I’ve received a suggestion to talk about Mexican sauces and their use in my dishes (thanks, sis!) The fastest way to give a Mexican touch to any dish might seem to be to add a dash of spicy sauce to it. Chicken wrap? Add chipotle; sushi? A dash of spice to creamy sesame sauce; potato chips? Lime juice and bottled hot sauce (El Tapatío™, Cholula™, etc. and Red Hot™ will do in a pinch; try it, papitas con chile are a typical Mexican street food.) However, there are many – and I mean many – Mexican sauces; I have found that a good way to start is to learn how to make these four basic ones, and then build the repertoire from there: salsa mexicana (pico de gallo if it is raw, and the one known simply as “salsa”, an accepted English word , if cooked); salsa verde (green sauce, made with tomatillos, raw or cooked); salsa roja (red sauce, from dry hot peppers, with our without tomatoes); and guacamole (from Nahuatl ahuacatl-avocado and mulli-sauce). I call them “the fantastic four”; it is a lot of fun trying to decide which one would be Reed, Sue, Johnny or Ben, my favourite Marvel characters. But I digress. Since I have already talked about pico de gallo, I am just listing where to go, in my website, to read those recipes, and completing the salsa mexicana chapter with a recipe for cooked Mexican sauce; I will continue with the other three sauces in separate posts, along with my dishes. Please note that many Mexican families/cooks have their own heirloom recipes for salsas; what I am sharing here is my personal interpretation of the old and new recipes I have learned to make over the years.
Salsa Mexicana – the basic ingredients, for both raw and cooked, are tomatoes, onions, cilantro, hot green peppers, and salt.
The cooked version usually has garlic, with the onion and cilantro often added finely chopped and raw, at the end of the process. Many American and Canadian recipes are geared towards bottling and preserving, so all the ingredients are boiled, and in addition to garlic, they include extras like cumin, vinegar and tomato paste. I like the crunchiness of the onion in raw salsas, but in this case I prefer to cook all the ingredients. I think cumin definitely gives the sauce a Northern Mexico/Texas flavour, so I keep it more neutral by skipping this spice. A little tomato paste adds umami (the Japanese word for “yummy”, defining the fifth flavour), and a splash of vinegar brightens up the taste, so I use a touch of each.
Set a large pot about ¾-full of water, on high heat, and bring it to boil. Meanwhile, wash, rinse and dry tomatoes, cilantro and peppers. Finely chop onion and cilantro and set aside. Mince garlic, and set aside. Remove stem and seeds from peppers, and set aside (do not chop.) Score an X on the bottom of the tomatoes with a knife, and add whole to the boiling water, along with the peppers; remove after 2 minutes. Save about 1/2 cup of the hot water, and drain the rest from the pot. Carefully peel tomatoes, and chop along with the peppers.
Combine tomatoes, peppers, minced garlic, reserved onions and cilantro back in the pot, and add salt, tomato paste and vinegar (I like white wine vinegar, but any white is fine.) Bring to a boil, and continue cooking over medium heat for 10-12 minutes, stirring and adding a little of the reserved water, if it gets too thick. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning with more salt, if needed.
Serve warm or at room temperature.