It’s Fresh Salsa Time

by Kelly on June 27, 2009   

All the secret ingredients of a great salsa

Almost all the ingredients -- plus a secret one -- of a great salsa

You can’t really make a mistake when making fresh salsa and there are hardly any secret ingredients. After all, you can see nearly everything that’s in that blob on the chip. Well, almost everything.

In my post Black Beans with Roasty Green Chiles, I mention Lulu, my sometime instructress in the ways of Mexican cooking. I had made fresh salsa often, but sometimes found it lacking a little something. I like tomatoes, but not a tomato-ey salsa. But I do like it to have a binding — something that holds it all together and thickens the tomato and lime juices. I had to pester Lulu for the answer to this problem, and finally one day she let me in on her secret: tomato paste.

Now that’s disappointing. It’s difficult to see tomato paste as the secret ingredient of anything, let alone salsa. I tried not to let her see me roll my eyes, and I dutifully chopped things, waiting for that undramatic moment when we would add the…tomato paste. All I can say is, this is one time when that lowly ingredient can wear a tux and jump in the spotlight, because it really emcees all the other ingredients.

From this basic recipe for salsa come all other variations. Substitute chopped mango for the tomato or add black beans. Switch the black beans out for avocado or add cooked corn kernels. Use pickled jalapeño, serrano, or habañero for more heat, Anaheim, poblano or pasilla for mild, or chipotle (smoked jalapeño) for a deep, earthy taste. The basics to retain are: onion, garlic, lime, tomato paste, some kind of chile and salt.

Fresh Salsa | 4 cups

Let the salsa sit for an hour or more to develop its flavors. It will keep about a week in the refrigerator.

4 large tomatoes (or the equivalent), any color, chopped and juices retained
1/2 large red onion, chopped
4 green onions, white part and half the green, chopped
1 fresh jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
1 mild green chile, such as Anaheim or pasilla, seeded and minced
1 small garlic clove, minced to a paste
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
Drizzle of olive oil
Juice of 1 lime (use 2 if the lime isn’t juicy)
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
Optional: Hot chiles or hot sauce to taste (see below)
1/4 bunch cilanto (about 10 sprigs), leaves chopped

In a large bowl combine the chopped tomatoes and their juices, the red onion, green onion, jalapeño, mild chile, garlic, sugar, salt, olive oil, and lime juice.

From here it's just combining them in a bowl

That's a red jalapeño and a green one as well on the right -- I used half of each

I like my reamer for quickly juicing the lime

I like my reamer for quickly juicing the lime

Add the tomato paste and mix well, adding more if the juices need a little more body. Add hot sauce or hot chiles to taste if you want it spicy. Stir in the chopped cilantro.

Mix this into mashed avocados for a quick guacamole, but please, pass the chips

Mix this into mashed avocados for a quick guacamole, but please, pass the chips

If you’re into some serious heat: add your favorite killer hot sauce or you can add minced hot chiles, such as habañero or serrano (shown in the top photo on the bottom left, the squat orange chile is the habañero and the long green one is the serrano) or other hot chile. Take extreme care when handling the chiles, though. In fact, wearing latex gloves is your best protection. If those aren’t available, handle the chiles under running water. What’s hot is the juice and the ribs of the chile — its waxy skin keeps that at bay until you cut it open. The heat is concentrated in the whitish to yellowish ribs of the chile, which should most likely be trimmed away. Seeds too, which are hot because of their proximity to the ribs. Where the ribs join the stem top of the chile is the inferno. Wash your hands well with soapy water after handling chiles, and for heavens sake, don’t touch your eyes. Not a good moment to dash away a tear…

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