Salsa Without Tears
WHEN they were first married, Rick and Deann Bayless lived in Mexico and fell in love with the country and its food. They transformed a scholarly interest into dishes that demonstrate every night at Frontera Grill and Topoloba mpo, their two adjacent Chicago restaurants, why they call Mexico's one of the great cuisines. At both restaurants (Frontera Grill is more casual, and offers versions of Mexican street food) I'm always surprised by the subtlety and gentleness of the flavors. Where is the acidic jab of raw onion that I usually regret for hours afterward? The stab of seemingly whole heads of garlic shredded into one dish? The fire of hot chile peppers mercilessly sliced into a single serving of sauce?
Even though onions, garlic, and hot peppers are abundant in the country's many regional styles of cooking, Rick Bayless explains, the pungency and heat rarely approach the levels common at American Mexican restaurants. At the couple's restaurants I've learned to appreciate what knowledgeable friends assure me is the closest thing to real Mexican food north of the border. For ten years I have consulted the Baylesses' invaluable book Authentic Mexican for explanations of various ingredients and dishes. But I didn't think of using chiles with any regularity in my kitchen until I read the new Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. Bayless incorporates the Mexican idiom into the classic American fare of his Oklahoma childhood and extends it to the "Mediterranean" cuisine so popular today, showing how ingredients I considered esoteric can fit comfortably into the kind of (Italian-accented) food I make every day.
Recipes from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen
This elemental and relaxed approach is clearest in the first part of the book's summary of the "essential" components of Mexican cuisine -- and most immediately apparent in the recipes for salsa. For five years salsa has famously outsold catsup in America (although that simply means more money changes hands: last year 150 million more sixteen-ounce containers of catsup were sold than of salsa). It's easy to see why people have taken to salsa: it has the sweetness of tomatoes and the onion and salt of catsup, along with a more intense flavor and a peppery kick.
Salsa has come to mean any kind of relish or condiment that includes, generally, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and chiles. Fruits like peaches and mangoes appear in many bottled salsas, which technically brings them closer to chutneys -- but it's not worth being overly concerned with nomenclature. In their excellent Border Cookbook, published last year, Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison bravely try to define the various regional uses of salsa along the U.S.-Mexican border. Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, in their delightful small book Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys & Chowchows, throw up their hands and tell readers just to enjoy vinegar and spice in the world's condiments. Rick Bayless shows how much more and how much less salsa can be than some of the cacophonous concoctions that go under the name.
DON'T think that Bayless advocates some gringo dilution. He, too, finds the heat of chiles addictive, and he couldn't get by without raw onions and fresh garlic. His "mild" salsas start innocently, and the tingle vibrates with slowly increasing intensity. That tingle is the defining characteristic of salsa -- flavors both merged and distinct that dance in and out of focus. The "hot" salsas save their real power for a few seconds after you've swallowed. But they don't cause pain. True Mexican food -- even in the north, which favors the hottest salsas -- isn't for daredevils and masochists.
Although Bayless uses salsa to mean an uncooked condiment, for its main components -- garlic, tomatoes, and chiles -- he champions preliminary "toasting" or "roasting," by which he means dry-frying and broiling. This is the secret behind the clarity and distinctness of his salsas, whether at the restaurants, in his recipes, or in bottles (he recently added a line of five Frontera salsas to an overcrowded field). Now -- when there are still fresh ripe tomatoes and local onions, and fresh chile peppers are at their peak and available at most farmers' markets -- is an ideal time to try making your own salsa, following his basic steps.
A common way to remove the strongest odors from garlic is long simmering or roasting; whole heads of garlic roasted with olive oil until they become buttery and sweet often accompany roasted or grilled meats in Mediterranean-themed restaurants. Bayless's method is faster: dry-frying unpeeled cloves on a hot griddle for ten or fifteen minutes -- long enough to steam the cloves slightly inside the browned skin and sweeten them a little, leaving a bit of harsh power.
To render raw onions more digestible, Bayless rinses or soaks them. White onions are the ones to use: they stay crisp, whereas yellow onions soften to mush and, in my experience, quickly acquire a fermented taste. White onions have a cleaner flavor than the comparatively bland, sweet yellow onions, and give a requisite sharpness that sweet red onions lack.
Chefs roast out-of-season tomatoes for several hours or overnight in a very slow (175 degrees-200 degrees) oven to concentrate what flavor they contain. Bayless blackens whole plum or round tomatoes, both in and out of season, on a foil-lined baking sheet. When tomatoes are local and ripe, he recommends roasting, peeling, and freezing large quantities of them to add a jolt of tomato flavor both sweeter and deeper than what sun-dried tomatoes can give.