Kingdom of Salsa

I think I’ve got salsa running through my veins. My two oldest brothers — twins, twenty years my elders — both married Mexican women. At my childhood home, our brick worker — Cisco — was practically a part of the family. I have formative memories of large, festive gatherings with mariachi and piñatas, huge bowls of crispy tortilla chips and dishes of smoky, addictive and dangerously hot salsa.

(l to r) Chipotle caramelized onion salsa, tomatillo arbol salsa, pan-roasted tomato garlic salsa

I would bravely dip a chip into the salsa — just a corner at first. Then half the chip, and eventually I would actually scoop. I would thrill at both the uncomfortable blazing tingle in my mouth, and at my increasing ability to handle it. And the abuelas would marvel at the Scoville heat tolerance of the little gringo.

These days, I spend a good portion of my life searching for great salsa. For me, it’s more a need than a desire. I must always have a good, fresh salsa in my fridge — for snacking with tortilla chips, for the spontaneous quesadilla, for fish tacos and for chilaquiles. It also helps facilitate harmony in my marriage — you don’t want to see my wife’s face when she opens the fridge to discover we’re out of salsa.

Because I try to limit the amount of driving I do on daily basis, I attempt to reproduce the most delicious salsas I discover at places such as Loteria Grill, Poquito Mas or Culver City’s Sanchez Carniceria. And mostly I fail. I can identify the various components, but there is always some missing element or technique that makes my salsa good, but not as good as theirs. I consult the cookbooks of various Mexican food gurus like Rick Bayless and Susan Feniger, try their recipes and find that they too fall short of my admittedly high standard. My wife’s sister took us to a sweet little joint called Los Agaves in Santa Barbara — a great Mexican food city — where each of their three or four salsas was unique, mysterious and delicious. Certain I would have no success reproducing them, I filled as many little plastic containers as I could fit in the car and bolted.

Maybe salsa is like sushi rice was, and it will take me a decade of focused work to perfect my technique. I hope not. Here are recipes for three of my own best salsas.

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Chipotle caramelized onion salsa

2 medium tomatillos, cut in half
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 can chipotle chilies in adobo sauce (or 2 tsp. chipotle powder)
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt or to taste

Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add sliced onion and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, until beginning to turn golden. Reduce heat to medium and add 1/2 cup water. Add half tomatillos. Cook until water is evaporated. Add sugar and continue cooking, stirring frequently, for 5 more minutes, or until onions are caramelized and tomatillos are soft. Remove to a food processor. Add chipotle chilies (or powder) and oregano, and puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt. Remove to a container and store in the fridge for up to one week.

*   *   *

Pan-roasted tomato & garlic salsa

2 large ripe heirloom tomatoes (or good red tomatoes)
1 large green jalapeño
3 large cloves garlic, skin intact
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste

I like to use two or three different colored heirloom tomatoes for this, as it creates a more beautiful salsa. But a couple big, ripe red tomatoes work equally well.

Get a cast-iron pan (or stainless steel if you don’t have cast-iron) hot to the point of smoking. Place garlic and jalapeño in the pan and cook, flipping a few times, for about 10 minutes until skin is blackening. Remove to cool. Place tomatoes in the pan and do that same, turning over a couple times, for another 10 minutes. Remove and cool.

Crush the tomatoes in a bowl. (Or cut into medium size chunks.) Remove garlic from skins. Scrape off as much of the jalapeño skin as you can, cut in half and remove seeds. (Leave a few if you want your salsa hot.) Place in food processor with tomatoes. Puree briefly to create a chunky rustic salsa. Stir in chopped cilantro and season with salt to taste, and serve with chips or on tacos, or store in the fridge in a container for up to a week.

*   *   *

Tomatillo arbol salsa

4 large tomatillos, cut in half
10 dried chilies de arbol
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
salt to taste

Toast the chilies in a hot pan until they begin to brown slightly. Remove and cool. Break the chilies open, de-stem and scrape out all the seeds.

Heat 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Add chilies and tomatillo halves, reduce heat to medium-high and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, drain off half the water, and let cool for 10 minutes. Place in a food processor with cilantro and garlic. Puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt. Good on tacos, with tortilla chips or spooned over chilaquiles.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 05:07:43

    Do YOU REALLY remember Cisco??? He was my buddy!! I was just thinking about him the other night because I have a gardener named Santiago who reminds me of him. He was a sweetie guy. You were a very little boy then.

    Anyway…I TOO love very hot salsa and YES, we were exposed to the hottest of all at Sarah’s parents home in Panorama City or something but they were LOVELY people and gave us some hot-ass salsa.

    Anyway, the hotter the better…and Maleia will agree…


  2. Benjamin Thompson
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 16:30:56

    Try this one:

    Also, 8 dried ancho chiles is kind of imprecise. Make sure your dried ancho chiles weigh at least 3 oz. It’s great served warm with queso fresco!


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