A couple weeks ago I ended up cooking for a pool party, about half the attendees of which I'd never met. So I figured I should probably make some stuff in addition to the standard grill-bound proteins to accommodate any potential non-meat-eaters. Easy fix-salsa. And no, salsa wasn't the only thing I made to address this, I mean neither my laziness nor my apathy towards vegetarianism is THAT bad. I made other plant-type stuff too. What I did do, though, was bulk up the salsa as to nearly render it a self-contained meal. This has been a cookout staple of mine for a while, to further enhance the already-formidable versatility of salsa, such that it graduates from sauce/condiment/dip to full-blown vegetable side dish, or even main course, with very little added work or resources.
This time around I also decided to combine components that are typically separated out into discrete salsas, partly in an attempt to appeal to as broad a spectrum of palates as possible, but also because I couldn't decide which type I wanted to eat more. In this case, since I was pressed for time, I cheated and used canned chipotle peppers (El Pato brand, which is Spanish for "the duck," btw) to add smoke, heat, and fruit components most often associated with salsa roja. With more time, I would have reconstituted dried peppers (I usually use arbol and/or ancho) for the salsa. Then, to add some dark, charry notes, I grilled some poblano peppers and onions to an ashy black and pureed them right into the liquid base mixture, a technique found in salsa negra aka sala baja. Yeap, Voltron salsa, why not. Not gonna lie, I first picked up this habit at Baja Fresh, where I would sometimes fill an empty soda cup with a Frankenstein-ish conglemeration from the salsa bar.
What I learned at this party was that, despite the longstanding ubiquity of salsa in American culture, apparently there are still a lot of folks for whom "salsa" is still a very narrowly defined thing-mostly tomatoes with some onion, maybe some hot sauce or peppers, and if you're feeling particularly freaky, cilantro. Like, there were a few people who were shocked that there were corn and beans in the salsa ("I didn't know you could do that!") And I, feeling quite authoritative, was like, "I'm an adult, I make the rules, yo." But then, my friend Christina put my ass back in check, noting that, while the salsa tasted pretty good (in part due to the very same reason of all the added ingredients), it isn't quite "beaner-approved." Simmer down, people, she's Mexican.
Salsa Tomatoes are the most common base, but you can use anything, especially if it has high moisture content, meaty flesh, and some sweetness. Mangoes, peaches, pineapple, melons, even kiwis are viable candidates.
Salsas can be either cooked or raw but are most often served cold or room temp. The main flavor components are allium (onion, garlic), heat (fresh or dried pepper), herbaceous or "green" (cilantro, scallions), acid (citrus juice or vinegar), and salt. What's left is texture, and salsas can range from perfectly smooth (salsa roja) to nearly all solid (pico de gallo). For maximum versatility, I like to go with an even mix of the two. I've been asked many times what the difference between salsa and gazpacho is. In my view, there is none, except in how you eat them.
Types Salsa Roja is made from reconstituted dried red peppers; it is usually smooth in texture and very spicy.
Salsa Verde uses green tomatillos, which are quite tart, and cilantro and sometimes green peppers, also smooth in texture but usually mild.
Salsa Negra/Baja is similar to salsa roja except the ingredients are deeply charred, giving the final salsa a dark color and smoky burnt notes.
Pico de Gallo translates to "rooster's beak," but the etymology seems pretty murky; it generally consists of chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, and cilantro-without a binding liquid base, it's basically just a loose relish rather than an actual sauce.
Henry's Voltron Salsa
(makes about a quart, or enough for four people)
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 15-ounce can black beans,drained of liquid
1 11-ounce can corn, drained of liquid
2 peppers from an 8-ounce can of chipotle peppers
1 poblano pepper
1 jalapeno pepper
1 medium onion, one half finely diced, one half left intact
2 cloves garlic, minced
a few sprigs cilantro
salt to taste
white vinegar to taste
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1. Char the half-onion, poblano, and jalapeno on the grill or stovetop gas burner until blackened all over. Cut the stems off both peppers, and chop the peppers and onion into inch-long chunks. Don't worry about the seeds.
2. Make sure cilantro is well-rinsed and pick the leaves from the stems. Don't throw away the stems. Roughly chop the cilantro leaves.
3. In a blender, combine charred peppers and onion, cilantro stems, chipotle peppers, and about 1/4 of the tomatoes. Puree until smooth.
4. In a medium bowl, combine puree, cilantro, and all remaining ingredients, adjusting salt and vinegar to taste. Try adding a tiny bit of plain sugar if you need to smooth the flavor out a bit.
Christina Urias's Salsa Roja
4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
10 chile de arbol
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 head of cilantro
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 cup of water
1. Put all the ingredients in a non-stick frying pan and roast/boil till the tomatoes are nice and soft. Usually that takes about 10 min on a stove's medium setting.
2. After that's done, pour all the ingredients into a blender, and blend until fine. The consistency depends on how chunky you want the salsa. If you want it chunky, then don't add any additional water. But if you want a more liquid base, add 1 more cup of water and blend.