Salsas: a quick way to turn up the heat

August 25, 1993|By Felicia Gressette | Felicia Gressette,Knight-Ridder News ServiceKnight-Ridder News Service

Suddenly, salsa is all the rage.

Once found only with baskets of fried tortilla chips in Mexican restaurants, these bright and easy mixtures of finely chopped vegetables, herbs and chilies ("salsa" simply means sauce in Spanish) seem to be everywhere. The evidence:

Three new cookbooks are devoted to salsa.

Chefs and home cooks alike are inventing new combinations, drawing on a range of fruits, herbs and chilies, as well as refining age-old formulas.

In 1992, salsa outsold ketchup. Now Heinz has rolled out, yes, a salsa-style ketchup. It's intended for use as a spicy condiment, not a chip dip.

What's going on? Chris Schlesinger, author with John Willoughby of "Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys and Chowchows" (Morrow, $20), thinks the salsa rage represents a fundamental shift in the way Americans are eating. "I think people are getting more spicy, into eating Thai food, Middle Eastern food. They're getting off the French thing, right?"

In other words, we're turning toward food with "louder flavor." As Mr. Schlesinger, who is chef-owner of three restaurants in Cambridge, Mass., explains it, many of us are turning our backs on Euro-style food in favor of food that is bolder, louder, rougher and perfectly exemplified by salsa.

Our national preoccupation with lower-fat eating helps fuel the trend. As we look away from meat and fat and toward new, high-carbohydrate sources of flavor, salsas -- many of which deliver a big taste with almost no fat -- are a natural.

It makes sense when you consider the roles salsas and relishes play in peasant food around the world, namely, adding palatability to diets based on rice, beans, legumes and grains.

Mr. Schlesinger: "If you eat a diet that has a large amount of this stuff in it, you need these spicy counterparts for flavor, to break the monotony of it."

Salsas -- whether chunky, hand-chopped and informal or pureed and cooked for a little more refinement -- are just right for adding zip to a plain steak or grilled fish or chicken. They add style to grilled vegetables, culinary interest to rice and beans.

Though salsas are usually best when made right before serving, most will keep for a few days in the refrigerator. And while you can do the chopping in a food processor or blender, those machines tend to make a foamy, airy mixture that's less appealing in the mouth than salsas chopped by hand.

While the traditional, Mexican-style salsas of tomatoes, onions and chilies dominate, fruits such as pineapple, mango and nectarine are staking a claim on menus and kitchen tables.

So you'll see recipes for salsas with ingredients that range far and wide, but almost all of them call for the herb cilantro, with its strong, lemony-soapy taste.

Some people love cilantro; others never develop a taste for it. If you're among the cilantro haters, substitute Italian parsley or just omit it.

And don't hesitate to adjust the heat from chilies up or down according to your tolerance and preference. Most of the "fire" in chilies is in the seeds and internal "ribs." Removing them will help tame the heat.

In her new book, "Salsa" (Collier Books, $10), P. J. Birosik separates the 100 recipes into four styles: uncooked, cooked, cocktail and a combination of cooked and uncooked ingredients. Her recipes are by and large from the American Southwest and Mexico.

Use this simple potion by Ms. P. J. Birosik as a chip dip, condiment for grilled meats or layered in tacos and burritos.

Authentic salsa cruda

Makes about 2 cups

2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1 medium white onion, chopped

2 green onions (scallions), chopped

1 jalapeno chili, diced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well. Serve immediately at room temperature or store up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

*

The next two recipes are from "Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys & Chowchows" (William Morrow & Co., $20) by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. Serve it in soft flour tacos filled with shredded pork. Try it with grilled fish, too.

Mango-tomatillo salsa

Makes about 6 cups

1 12-ounce can tomatillos, drained

1/2 cup pineapple juice

1/4 cup white vinegar

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

1 tablespoon minced red or green chili pepper of your choice

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

6 tablespoons lime juice (about 3 limes)

3 ripe but firm mangoes, peeled, pitted and diced small

1 red onion, diced small

1 red bell pepper, diced small

1 green bell pepper, diced small

In a blender or food processor, puree the tomatillos, pineapple juice, vinegar, garlic, chili, cilantro, cumin seeds and lime juice. Place the mangoes, onion and bell peppers in a medium bowl, add the puree and mix well. This salsa will keep, covered and refrigerated, 4 to 5 days.

*

Soft, musky papaya and crunchy vegetables make this salsa perfect for summer grilling parties.

Papaya salsa

Makes about 3 cups

1 ripe papaya, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped

1 small red bell pepper, sliced into short, thin slices

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