Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce, as well as a style of music and dance (but if you’re here, I’m guessing you’re more interested in the Mexican condiment). There are such a wide variety of salsas that adding a little of one or the other to the same tacos can dramatically change the flavor profile, making them taste like completely different dishes!
We’ve been experimenting with a range of different salsas here in Our Kitchen Classroom during our culinary exploration of Mexico: cooked and raw, hot and cold, sweet and savory, spicy and mild. Each new combination of ingredients has provided a chance to delve deeper into the mysteries and nuances of the local ingredients, an opportunity to experience them in all their shining glory in a diverse number of applications. We’ll share a few of our newest favorites, plus a few variations we’ve enjoyed, below.
Salsa Mexicana (a.k.a. pico de gallo)
burritos topped with a simple salsa mexicana
Salsa Mexicana is probably the standard in raw or uncooked salsas, and it makes an almost daily appearance in our Mexican kitchen. In it’s simplest form, it brings together the colors of the Mexican flag (los colores de la bandera) in an easy dice of red, white, and green: fresh tomatoes, crunchy onion, and crisp cilantro, all tossed together with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of fresh lime juice (called limón).
Our Little Sous was eager to use our brand new citrus juicer in the making of this special sauce. After cutting the lime in half, he carefully inserted the dripping hemisphere into the cavity of the juicer. He was delighted to discover how perfectly it fit!
Squeezing the juice, however, turned out to be much more difficult than he anticipated.
Gently asking if he might have better luck with the fruit reversed in direction, he rolled his eyes, but gave it a try. Success!
He proceeded to press the juice into the bowl of chopped ingredients, careful to sprinkle it evenly over the entire lot of cut produce. After adding a generous pinch of salt, he stirred everything vigorously to uniformly distribute the liquid and seasoning throughout. And, of course, he was constantly tasting to check and see if anything needed to be adjusted!
Salsa mexicana is as versatile a sauce as the availability of fresh and seasonal ingredients at your disposal. We have substituted red onion for white; Roma or cherry for Beefsteak tomatoes; even added diced bell peppers, tomatillos, and/or chile peppers, as our time and tastes permit. I love the rainbow confetti appearance you get when you add a wide variety of colors into the mix!
It helps to try to cut everything in approximately the same sized pieces, as this promotes uniformity in flavor and texture throughout each bite. However, if you also have a Little Sous assisting in your preparation, it isn’t necessary to nit pick about the consistency of each cut. He or she has plenty of time to master professional knife skills after getting comfortable in the kitchen.
enchiladas topped with salsa mexicana
Mango Chile Lime Salsa
Mangoes are a tropical stone fruit which, when in season and perfectly ripe, are an absolutely dribble-down-your-chin-juicy, moan-in-sweet-ecstacy treat! Fortunately for us, the season is now, so we are positively drowning in delicious drupes this summer.
After reading through scores of other expats singing the praises of a Mexican candy that combined the flavors of mango and chili on social media, I was keen to try these flavors together. As luck would have it, Our Little Sous and I had recently finished baking a dense and creamy New York style cheesecake with a Mexican twist (recipe coming soon) that was just begging for a bright and fruity topping to finish it off. Enter this sweet and spicy salsa to the rescue! It came together as simply as a few scoops and a quick stir.
For this particular iteration, we combined a lusciously ripe mango, a spoonful of chili oil, and a squeeze of lime. The sweetness of the mango provides a nice balance to the spicy heat of the chili peppers. I chose the oil here because, when combined with the vivid burst of lime juice, it creates a smooth, almost slippery mouthfeel that contrasts the rich viscosity of the cream cheese in the cake.
If you’re not yet convinced that sweet and spicy flavors should go together, this dessert will make you a convert. Not a fan of too much heat? No problem! All the velvety fats in the dairy help to dampen the sting of the peppers on the tongue. Of course, you can always adjust the spiciness of your own batch of salsa by increasing or reducing the chili to your liking, or even leaving it out entirely.
Remember, this is your creation, so you get to make it the way you like it. This is also why it’s crucial to taste your food at many different stages throughout the preparation process. Sometimes, the heat of a particular batch of chilis may be a bit more forward than another. In such instances, it’s impossible to suggest using the same measurement for that variation as you did for a previous one, unless of course you want a more fiery bite this time around.
Our Little Sous just LOVES to remind me of this each time he dips in to taste everything!
I am constantly in awe of the child-like curiosity that encourages this. He inspires me!
breakfast burrito with savory mango chili lime salsa and guacamole
We also experimented with a savory twist on this sweet sauce. One of my Mexican friends called this pico de gallo, too! Whatever you call it, it was certainly a delectable surprise.
This modification employed a mango duro, a more unyielding variety of mango. It looks almost the same as our sweeter, softer dessert variety, but retains a more crisp and crunchy texture when ripe, reminiscent of jicama or raw potato.
The only difference in the preparation here was the addition of a pinch salt. As you can see in the photo above, the firmer flesh of this fruit helps the cubes retain their rectangular distinctiveness, despite a vigorous toss in even more lime juice. After a day resting in the fridge, this salsa was even more flavorful than when it was freshly mixed.
