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Food -- October 1996

Salsa Without Tears

You don't have to go for the
burn to appreciate the subtlety and tingle
of Mexican food


by Corby Kummer

Abstract salsa ingredients 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
  • Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa
  • Chopped Tomato-Habenero Salsa
  • An Explanation of the Hot Habanero

  • 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.

    Chiles, too, should be blackened. I won't go into all the complications relating to fresh and dried chiles, because so many illustrated books, including Bayless's and Jean Andrews's Red Hot Peppers, do it admirably. The heat comes from capsaicin (cap-say-i-sin), the substance that sets chiles apart from sweet bell peppers. (Amal Naj gives an engaging portrait of the chile plant and the people who grow and consume it in his 1992 Peppers.) It appears in the inner ribs and the seed pod, the bulbous beige section under the cap; the seeds themselves aren't hot, so removing them is simply a matter of aesthetics.

    Anyone used to roasting and peeling sweet bell peppers will know the drill. This preparation is even more important for chiles, because their skin is tougher. Small fresh chiles, such as jalapeños, the hotter serranos, and the very hot habañeros, can be roasted on a hot griddle, and larger ones should go under the broiler. Blackened fresh chiles can be frozen; some cooks say that they retain their flavor better if they are frozen with the skin on and peeled after defrosting.

    The capsaicin level in fresh chiles is notoriously variable, and you never know when you bite into one whether you're in for an explosion or a let down. Jalapeños grown in this country are generally the mildest, and can be safely used for a comparison Bayless recommends: taste a bit of jalapeño flesh without any ribs or seed pod alongside a bit that includes some rib. (Capsaicin is not water soluble and is a potent irritant to the eyes and nose. Use rubber or latex surgical gloves when cutting chiles; if you do get capsaicin on your skin, wash your hands repeatedly in soap and water or in a mild bleach solution.) The ribs and seed pod give not just heat but flavor, which is why chile-lovers are skeptical of breeding experiments like ones being conducted at Texas A&M University to reduce capsaicin in various chiles. A sweet jalapeño without capsaicin has already been bred.

    Dried and canned chiles offer reliable heat levels, especially once you settle on a brand (most books on chiles give mail-order sources). When chiles are dried, their flavor intensifies, and sometimes they take on a smoky, sweet flavor that complements the heat. Confusingly, their names change when they are dried. Jalapeños, for example, become "chipotles," from a Nahuatl word for "smoked chiles." Like anchos, which are dried poblano chiles, chipotles are deliciously smoky and fruity on their own. Their afterburn is usually moderate; anchos are hotter.

    It might seem curious to "toast" dried chiles, which already look brown and withered, before softening them in water. But on a dry griddle it takes just a few seconds on each side, and they will acquire a smoky quality beyond any they already have and a deeper flavor. Bayless has decided after much experimentation that hot tap water is best for rehydrating dried chiles, and that any time longer than a half hour will leach out too much flavor (he also thinks the soaking liquid is best thrown out, because it is often bitter). He recommends soaking chiles to be used in salsas for no more than fifteen or twenty minutes -- just enough to make them pliable. In salsas chiles should pack their maximum punch.


    FOR a fresh salsa that Bayless calls "a simple first step toward experiencing the real Mexico," broil on a foil-lined baking sheet a pound of ripe tomatoes (two medium or six to eight plum tomatoes), keeping them about four inches from the heating element. Use a baking sheet with sides, to collect the juices. After the tomatoes have blackened and the skin has puckered on one side, turn them over with a spoon or tongs and let the other side blacken. They should be completely soft. Cool, and remove as much of the skin as you can (some will conveniently stick to the foil; you don't have to remove the seeds unless you object to their appearance), and set aside the tomatoes with their juices. Meanwhile, heat a griddle or a heavy-bottomed pan and dry-fry over medium heat two large whole fresh jalapeños (about one ounce) and three unpeeled garlic cloves, turning to blacken all sides. The chiles will blacken in five to ten minutes, the garlic in ten to fifteen. Cool the chiles, pull off their tops, and peel both them and the garlic, using a knife or your hands. (Remember to wear gloves.) Only the stem will interfere with flavor and must be removed; if you prefer a milder flavor, remove the seed pod and cut away the ribs.

