Following this week’s post on ceviche for the Salon Kitchen Challenge, here is another Mexican recipe and travel memoir.
Over on Salon.com, food writer Francis Lam, formerly of Gourmet, hosts a weekly food writing and recipe challenge, the Salon Kitchen Challenge. Francis announces a theme as broad as “a meal for someone you love” or as narrow as “egg salad,” and entrants are asked to write a story and a recipe fitting within the theme. The winner is published in the Food section of Salon. This was my entry in late January, on the theme of “game time snacks,” in honor of the Superbowl.
The Superbowl? Yes, I know what it is, and if I remember to, I will find out the name of the winning team, and possibly who they beat, so I don’t look completely blank at work the next morning. The language of sports, and football especially, is as foreign to me as Spanish. Actually, my Spanish is much better.
While I won’t be watching the big game, I could be convinced to watch the ads at halftime. And I do like chips and salsa– who doesn’t? Most of the time, chips and salsa come from a bag and a jar. But I’ve got something better. Much better.
Salsa is so easy to make, I don’t know why people buy it in jars. It is also indescribably superior when made fresh. A few years ago, I took a unforgettable trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.
Oaxaca is very well known for its food, especially mole. I took a cooking class there where I learned to make mole, which was complicated, and several salsas, which were easy. Salsa simply means “sauce,” and in the US it typically refers to a sweetened tomato based sauce with some onions, weak jalapenos and garlic. But salsas in Mexico can be made with tomatoes, or chilies alone, or tomatillos. Definitely not the nuevo pineapple or papaya or even peach based salsas that I admit I like. And you don’t have to be in a sunny climate where fresh chilies are available to make a fresh salsa. This was the most revolutionary thing I learned in my class: salsas can be made from rehydrated dried chilies. This opens up a whole universe of chilies, whatever you can find at a Mexican produce stand.
Salsas, like the ones I’ll give recipes for below, can be found all over Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Oaxaca has many local specialties, in addition to mole. There is another well known Oaxacan specialty, and this one could make a great game time snack. Like chips and nachos, this snack is crunchy, can be grabbed by the handful, and is often flavored with that great Mexican flavor triumvirate of salt, chili, and lime. Chapulines can be found in huge sacks in the local mercado, to buy by the kilo.
They are also served at restaurants, fancy and not, in much the same way you might find a bowl of chips or peanuts on your table in the US. Like peanuts, they are crunchy and a good source of protein. You can also use them as a taco filling, if you’re not in the mood for carne asada. In Oaxaca, they are a local favorite, so beloved they are also the name of a local futbol (soccer, not Superbowl type football) team.
But I won’t be sharing a recipe for these here, and you won’t find them on my kitchen table. I have an adventurous palate, but I have my limits, and they exclude insects. Chapulines are little grasshoppers. (Look closely at the photo and you can see their little legs.)
So while I probably won’t be watching the game, and I definitely won’t be serving any chapulines, I will make some salsas in honor of fans of both traditions.
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Tres Salsas Para el Superbowl
Each of the recipes below makes about a cup of salsa. Clockwise, starting from the bottom right in the photo:
1. Chipotle salsa
The chipotle is a smoked and dried jalapeno. It has a flavor which is more earthy than spicy. This is an example of a salsa made of dried chilies.
6 chipotle peppers
1 garlic clove
1/2 c. hot water
salt to taste
Open the chilies and remove veins and seeds.
Dry roast seeded chilies in a skillet.
Soak dry roasted chilies in hot water for up to 20 minutes, until softened.
Put all ingredients in a blender or molcajete* until at the desired consistency.
2. Salsa verde (tomatillo salsa)
This is a tangy salsa, and deceptively spicy.
10 tomatillos, with husk removed
1 medium garlic clove
1/2 c. fresh cilantro
1 small onion, sliced
salt to taste
Process all ingredients in a blender or molcajete.
3. Salsa roja (red salsa)
This is a brightly flavored and fresh tasting salsa. For best results, use amolcajete or other mortar and pestle.
2 large tomatoes
1 garlic clove, with peel on
salt to taste
Dry roast the jalapeno, tomatoes and unpeeled garlic for 10 minutes, until skin is blistered and starting to peel. Peel the garlic, tomatoes and jalapeno. Remove the stem from the jalapeno and the skin from the garlic.
In a molcajete, make a paste of the garlic and salt.
Add the jalapeno, mash into a paste.
Add tomatoes and mash until smooth.
Add salt to taste.
All of the above salsas can be made spicier if you want, by increasing the number of chilies. Serve salsas with thick, plain tortilla chips. No flavored Doritos if you can help it. Guacamole on the side is a great accompaniment. Chapulines, too, if you dare.
*A molcajete is the traditional stone (basalt) mortar and pestle used in Mexico.
Recipes adapted from my cooking class at the former Restaurante el Naranjo, Oaxaca, with Chef Iliana de la Vega.
© Linda Shiue, 2010