When asked recently whether I was a collector of some sort, I thought of my grandmother’s cabinet that holds hundreds of elephant figurines — more than 60 years’ worth, from many places. And she’s still adding to the lot. So my response was no.
Then a few days later I realized that I am a collector: of foods tasted throughout my life, or at least the memories of them. This is especially true of salsas. I have countless papers scattered on my desk with notes about the names of them, the places I ate them, their ingredients, the cooks who made them and, when generously given, directions on how to re-create them.
When the mood strikes, I search to find that precise note (which may be in a coat pocket, bag or drawer). Or I sit down with eyes closed and try to remember the feel of the sauce.
When all else fails, I make one up.
If you look in my refrigerator, you will find a salsa. That is mainly because my husband is always asking for one but also because salsas can pump up the beauty and richness of any meal. To me, salsas are one of the exceptional elements of Mexican cooking: delicious, accommodating and versatile. Among the many possibilities, we eat salsas on top of rice, beans, potatoes; alongside meats, chicken, seafood and vegetables; spooned inside or outside all sorts of dishes such as tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas; scooped with a piece of toast and spooned straight from the container.
I wouldn’t dare guess how many salsas there are in Mexican cooking as I am sure to be wrong, and the cuisine keeps evolving. But I can safely say that if I were to give you a different salsa to taste each month, my lifetime, however long, wouldn’t give us enough time to cover the choices.
Salsas can be eaten from morning till night, and are known to be especially savored after midnight when the food stands on Mexican streets — and some in Los Angeles, as well — serve their secret-recipe salsas with antojos and quick dishes. The late-night crowds crave them.
Some are made with dozens of ingredients, prepared in laborious ways. Others use a few easy-to-find ingredients and can be assembled in minutes. For me, the latter sound like the perfect salsas for summer.
Three of my no-cook favorites, from my ever-growing and scattered collection, are a raw tomatillo and chipotle salsa, made lush with the addition of avocado and fresh cheese; a luxurious mango salsa with slivers of red onion, jalapeño and chopped cilantro; and a versatile, ancho chili pickled salsa, which keeps in the fridge for months.
If you are so inclined, please leave comments online about the accompanying recipes (or share with me whatever food-related things you tend to gather). I will collect them all.
This article was written for and published by The Washington Post on August 5, 2009 The Washington Post.
- 1 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed and quartered
- 1 medium garlic clove, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped white onion
- Leaves and thin stems from 4 or 5 stems of cilantro, coarsely chopped (about 1/3 cup)
- 2 tablespoons sauce from canned chipotle chiles in adobo, plus 1 canned chipotle chile (optional)
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
- 1 ripe avocado, cut into large dice (optional)
- 8 ounces queso fresco, cotija, or farmers cheese, cut into large dice (optional)
- Combine the quartered tomatillos, garlic, onion, cilantro, sauce from the canned chipotle chiles, the canned chipotle chile, if desired, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Puree until smooth, then transfer to a 2-cup container with a tight-fitting lid.
- At this point, the salsa can be covered and refrigerated for a day.
- When ready to serve, transfer to a serving bowl; add the avocado and cheese, if desired. Toss gently to combine. Taste and adjust salt as needed.
- 1/2 medium red onion, cut into very thin slivers (about 1/3 cup)
- Juice from 2 limes, about 4 tablespoons
- 2 1/2 pounds (about 4) ripe mangoes, peeled and cut into large dice
- 1 large jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons, or more to taste)
- Leaves from 4 stems cilantro, finely chopped (about 3 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
- Combine the onion and lime juice in a mixing bowl; toss to coat and let sit for 10 minutes.
- Combine the mango, jalapeno, cilantro, oil and salt in a separate mixing bowl. Add the onion and lime juice mixture when it’s ready and toss to mix well. Taste and add salt or jalapeno as needed.
- 6 to 8 ancho chiles, rinsed, stemmed and seeded, about 3 ounces
- 1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar or grated piloncillo, or to taste
- Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the stemmed and seeded chiles lengthwise into thin strips and place them in a mixing bowl. Add the onion, garlic, vinegars, oil, salt and sugar to the bowl and toss to mix well. Transfer everything to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for at least 8 hours before using.