Friday, July 8, 2011

What's in the fridge: salsa and more salsa

We always have a jar or two of homemade salsa in the fridge. Always. I can't think of a time when we haven't. It goes in nearly everything we eat in the Johnson-Mendez household. On tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, and migas, of course, but also [Chris, in particular, likes to put it on] mashed potatoes, chicken soup, meat loaf, turkey sandwiches, and pretty much anything else you can imagine, barring dessert. Next time I make salsa, I will be sure to post photos of the process (easy, easy, easy). In the meantime, let me show you what I have in the fridge at the moment. Two salsas: one more typical here in Texas, made with Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeños, and cilantro; the other, more typical in Central Mexico, made with tomatillos, árbol chiles, garlic, avocado, toasted cumin, and cilantro.

Roma tomatoes to the left, tomatillos to the right.

In the first salsa (pictured to the left) I roasted about 7 or 8 Roma tomatoes, 4 or 5 jalapeños (stems removed), one onion (sliced thickly), and 5 or 6 cloves of garlic (skin intact) on the comal until the tomatoes and onion slices are almost entirely blackened, the jalapeños lose their bright green color, and the garlic becomes gooey soft. Usually the garlic comes off first and the tomatoes last. Peel garlic, throw everything into a blender, and add one Tsp of peppercorns (I use extra bold Tellicherry) and a chopped bunch of cilantro before blending. You can jar the salsa at this point or do what many Mexican cooks do and "fry" the salsa, which kick starts the infusion of flavors and, with the addition of oil, counter-balances the acidity of the tomatoes and chiles. Mexican Foodie explains the process a bit here. Salt to taste carefully. It can be hard to gauge the salt-level in really spicy salsas when the salsa is still hot.

In the second (pictured to the right) I started by toasting 10 or so árbol chiles (stems removed) and one Tsp of cumin seeds, making sure to turn them frequently and removing them just before they start to burn. Then I char 16 or so tomatillos and 7 or 8 cloves of garlic. After peeling the garlic, throw everything into the blender, along with one avocado and a chopped bunch of cilantro. Fry (see above) and salt to taste (see above). 

I am in love with these Oaxacan-style salsas that combine the fruitiness and acidity of tomatillos with the warm, toasty depth of roasted dried red chiles. Those two notes combined with the clean,  pungent perfume of cilantro –– I always use tons –– and salsa becomes a whole new thing, complex and layered, almost like a curry. I added avocado to this batch, by way of experiment, and it gave the salsa even more depth and body. I will most definitely try that again. This tomatillo-árbol chile salsa would taste particularly good with grilled lamb chops or venison backstrap. 

Note: I have already used the term comal in a couple entries without defining it for my readers. In a word, it's a griddle with an interesting history. They are used in Mexico for almost everything: to cook tortillas, toast spices and chiles, sear meats, and make salsas, among other things. The word comal is derived from the nahuatl word comalli, or, griddle. In pre-Columbian times comales were used to toast coffee and cacao beans; now you can buy your very own for only $10.97 plus S/H on

Comal: a Mexican cast iron griddle. I use mine often, as you can see.

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