Salsa - The salt and pepper of Mexican cuisine

July 13, 2005|by KRISTIN WILSON

Every day in Mexico, families head off to open-air markets to select foods for their daily meals. Along with the rice, beans and meat items, they choose the freshest tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and herbs to make the daily salsa.

Salsa is as important to Mexican cuisine as salt and pepper is to traditional American food, explains Emanuel Muoz, co-owner of El Ranchero Restaurant in Hagerstown.

"Everyone makes their own salsa in the house every day," he says. No two families make it quite the same and everyone has different preferences for spices, texture and ingredients.


Munoz's 94-year-old grandfather, who lives in Mexico, likes his salsa extra spicy and eats habanero peppers whole.

As in Mexican households, Mexican restaurants serve salsas that vary depending on available ingredients, customers' tastes and family recipes.

"Here, we make it fresh every day," Munoz says, pointing to the chopped onions and jalapeos lined up in his restaurant's kitchen. "No two days does it taste the same."

El Ranchero's salsa - whether the red tomato or the green tomato variety - is made from a rough recipe passed along from Muoz's grandfather. Customers at El Ranchero will taste a salsa made from the standard salsa ingredients - tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapeos - but combined to taste. Most Mexicans don't go by strict recipes, Muoz explains. Instead they prepare the famous sauce according to what tastes right.

The fresh vegetable and chili side dish - often used as a chip dip - is a staple in Mexican cooking because it adds flavor, Muoz explains. In Mexico, beans, rice and chicken are often smothered with the fresh sauce.

Traditional Mexican-style salsas have taken off in a big way in the United States and they have inspired experimentation with different ingredients.

Since the late 1980s, American chefs have been experimenting with "fruit salsas" to bring extra flavor to light meat dishes, says Lonnie Coble, executive chef at LJ's and The Kat Lounge in Hagerstown.

"The great thing about salsa is that it works incredibly well with fish," he says. "If you wanted to do duck or turkey, it carries well with almost any kind of meat."

Coble has been serving up a Mango Ginger Salsa for about 10 years now, he says. Playing off of the traditional salsa's origins, he sometimes pairs his fruit salsa with spicy, Mexican-style foods, black beans and rice.

A well-prepared, balanced salsa brings more flavor to foods and often is used to "lubricate the food," Coble explains.

Many people confuse nontraditional salsas with relish or pico de gallo-style toppings.

A true salsa is "like a chunky sauce," Coble says. The Mexican pico de gallo is a melange of finely chopped vegetables with lemon or lime juice and seasonings. But salsa should have a liquid base to it, Coble says.

A true fruit salsa would be more of a puree with chunks of fruit and other ingredients, he says.

The liquid base of a salsa makes it ideal to serve with foods prepared by dry cooking methods like smoking, grilling or roasting. Salsas can add moisture to the dry meats, Coble says.

Fruit- or vegetable-based salsas work well with fish dishes featuring tuna, swordfish or shrimp and meat dishes, including duck, pork and chicken, Coble says.

Try these recipes:

Red Tomato Salsa

Emanuel Muoz, co-owner of El Ranchero Restaurant in Hagerstown, says this version of red tomato salsa is medium spicy. To change the spice, add more or less jalapeo peppers.

1 1/2 pounds of diced fresh red tomatoes or canned, whole, peeled tomatoes in juice cut up

1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1/3 cup finely chopped onion (or to taste)

1 tablespoon of salt (or to taste)

1 tablespoon of garlic powder (or to taste)

8 ounces of jalapeo peppers

Muoz says the above ingredients should be prepared and combined to individual tastes. Some people like the tomatoes, onions and cilantro to be coarsely chopped, others like the ingredients more finely chopped, he says. Tomatoes, onions and cilantro can be mixed in a blender, until the ingredients are still mostly chunky.

Remove the tops of the jalapeo peppers, but reserve the seeds. (Remove seeds for less spicy salsa). The peppers should be mixed in a blender, until small chunks remain, Muoz says.

Combine the peppers, tomatoes (with reserved juices to taste), cilantro, onion, salt and garlic powder. Serve with chips or as a sauce to go with rice, beans or meat dishes like chicken.

Makes about 4 cups.

- Recipe courtesy of El Ranchero Restaurant

Green Tomato Salsa

This salsa recipe from El Ranchero Restaurant is considered extra spicy.

1 1/2 pounds fresh, chopped green tomatillos or the canned green variety

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1/3 cup onion, chopped

1 tablespoon salt (or to taste)

1 tablespoon garlic powder (or to taste)

4 ounces of habanero peppers

As with any salsa, ingredients should be prepared to taste. The tomatillos, cilantro and onion can be chopped coarsely or very finely.

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