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John Ash: Cooking One-on-One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food from a Master Teacherby John Ash and Amy Mintzer
America's Favorite Fresh Condiment
In most of America today, we take salsas almost for granted. The news that sales of salsa had passed ketchup, making it America's number one condiment, was a major sidebar topic a couple of years ago. It was an indication of both how the ethnic balance in America was changing and how much more adventurous Americans had become in their eating. (Of course, it's also because no one eats a jarful of ketchup in one sitting, but, hey, who's counting?)
But while supermarket salsa is a narrowly defined condiment with limited uses, the wide world of homemade salsas is a great adventure in flavor and texture. The word salsa is Spanish for "sauce" and covers a wide range of recipes, from fresh, raw, chunky salsa frescas, salsa crudas, and pico de gallos to cooked and sometimes vinegared smooth sauces, including mysterious and complex moles of many colors. For most of us, however, salsa has come to mean the chunky, Mexican tomato-based condiment-cum-salad, and that is the focus of this lesson. Salsas are easy to make, can be made ahead, and are the perfect healthy topper to all manner of quickly prepared dishes, enlivening the most unlikely foods-everything from roasted potatoes to seafood cakes, grilled meats, and poultry. They can be used like any relish or served in larger portions like mini-salads. Best of all, salsas give terrific bang for your buck: with minimal effort from you, a salsa can deliver an incredible blend of flavors and sensations-sweet, sour, hot, herbal, cool, crunchy-in one tiny mouthful.
Good salsas are easy to make: generally it's chop, mix, and eat. Great salsas demand little more-the biggest difference between a good salsa and a great one is the quality of the ingredients. A little restaurant that I like puts out the simplest salsa fresca and tortilla chips when they bring the menu. I never leave without having eaten the entire bowl, because they always use the most amazing tomatoes, and the flavor impact of that one ingredient is incredible. Use top-notch raw materials full of flavor at the peak of freshness and you'll have great salsa.
How can I make salsa if chopping onions makes me cry?
If you harvested your own onions, you wouldn't have this problem. "Young" (recently harvested) onions are generally sweeter, with less of the sulfur compounds that make some onions taste funky and set you weeping. Most of us, however, have little control over the age of our onions. You can minimize this problem-and have better tasting salsa-by immediately throwing your chopped onions into a bowl of ice water. Try several changes of water for best results. Unless I've got a Walla Walla or a Vidalia or one of the other super-sweet varieties, I do this soak-drain-repeat process not just for salsas, but whenever the onions are going to be eaten raw.
Is salsa a good "make-ahead" food?
The "freshness factor" means that salsas are at their best soon after they are made, although most benefit from a little sitting time so the flavors can develop. That's not to say that you can't make a salsa today and store it in the fridge for dinner tomorrow or the next day; you can. But long before it goes bad, a salsa will start to wilt, losing that bright, crisp quality that makes it so irresistible. Once you realize how many uses there are for salsa beyond tortilla chips, I doubt it'll hang around your refrigerator long enough for it to be a problem.
basic salsa fresca or cruda
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
The simplest of the salsas (and the most familiar to us all) is the classic New World combination of tomatoes, onions, chiles, and garlic, to which other seasonings can be added as desired. The basic recipe follows, along with some suggested additions. You can certainly eat this straight out of the bowl with tortilla chips, but you can also use it to top various cooked foods. I've given some recipes; I hope they'll open up your mind to the possibilities.
2 medium ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced (about 3/4 pound)
1/2 cup diced red onion
1 teaspoon minced, seeded serrano chile, or to taste
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Drops of lime or lemon juice to taste
Pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a mixing or serving bowl, and set aside for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Before using the salsa, taste it and add more of any of the seasonings you think are needed. Store covered in the refrigerator. For best flavor, eat within 1 day, but it can be stored for as long as 3. (Use your judgment here.) You can easily multiply the quantities to make more.
note: For more information on serrano, jalapeño, habanero, and other chiles essential to making great salsas, see the Glossary and Pantry.
Charred Salsa: Place a heavy, unoiled skillet over medium heat for a minute or two. Add a whole unpeeled onion, 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, and 1 or 2 chiles, and toast for a few minutes on all sides or until the vegetables have softened a bit and blackened in small spots. Transfer to a plate to cool, then remove the peels from the onion and garlic. Chop these and the chiles following the quantities in the recipe above or adjusting to your taste, and add to the rest of the ingredients.
Green and Red Salsa: Substitute 2 to 3 fresh husked tomatillos (see Glossary and Pantry) for one of the tomatoes.
Smoked Salsa: You can lightly smoke the tomatoes, onions, chiles, and garlic before chopping in a stovetop smoker (available at better cookware stores), or on the grill.
Here are two of my favorite ways to use a a simple Salsa Fresca.
grilled marinated shrimp with salsa fresca
Serves 4 as a main course
These shrimp can be served right off the grill or at room temperature as part of a summer buffet. You can either peel the shrimp as suggested or grill them with the shell on, which adds a lot of flavor. If you choose to grill with the shell on, snip it along the back with a pair of scissors so that you can remove the sand vein.
1 pound large (16-20 size or larger) shrimp
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons finely minced or pressed garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced green onions
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano (or 1/4 teaspoon dried)
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons white wine, preferably a dry or off-dry aromatic
Basic Salsa Fresca or Cruda (page 4)
Garnish if you like with avocado slices, lime wedges
Peel and devein the shrimp (tail on, tail off-it's up to you). Whisk the marinade ingredients together, toss with the shrimp, and marinate for up to 45 minutes in the refrigerator. Skewer, if desired, to facili- tate grilling.
Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat a gas or stovetop grill or broiler. Grill or broil the shrimp quickly, 1 to 2 minutes per side, until they just begin to turn pink. Be careful not to overcook; the shrimp should remain slightly transparent in the middle.
Spoon the salsa onto the middle of each plate and arrange the shrimp around it. Garnish with avocado slices and lime wedges, if desired, and serve. I eat this with my fingers.
note: For a more detailed description of peeling and cleaning shrimp, see page 272.Shrimp headed for the grill really benefit from a little time spent in brine. For that procedure, see page 271.
white bean salad with salsa fresca
Serves 4 to 6
This is a delicious, healthy salad that is good both as a stand-alone dish or as a bed for a piece of grilled or broiled chicken or fish.
3 cups cooked white beans, such as cannellini (drained and rinsed if using canned)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup diced red or green onions
3 tablespoons drained, chopped capers
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon roasted or poached garlic (see Glossary and Pantry)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups or so lightly packed tender arugula or watercress leaves
2/3 cup or so Basic Salsa Fresca or Cruda (page 4)
Garnish if you like with freshly grated Cotija (aged Mexican cheese) or Pecorino and lemon wedges
Combine the beans, olive oil, onions, capers, mint, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. Mound the bean mixture on plates and arrange the arugula around it. Make an indentation in the mound of beans and spoon in some salsa. Sprinkle with a little cheese and serve with lemon wedges, if desired, so everyone can add lemon juice to taste.
note: The bean mixture can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored covered in the refrigerator.
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