, green. Verdes are usually cooked sauces made with tomatillos, that pre-Colombian Nightshade relative native to pretty much everywhere in the Americas except the far north. Tomatillos have a bunch of pectin, so they gel up nicely and form a rich Sauce that sticks to what you put it on. Mixed with chiles, onion, garlic, and cilantro, they have a sublime, early flavor that goes well with many things.
Salsa Ranchera is a roasted red sauce made from tomatoes, chiles, and a spice blend. It’s typically blended to a smooth consistency and served warm. If you’re making huevos rancheros, it’s a must have.
Salsa Negra is not well know up here, but it should be. A combination of chiles, garlic, spices, and oil, it’s pungent and delightful, more like a Mexican style harissa or sambal than a salsa roja, and is much more potent. See our recipe below.
Farther south, there are many iconic salsas, some of which we’ve covered, and some you need to check out.
Chimichurri, that delightfully pungent mix of parsley, onion, garlic, and chiles in oil and vinegar, is the most popular thing in Argentina and Uruguay, and for good reason. Here’s a recipe for you to try.
In Costa Rica, the ubiquitous table condiment is Salsa Lizano, a smooth, delicate brown sauce that is, frankly, highly addictive. There’s a recipe below.
In Peru, the go to is Peri Peri. Its more like harissa than most South American salsas, mainly because the most fiery and traditional version is powered by African birds eye chiles, which truly do pack a wallop. You can make it with less incendiary stuff, and many folks down there do. Recipe down below for you.
And then, from the Caribbean, Cuba, and the Yucatán, there’s mojo, the heavenly marinade that powers great carne asada – You’ll find that over on this page.
So, there you have it, a salsa map to go wild with. Tonight, I’m gonna do pork tenderloin tacos, with two fresh picos, one corn, one berry – What are you making?
1 large Carrot
1/2 small Sweet Onion
1-2 Jalapeño Chiles
1/4 small Red Bell Pepper
5-6 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1/2 fresh small Lemon
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste
Peel, core, trim pineapple, and dice 2 Cups.
Peel, trim and grate 2/3 Cup of the carrot.
Peel, trim and fine dice the onion and pepper.
Trim, devein and de-seed the Jalapeño, (or leave all that if you like the heat, and you can always use hotter chiles – I should write this into every recipe, just for David Berkowitz – The DB Rule ?)
Mince the Cilantro.
Throw all that into a non-reactive mixing bowl. Add the lemon thyme, lemon juice, and zest. Season lightly with Salt and Pepper.
Refrigerate covered for at least an hour, then remove, remix and taste – Adjust seasoning as needed.
EThis stuff was born to power rice and beans, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s incredible on a whole lot more than that – Put this on roasted Brussels sprouts and suddenly, you live Brussels sprouts…
8-10 cloves Black Garlic (Readily available at many Asian groceries and online, this aged Garlic is more intense, sweeter, and notably darker, hence the name – It is basically slowly caramelized over a long period of time, and it’s amazing. If you don’t have that and the jones hits you, see below)
8-10 cloves fresh Garlic
2-4 fresh Chiles, (Guajillo, Serrano, or Árbol if you can get them, if not, use 1 ounce of guajillo and árbol each, reconstituted)
3/4 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Cumin seed.
* If you don’t have black garlic, in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add a couple Tablespoons of avocado oil and allow to heat through. Stem and peel a whole head of garlic, and slice big cloves in half. Pack a nice, solid layer of garlic onto the pan and reduce heat to medium low. Keep an eye on things and stir occasionally. Let the garlic cook until it’s deeply browned, aromatic, and soft, then use that for the recipe.
Peel, trim and mince black and fresh garlic.
Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (Or apply the DB rule)
Pulse the Cumin seed in a spice grinder until their roughly broken up, but not powdered.
In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add the oil and allow to heat through. Add the chiles and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the chiles start to brown and and are quite fragrant.
Remove from heat and pour into a non-reactive jar or bowl. Add the garlic, vinegar, agave, cumin, and a teaspoon of salt. Mix well, then allow to cool, covered, to room temperature.
Will last for a couple of weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.
1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Broth
1-2 Chiles, (Guajillo or Serrano are both good)
1/2 small Sweet Onion
2-3 Baby Carrots
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1/2 fresh Lemon
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
2 teaspoons Blackstrap Molasses
2 teaspoons pickling Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin
Peel, trim, and fine dice carrot and onion.
Stem chiles, cut in half, then devein and deseed.
In a heavy skillet over medium high heat, add the chiles and pan roast for 3-5 minutes until they start to blister and get quite fragrant.
Add the veggie broth, onion, and carrot. Allow to heat through until it simmers, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few more minutes.
Zest lemon half.
Strain the cooked veggies, reserving the broth. Add veggies to a large mixing bowl.
Add Agave Nectar, vinegar, lemon juice and zest, molasses, cumin, and salt to the mix.
Add 1 cup of the reserved broth to the bowl.
Process with a stick blender, (use your regular blender if, gods forbid, you don’t have a stick). Blend to a smooth, even consistency. If you want super smooth, run the processed sauce through a single mesh strainer, otherwise just leave it rustic.
It’ll last a good two weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.
Peri Peri Sauce – Peruvian Rocket Fuel
1/2 Cup African Birds Eye Chiles, ( árbol, birds beak, cherry, or red serranos will work fine too)
1 Red Onion
8 cloves Garlic
2 small Tomatoes
1 small Red Bell Pepper
1 large Lemon
3 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2-3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
2 teaspoons Smoked Paprika
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
2 Bay Leaves, (Turkish or California, as you prefer)
Place whole chiles, onion, bell Pepper, chiles, and peeled garlic on a rimmed baking sheet under a high broiler. Broil for 2-3 minutes, until veggies start to blister, then turn – Repeat until all sides are done, remove from heat. Once the veggies are cool enough to handle,
Stem, seed, and devein chiles and bell pepper, mince garlic, fine dice onion, chiles, and pepper.
Set up to blanch tomatoes- One pot of boiling water, with an ice water bath next to that. Pop the tomatoes in for about 30-45 seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon and immerse them fully into the ice water bath until fully cooled.
Remove tomatoes, peel of skins, and rough chop.
Zest and quarter the lemon.
In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add all prepped veggies, agave nectar, paprika, salt, pepper, oregano, and bay leaves. Mix well, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to just maintain that, and cook for 25-30 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
Add cooked ingredients to a blender vessel, then add lemon juice, and vinegar, then process blender until the sauce is nice and smooth.
Finally, while processing add a slow drizzle of oil, allowing the sauce to take it up at its preferred rate.
You may run it though a single mesh strainer, or leave it rustic.
It’ll last a good week refrigerated in clean glass.
Try it on chicken, pork, or burgers.