    The authentic way to finish the salsa is to grind the chiles and garlic with a mortar and pestle -- the big black porous basalt kind popular in Mexico. But you can use a food processor if you pulse the blade carefully, to avoid liquefying the mixture. First grind the chiles and garlic with a quarter teaspoon of salt until they form a paste (stop the machine once or twice to scrape the bowl). Add the tomatoes and pulse a few times, allowing some small chunks of tomato to remain. In a bowl stir together the mixture, any remaining tomato juices, and half a small white onion, finely chopped, rinsed well under cold water, and drained. Season with half a cup of chopped cilantro, if you like, and a teaspoon or two of cider vinegar; add a few tablespoons of water if necessary to bring the salsa to a pleasing consistency.

    This is a perfect dipping salsa for the freshest corn tortillas you can find. In her appealing new Mexican Light, which includes a number of easy salsa recipes, Martha Rose Schulman codifies a discovery I made years ago: it's easy to make your own chips in a microwave oven, cutting or tearing fresh corn tortillas into triangles and heating them on paper towels until they harden and start to blister. Bayless suggests mixing a cup of the salsa (no water added) with three coarsely mashed avocados for a guacamole that, he assures readers, is traditional. You can also spread two cups of the salsa over a single layer of five- to six-ounce fillets of fish -- such as snapper, mahi-mahi, grouper, or bass -- set in an oiled baking dish and bake, covered, at 400 degrees until the fish just flakes when pressed. This will take about eight minutes for fillets three quarters of an inch thick.

    The logical extension of this fresh, mild salsa is a tomato-chipotle salsa whose caramelized flavors, from roasted vegetables, are further concentrated by a quick simmering in oil at high heat -- in essence, sautéing the sauce. With its subtle and alluring heat, the sauce can go on chips or serve as a building block of a specific dish -- as do most salsas, cooked and uncooked, in Mexico. Bayless likes it so much that he uses the sauce more than any other as the base for dishes in his book.

    Broil and peel one and a half pounds of ripe tomatoes -- about three medium or nine to twelve plum tomatoes. On a dry griddle over medium heat dry-fry three to four dried chipotles (they are sometimes called chiles chipotles colorados or chiles moritas), about a quarter of an ounce in all; or use two or three of the larger chiles chipotles mecos. You can get immediate results by using three or four canned chiles chipotles en adobo (vinegary tomato sauce), drained. If using dried chiles, snap off their stems, heat each side for a few seconds, and press the chiles with a metal spatula until they crackle and you can just smell them. Transfer them to a bowl and cover with hot water. Soak for twenty minutes, stirring the chiles often, until they are easily pliable; drain. While the griddle is still hot, dry-fry four unpeeled garlic cloves for ten to fifteen minutes, turning them until they blacken. Peel and roughly chop the cloves. In a food processor pulse the combined ingredients just until they reach the texture of a thick tomato sauce.

    The traditional, and by far the tastiest, medium in which to fry and reduce the sauce is lard. If you don't like the idea or can't find any, use olive or vegetable oil; heat a tablespoon of the chosen fat in a two- or three-quart saucepan until a drop of the sauce sizzles on contact. Add the sauce all at once and stir with a heatproof spatula for about five minutes, until the color deepens to a brick red and the sauce thickens.

    You could use this sauce over pasta, or for chilaquiles -- a Mexican analogue to a hearty baked pasta, using corn tortilla chips. For four servings, put into a large saucepan a full recipe of the sauce; two cups of any kind of broth, better if it isn't salty; eight cups (eight ounces) of tortilla chips, preferably homemade or unsalted; and a handful of epazote leaves, a common Mexican herb, or a cup or two of sliced chard or spinach leaves. Simmer over medium-high heat, covered, for about three minutes, to soften the chips and blend the ingredients. Uncover the saucepan, stir to distribute the chips (they should not be mushy) in the thickened sauce, and sprinkle each portion with crumbled Mexican queso añejo (aged cheese) or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

    Naturally, any salsa is subject to manifold variations, using the vegetables and herbs you have on hand. After you've made various tomato-based salsas, you should try tomatillos, the citrusy husked fruit that is equally essential in Mexican food, and is widely available in supermarkets; it's easily roasted, and you don't have to peel it. Books like those by Bayless, the Jamisons, and Schulman show that you don't have to cross an ocean to find many of the virtues of a Mediterranean diet.

    Illustration by Jennie Oppenheimer


    Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; October, 1996; Salsa Without Tears; Volume 278, No. 4; pages 104-108.

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