Yalla Salsa!

A Mexican meal, even the most humble, is not complete without a salsa.

salsa (photo credit: Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/ MCT)
(photo credit: Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/ MCT)
A Mexican meal, even the most humble, is not complete without a salsa.
Although salsa is the Spanish word for sauce, a Mexican salsa has a special identity. Mark Miller, author of The Great Salsa Book, explained the difference: “I like to characterize salsas as a combination of raw, cooked or partially cooked ingredients that are put together to form a harmonious chord. In a good salsa, each component retains its own taste, texture and personality so that each bite will contain a myriad of flavors and a kaleidoscope of textures. In a sauce, on the other hand, all the ingredients are usually cooked together to create a single texture and a more homogeneous taste.”
Tomatoes originated in Mexico, and are the basis for most Mexican salsas. Many salsas are made from raw tomatoes and therefore are at their best at the height of the season, when the tomatoes are ripe and sweet.
Such uncooked salsas need very few ingredients. They are as quick and easy to make as Israeli salad and resemble it somewhat in appearance. To make the most common version of fresh salsa, often called salsa cruda, all you do is finely dice or chop tomatoes, white or green onions and fresh hot peppers and flavor the mixture with salt, chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) and lemon or lime juice if you like.
For greater depth of flavor, the same ingredients can be made into a grilled salsa. The components are grilled until they are charred, and then chopped with a knife, pounded in a mortar or pureed in a blender.
In Mexican homes, salsas are considered table condiments to add flavor to every meal. Salsa might be spooned over grilled meat or fish or used to top cooked vegetables, egg dishes, beans or rice. Their most popular use is for appetizers or snacks, as a dip for corn tortilla chips or other chips. In American homes, salsa might be spooned over soft cream cheese or bean dips to make a layered dip.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the US is in the midst of a salsa craze. According to Miller, “Sales have boomed so much that salsa has pushed King Ketchup out of the top-selling spotlight in the North American condiment market.” Many now use salsas to top their burgers and steaks.
Part of the reason for the popularity of salsas is that they are not as rich as most traditional sauces. Most contain no oil at all, and so are perfect for light cooking, adding lots of flavor in a wholesome way.
Salsas make good flavorings for other sauces, such as mayonnaise, vinaigrette or even tehina. To make a delicious dip for raw vegetables or a spicy spread for sandwiches, stir 2 or 3 tablespoons salsa into 6 tablespoons mayonnaise or tehina. Make a similar mixture with sour cream, and you have a tasty topping for cooked vegetables. To give a flavor boost to cooked tomato sauce for pasta, rice or vegetables, add a few spoonfuls of raw tomato salsa to the sauce, off the heat, just before serving.
You can use salsa as a cooking ingredient too. Mexicans make red rice by adding tomato salsa to the water used for cooking the rice. Beans benefit from being cooked with salsa, and so does ground meat. Cooks mix salsa into meatball and meatloaf mixtures to liven up their flavor. Sauteed ground meat heated with salsa makes a tasty spaghetti sauce or a hearty sandwich filling.
Adjust the hotness of this Mexican “salsa cruda” to your taste by leaving some or all of the seeds in the hot peppers – the more you leave in, the hotter the salsa is. If you don’t have fresh hot peppers, you can use pickled ones, or flavor the salsa with hot red pepper flakes to taste. The salsa is best on the day it is made, but it can be prepared up to 2 days ahead.
Serve this all-purpose salsa with grilled or roasted chicken, meat, fish, vegetables and eggs, or with tortilla chips.
350 gr. ripe tomatoes, very finely diced 2 or 3 jalapeno or other fresh hot peppers, seeds left in or removed to taste, minced 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) 2 large green onions, chopped, or 1⁄2 cup chopped red onion 1⁄4 tsp. salt, or to taste ground red pepper to taste (optional) 1 to 2 tsp. lemon or lime juice (optional) 2 to 3 Tbsp. water (optional)
Combine tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and cilantro in a bowl and mix well. Season to taste with salt and red pepper. Add lemon juice if desired, and a little water if mixture is dry; it should have a chunky, sauce-like consistency. Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 2 cups, enough for 4 to 6 servings.
For this sandwich, grilled tomato chili salsa is made into a flavorful dressing with a little olive oil, but you can omit the oil if you prefer. Use laffa to make this sandwich, or tortillas if they are available. If you don’t have a flat bread suitable for rolling, spoon the components into pita instead, or layer them between two slices of bread.
For a dairy variation, substitute mild sliced cheese for the chicken.
1⁄4 cup Grilled Tomato Chili Salsa (see recipe below), plus additional salsa for serving 1 tsp. strained fresh lemon juice 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 roasted peeled red pepper, homemade or from a jar or a deli 1 ripe avocado 4 to 6 thin slices roast chicken 2 or 3 portions of flat bread 11⁄4 to 11⁄2 cups shredded lettuce, preferably romaine 2 small ripe tomatoes, cut in thin slices or half slices 2 large fresh mushrooms, sliced thin (optional)
Prepare Grilled Tomato Chili Salsa; you will need only part of the salsa for this recipe.
Combine 1⁄4 cup salsa with 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Gradually stir in oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cut roasted pepper in strips. Peel and slice avocado. To make sandwich, put chicken and avocado on flat bread, along the edge nearest you. Top with pepper strips, lettuce, tomato and mushroom slices. Spoon salsa dressing generously over the top. Roll up the sandwich and serve extra salsa on the side.
Makes 2 or 3 servings.
One of the best loved Mexican salsas is made entirely on the barbecue, from four ingredients: tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and garlic. You can char the vegetables directly over a gas flame, broil them or grill them on a barbecue or on a stove-top grill. There is no need to seed or peel the tomatoes or the hot peppers; the charred bits are part of the salsa’s charm.
Serve this salsa in small spoonfuls with grilled chicken or meat, with cooked potatoes or other vegetables and as a tasty spread for sandwiches. You can keep it for 4 days in a covered container in the refrigerator.
1 large onion, peeled and quartered 450 gr. small ripe tomatoes 2 or 3 large garlic cloves, peeled 1 or 2 small fresh hot peppers (see Note below) salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat a stove-top ridged grill on medium-high heat. Add onion quarters and grill them on all sides, about 5 to 8 minutes per side or until charred. Remove from grill.
Add tomatoes and grill about 5 minutes per side or until charred and tender. Char garlic cloves about 2 or 3 minutes per side. Char hot peppers on the grill until blackened in spots, turning them often. Halve peppers and remove their seeds and membranes if you would like the salsa to be less hot.
Puree tomatoes, onion, garlic and hot peppers in a food processor until smooth. Season salsa quite generously with salt, and add pepper to taste.
Makes about 21⁄2 cups, about 8 to 10 servings.
Note: When handling hot peppers, wear gloves if your hands are sensitive.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.