Smooth or chunky, there are no false notes with this tart and tangy sauce that goes so very well with grilled seafood and meat

SERVING UP SALSA

August 19, 1992|By Steven Raichlen | Steven Raichlen,Contributing Writer

Salsa is the Horatio Alger of American condiments. Fifteen years ago, few of us had ever tasted this tangy accompaniment. Last year, salsa sales in the United States actually surpassed those of ketchup. Once the province of humble Tex-Mex eateries, salsas are turning up at our most respected and fashionable restaurants. Originally made with tomatoes, salsas today come in a myriad of flavors, including mango, papaya, and kiwi fruit.

Salsa, of course, is a quick, fresh sauce that originated in Mexico. (The term also refers, appropriately, to a lively style of Hispanic music and the animated dance that goes with it.) The basic ingredients are tomatoes, onions, chilies, lime juice and cilantro. Traditionally, they are pounded together in a molcajete, a mortar and pestle made of black basalt.

In Mexico, the ingredients vary from chef to chef and region to region: One cook might use yellow tomatoes; another might add a splash of tequila. In the Yucatan, fiery habanero chilies are used in place of jalapenos. But whatever the ingredients, the virtues of salsa -- its simplicity, its freshness, its spontaneity -- remain the same.

"Salsas are a great way to sauce seafood and other delicate fare without overpowering them," says Mark Militello of the acclaimed restaurant Mark's Place in Miami. Whole grilled snapper with a salsa that changes every night has become the signature dish of his restaurant. Recent creations have included mango-starfruit salsa, papaya-pineapple salsa, and even a Mediterranean salsa flavored with basil, olives and capers.

Elsewhere in the country, Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe prides himself on his tamarind banana salsa. Chris Schlesinger of Boston's East Coast Grill serves an electrifying mango and rocotillo chili salsa with grilled shrimp.

"A good salsa is a symphony of contrasting flavors," says Mr. Militello. "It will be sweet from the fruit or sugar, sour from the lime juice or vinegar, hot from the chili, pungent from the onion, and aromatic from cilantro or other herbs." When making salsas, Mr. Militello tries to balance the tartness of the lime juice with the sweetness of the fruit, the spiciness of the chili with the fragrance of the herbs.

Salsa is a great way to provide lots of flavor with a minimum ofat. Most salsas require no cooking -- a boon to the cook in the summertime. The ingredients are limited only by one's imagination and can be chopped as quickly as it takes to turn on the food processor.

For heightened interest, one can vary the texture of salsa: from the smooth sauce-like salsas found in most Mexican restaurants to coarse, chunky salsas reminiscent of salads. Because they're served cool, salsa are always refreshing -- even when they're loaded with chilies.

The basic flavor components of salsa are tartness, hotness anpungency. The tartness is usually provided by lime juice, but one can also use lemon or grapefruit juice, tamarind paste, a wide variety of vinegars, or a combination of these ingredients. Many chefs add a sweet ingredient, like brown sugar or fruit, to balance the acidity.

The hotness is supplied by a chili, usually a serrano or jalapenoAs a general rule, the thinner-skinned the chili, the hotter its bite. The seeds are the hottest part of any chili, so you may wish to leave them out. When handling chilies, be careful

not to touch your eyes afterward. (When working with super hot chilies you may wish to wear rubber gloves.) Other sources of hotness include ginger, garlic, horseradish, and peppercorns.

Onion and cilantro are added to make the salsa aromatic. The eye-stinging pungency of the former can be mellowed by rinsing it under cold water. (You can also use scallions or shallots.) When cilantro is unavailable, I've made excellent salsas with RTC fresh mint.

Salsa is the perfect accompaniment to grilled seafood and meats.

The recipes below range from the traditional to the exotic.

AThis is the basic salsa served in Mexico with tortilla chips. The proportion of chilies increases as you head south. For an offbeat twist, make salsa with yellow tomatoes.

Fresh tomato salsa

Makes 1 cup.

2 ripe tomatoes

1-2 serrano or jalapeno chilies

2 scallions

1 clove garlic

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro (coriander leaf)

juice of 1-2 limes

salt and fresh black pepper

Stem the tomatoes and cut in half widthwise. Squeeze halves to wring out the seeds. Seed and mince the chilies. Finely chop the scallions. Mince the garlic. Finely chop the cilantro.

Coarsely chop the tomatoes in the food processor. Work in the remaining ingredients. Correct the seasoning, adding lime juice, salt, pepper. I like salsa to be a little coarse, but you could also puree it to a smooth paste.

This recipe offers a Mediterranean twist on a Mexican favorite. It's delicious with whole grilled snapper.

*

The recipe comes from Mr. Militello.

Mediterranean salsa

Makes 1 cup.

2 ripe red tomatoes

1 ripe yellow tomato (or another red tomato)

1/2 yellow bell pepper

12 fresh basil leaves

1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley

1/3 cup Greek olives

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