Rustic Roasted Tomato Salsa
shredded chicken burrito with rustic roasted tomato salsa and guacamole
Our last sauce in today’s trio was a riff inspired by Chef Rick Bayless’ rustic roasted tomato salsa recipe, which you can find over here. I have long been enthralled by Chef Bayless and all his genuinely wonderful creations. His programs were my window into la comida de mi corazón (the cuisine of my heart) before we were blessed to land in Mexico ourselves. I can’t even count all the times I drooled over my keyboard, watching his creations coming together while in Europe or Asia, dreaming of the days when I would finally be able to purchase all those fantastic varieties of chilis and cheeses that add that special something to each dish.
I think this particular salsa has made an appearance on our collective plates a minimum of once (and sometimes three times) a day since we first sampled a batch just one week ago–and yeah, it is that good!
“Why, yes, we did burn them, and it tastes absolutely DIVINE!!!”
We only had fresh Roma tomatoes in the kitchen, so we used those in lieu of the canned tomatoes found in the recipe’s ingredient list. Since the very title of the recipe calls for roasted tomatoes, our Chef de Partie was all set to fire up the grill when the rains began to fall. Undeterred, we shifted the salsa prep party back indoors, but promptly declared the kitchen too hot for oven roasting. Thus, our first batch of salsa grabbed their flavor from a skillet on the stove top. Assisted by a spoonful of bacon fat leftover from breakfast and a generous pinch of salt, the tomatoes began to sauté, cooking very quickly in the hot fat.
“But, what’s all that black I see in the photo??? Did you BURN the tomatoes???”
Why, yes, we did burn them, and it tastes absolutely DIVINE!!!
Here’s the secret to getting the most intensely tomato-y flavor out of your tomatoes in a very short period of time: toss them in the hot fat, and then leave them alone.
That’s right! I just gave you permission to not constantly stir, flip, or shake the pan. In fact, you’ll get that gorgeously blackened crust on each piece faster if you don’t move them once the pieces start sizzling in the pan.
So, my advice is to shake the chopped tomatoes around in your pan just enough to coat each piece relatively evenly with the fat and the salt, and then walk away.
Yes, really! Just walk away. Turn your back to the flames and ignore it. It’s hard, I know. But I have faith in you. You can do this!
I promise you, if you resist the temptation to move these until well after you think they must be completely ruined, you will be greatly rewarded!
Ok, so now I have to confess that we didn’t completely turn our backs to the flames at the stove. But we did shift our attention to another fun project, which was the dry roasting of the garlic and jalapeño peppers on another burner.
This was sort of a new technique for Our Little Sous. We have roasted larger bell peppers directly on the flames of a gas stove before, and we have roasted entire heads of garlic in the oven on numerous occasions, be he still found the growing brown spots fascinating, as he constantly used the tongs to turn our garlic cloves and chili peppers and test for textural change and done-ness.
Parent’s Note: While they will soften and darken much more quickly if left alone, just like our tomatoes, it was important for us to allow Our Little Sous to experience the changes as he witnessed them. During the first preparation, this meant more frequent turning than I would have done, had I been preparing the salsa alone. Subsequent preparations required less flipping, which meant quicker roasting time. Feel free to gauge and adjust your instructions and/or regularity of rotation based on your assistant’s attention to the task at hand and your available time and patience.
After they had reached what we determined was an appropriately soft and dark stage, Our Little Sous used his tongs to gingerly remove the peppers and garlic to a small plate, which we set aside until they had cooled enough for him to handle them.
He was unprepared for how much softer the garlic had become, so he accidentally squished the first cooled clove in his eager fingers. Not to worry! It simply provided the opportunity for an essential taste check, after which he declared it “good, but needs a little salt!”
Next, it was time to haul out the molcajete–hooray! A molcajete is a uniquely Mexican-style mortar and pestle made from rough volcanic rock, used for smashing spices, crushing curries and pulverizing the paste, and smooshing and scraping our salsa to bring all the spectacular sensations into a single, satisfying sup.
We piled in all our chopped and charred ingredients, and then Our Little Sous added a spritz of lime juice and a big pinch of salt.
Nothing left but to add the elbow grease, eagerly and earnestly supplied by Our Little Sous!
No molcajete? No problem! Feel free to toss all your ingredients into any mortar and pestle, or even a food processor, for mixing. Heck, mash it with a fork for a really rustic salsa!
As I mentioned we we began the instructions for this variation, this salsa has been making daily apperarances on our table since it’s introduction. It took quite a bit of self-restraint to keep from spooning it all directly from the molcajete into our mouths! With great reluctance, Our Little Sous and I managed to see that at least half of what we created made its way to the dinner table and onto our chicken burritos, so our Chef de Partie was able to enjoy at least a tablespoon or two that first evening.
Unanimously agreeing to make more the very next morning, we hustled into our kitchen to make a double portion, this time with the generous addition of crumbled bacon. Driven wild by the enticing aromas wafting up from the skillet, this batch never even made it into the molcajete.
Instead, we simply mashed everything together in the pan with the rubber spatula, then stirred in the eggs to scramble it all together. These exquisite breakfast burritos would revel in a repeat performance in less than 48 hours!
So, how do you like your salsa? What variations would you make?
Drop us a comment and/or send an e-mail and let us know which of the above most captures your fancy, and which one makes it to your table first!