It may go head-to-head with ketchup as America’s favorite condiment, but that doesn’t make finding a great tomato salsa easy. For starters, don’t look in the jarred food section.
If you want great salsa, the sort that bursts with the flavors of chunky tomatoes, vibrant cilantro, pungent garlic and the tingling heat of jalapeño, you’re going to have to head to the produce section or your local farmers’ market.
The good news is that an authentic Mexican-style tomato salsa is quick and simple to prepare, calls for no unusual ingredients or fancy equipment, and pays serious dividends in flavor.
Here’s what you need to know.
The basic ingredients for a quick, classic Mexican-style salsa are tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, cilantro and lime juice, says Nicole Curtis Ammerman, manager of New Mexico’s Santa Fe School of Cooking.
“It’s very rustic food,” says Ammerman. “It’s not exact, like some French cooking.”
Americans are most familiar with salsa as blend of chopped tomatoes, chilies, onions and garlic, and use it mainly for dipping chips, says Rick Bayless, chef and owner of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and host of the PBS show “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.”
“The best salsa is going to have the least number of ingredients,” he says.
In Mexico, it’s known as “salsa Mexicana,” a table sauce that’s used on numerous foods, from eggs to tacos. Its role in Mexican cuisine, Bayless says, dates to the earliest record of Mexican food being a tapestry of color, texture and flavor.
Great salsas rely on layers of flavor and a hearty texture.
This is why so many jarred salsas fail to impress. The time in the jar robs the tomatoes of their meatiness. The tomatoes also often are too finely chopped, resembling a puree more than a salsa.
“The biggest problem with most salsas is they’re insipid, they’re watery and not very flavorful,” says Susie Middleton, executive editor of Fine Cooking magazine.
Lack of texture usually can account for most of those problems. Pureed tomatoes exude more moisture. Tomato size also lends aesthetic value.
“The bigger the chunks are, the bigger the perception of freshness,” says Dennis Ferris, a food scientist at California State University, Fresno, who has studied how to maintain the fresh taste of cilantro in processed salsas. “So, the size does matter.”
For that reason, he uses egg-shaped Roma or plum tomatoes, which have firmer, meatier flesh than other varieties and are more acidic. The size of the tomato chunks also is key – 1/16-inch dice is ideal to make the flavors meld, says Bayless.
Layered beneath the tomato taste, the heat of the chilies, aroma of cilantro and mellow pungency of garlic should come through. Lime juice, a more traditional choice than vinegar or lemon juice, rounds out the salsa with a touch of acidity.
Just a splash of olive oil will hold these flavors together, says Middleton.
Whether you like a gentle tingle or a full frontal attack, it all comes down to capsaicin, the chemical that provides the heat in peppers.
Controlling the heat of a salsa is easy. Capsaicin is concentrated in the white ribs and seeds that run along the inside of the pepper. The outer flesh of the pepper has some heat, but mostly offers more nuanced pepper flavors.
Most Americans don’t tolerate salsas much beyond mild, says Dirk Rambo, chief operating officer of the Abuelo’s Mexican Food Embassy, an upscale-casual chain that has restaurants in 15 states.
Abuelo’s solution is to place a container at every table filled with the hot parts of the pepper. Diners can mix some into their salsa and make it as hot as they’d like.
To get the most pepper flavor but control the heat at home, start by scraping the seeds and ribs out of the inside of the pepper. Finely dice them, then set them aside. Add just the flesh of the pepper in the salsa.
If you want to increase the heat, add some of the ribs and seeds. (And wear rubber gloves while working on the peppers.)
In the U.S., the most widely available chilies are jalapeños, which have a mild taste and heat. Serrano peppers have a bit more heat, and habaneros are super-hot, says Ferris. As a rule of thumb, the smaller and darker the pepper, the more intense its heat.
Though serrano chilies are the most authentic, many American cooks will find it easier to use jalapeños, says Ferris.
The onion and garlic
Onions and garlic add pungency to salsa. The garlic should be finely minced or crushed. This ensures the garlic flavor is uniformly distributed through the salsa.
Garlic variety is somewhat a matter of taste. Because Mexican garlic is a bit stronger than American, Mexican salsas usually contain just a bit of it. Upping the amount of American garlic just a bit is a fine substitute.
For the onions, Bayless opts for the crisp, clear flavor of white onions. But even then, he likes to tone down the their pungency.
He chops the onions, places them in a strainer and runs cold water over them for about 5 seconds before shaking out the excess water and adding them to the salsa.
While many people use a food processor or blender for their salsas, hand-chopping is best to get a chunky Mexican-style salsa, or salsa cruda, the sort good for scooping on a chip, says Bayless.
A sharp knife produces small pieces of vegetable that better retain their juices, he says. Food processors and blenders can leave your ingredients battered and frothed.
And here’s another easily overlooked equipment issue: The type of bowl matters. Thanks to the tomatoes and lime juice, salsa is particularly acidic. Which means a nonreactive bowl is key to avoid off flavors from plastic. Stick with glass or stainless steel.
Once you’ve chopped and mixed, it’s time to rest – give it about 15 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.
But after that, the clock starts ticking. Fresh salsa is at its best for an hour or two. After that, the tomatoes lose their moisture, making the salsa watery, and the potency of the onions can overwhelm the other flavors.
Mexican-Style Tomato Salsa
6 firm Roma tomatoes
1 large jalapeño chili
1/2 medium white onion
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
12 large sprigs of cilantro (about 1/3 cup of loosely packed, chopped leaves)
Juice from 2 limes
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cut each tomato in half and use a spoon to gently scoop out and discard the watery pulp and seeds. Use a knife to finely dice the tomatoes into pieces that are about 1/16-inch thick. Transfer the tomatoes to a large glass or stainless steel bowl.
Cut the stem end off the jalapeño, then slice the pepper in half lengthwise. Use the tip of the knife to scrape out the seeds and white membranes, finely mince them, then set them aside. Finely mince the flesh of the pepper and add to the tomatoes.
Use a knife to finely dice the onion. Transfer the diced onion to a mesh strainer and rinse under cold water for about 5 seconds, then shake gently to remove excess water and add to the tomatoes.
Roughly chop the cilantro and add to the tomatoes. Add the lime juice and olive oil, then use a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to gently toss the ingredients to combine. Season with salt and pepper, adjusting to taste.
If additional heat is desired, mix in some of the reserved membranes and seeds, tasting as you go.
Allow the salsa to rest at room temperature for about 15 minutes. The salsa should be consumed within two hours of making, after which it can become watery and oniony and lose its crunch and fresh, bright flavors.
Yield: About 4 cups (8 servings)
Approximate nutrition per serving: 33 calories, 2 grams fat (less than one gram saturated, 49 percent fat calories), less than one gram protein, 4 grams carbohydrate, less than one gram dietary fiber, no cholesterol, 150 milligrams sodium.
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