Archive for April, 2015
Greetings from south of the border! Today I’m going to attempt the impossible–a semi-comprehensive article summing up the Mexican salsa experience. It’s tough because the subject is pretty broad, there being an ideal sauce for virtually every dish in every region of Mexican cooking. Salsas, moles, pipianes and adobos are the highest, most indisputable privilege of this vibrant, resonant, complex and amazingly varied World Heritage cuisine.
Salsas have always held an important place on the Mexican table by ancient prehispanic custom. A diner may preview coming attractions by scooping up a bit of raw or cooked salsa with a warm tortilla, crisp tortilla chip or piece of bread as a simple appetizer, and salsas will enhance and adorn antojitos, rice dishes, soups, salads and cooked dishes, adding rich dimensions of flavor, texture and heat.
In prehispanic Mexico mulli (now know as mole) meant sauce, as does the Spanish word salsa. Over hundreds of years moles have come to include not only relatively simple sauces but an astoundingly baroque collection of fine sauces which may be served on steamed vegetables, poultry, pork and even beef, these versions generally being considered fiesta food. Unfortunately mole is widely misinterpreted, many people believing it to be a bad chocolate sauce. A mole may or may not include chocolate to balance its finely tuned flavors, but at no time should it ever taste like Hershey’s! A mole might be light, fresh and herbal, and take under a hour to prepare, but it will warrant five stars… that’s mole. If you have the opportunity to try one, ask for a sample. If you love it, you’re in for a big treat, and if not–you’ve dodged that culinary bullet. A mole is only as good as the cook.
The pipianes are fairly thick, textured salsas based on toasted pumpkin seeds and other nuts and seeds, giving them a rustic texture and nutty, creamy flavor. They may be served thick to enrobe meats or vegetables, or may be thinned with flavorful stock and served as a festive soup. Pipian may be red or green, depending on whether red tomatoes or green tomatillos are used as a base.
There are myriad recipes and techniques used in the preparation of these magical sauces which are the heart and soul of traditional Mexican cooking. I would like to include a highly simplified run-down, the steps of salsa as I present them to cooks in my my kitchen.
Simply chop or dice fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes, white onion, and serrano chile, fold them together, season with sea salt to taste and add freshly chopped cilantro, if desired, at the moment it is served and you have a fresh Salsa Mexicana or Salsa Cruda. Add chopped or diced red radish and some peeled, seeded diced cucumber and voila! You have Pico de Gallo! The original Pico de Gallo from Jalisco is made with equal proportions of peeled, diced jicama and peeled, diced sweet orange sections, sprinkled with toasted, ground dried chile. These delicate raw salsas, which are actually fresh relishes, salads or raw chutneys, are good for one day only.
Char red Roma tomatoes or green tomatillos, a slice of white onion, a few cloves of garlic and a few serrano chiles on a hot, dry comal until everything chars, softens and sweetens. Grind in a stone molcajete or, as modern cooks do, in the good old Osterizer. If you use a blender, pulse and leave plenty of texture to mimic a salsa ground in a stone or earth bowl, season with sea salt to taste and you have what are known as salsas de molcajete, with their light, fresh, semi-cooked flavor and texture.
If you puree your molcajete salsa (or the same ingredients raw, or simmered briefly in hot water until softened), you may then use a technique called “frying” a salsa. Heat a splash of oil in a deep soup pot, pour your red or green salsa directly onto the hot oil (be careful as it will splatter!) and “fry” until the head of foam that initially rises has fallen and the bubble are popping thick, about ten minutes. This thickened, “fried” version will have the lovely texture, concentrated flavor and color of a marinara. The red version makes a wonderful Salsa Ranchera.
The next step would be to add a dried chile, or combination of dried chiles, to your red or green salsa. Toast your chosen chiles on a dry comal to maximize flavors, soak in boiling water to soften and add to instantly create a completely different salsa such as Salsa de Chile Ancho, Chile Guajillo, or Chile Pasilla (from left to right, below).
Any of these salsas may be used in any number of dishes with widely varying and always delicious results. Although it is impossible to present a full discussion of salsas in such little time and space, I hope this gets you in the kitchen COOKING MEXICAN!