Condiment of the Aztecs

A Good Salsa Makes the Meal.

"A good salsa takes excellent chiles," says Candace Flores, owner of El Charro Café. She admits she likes her salsa spicy "but not so hot that it just burns your tongue. It has to have a kind of spice that entices your taste buds."

Fresh garlic is also essential to Flores. "It takes the freshest of produce whether you're making a green salsa with fresh cilantro, tomatillos, serrano chilies and white onion, or if you're making your red smooth salsa with your red chile in it and tomato base, garlic, onion and Mexican oregano."

Flores attributes salsa's popularity to its being "flavorful and it's a very healthy condiment and it goes pretty well on everything." If you grew up with a bowl of salsa at every meal you'll agree. Salsa is a difficult condiment to live without.

Maybe it is the endorphin rush or the taste buds I've burnt off over the years, but a meal just doesn't taste like much without chile. As all chowhounds are not given equal pain thresholds, what better than the egalitarian approach of serving this delicious condiment on the side so diners can vote by the spoonful?

"Salsa" literally translates as "sauce" in Spanish. Franciscan Friar Alonso de Molina generically named the condiment in 1571, according to Andrew F. Smith' s book Souper Tomatoes: The Story of America's Favorite Food. But it was the 16th-century scholar and priest Bernardino de Sahagún who may have first made reference to the condiment, saying Aztec lords combined chile peppers with ground squash seeds and tomato (or tomatl for those Nahuatl speakers among you) to be put on turkey, venison, lobster and fish.

Whenever salsa originated, one thing is certain--it has come a long way in its evolution, be that a traditional salsa fresca (fresh salsa made from raw vegetables also referred to as salsa cruda or pico de gallo) or if it be a fruit, salad, or dessert salsa.

The sweeter salsas made with fresh fruit are usually what challenges people's perceptions about salsa, says Flores. "Most people consider those salsas to be Southwestern."

Fruit salsas are similar to green salsas using green chiles and a tomatillo base and are typically used as a relish on top of fish, poultry or pork dishes. Red salsas, using a tomato base, typically go with beef dishes.

"We do a lot of pork tenderloin in my family and my mom has made mango salsas, apple salsas and pear salsa," says Flores. "You can put them on top of quesadillas and you kind of feel as though you're eating a crepe."

Of dessert salsas, Flores says, "You can make a chocolate salsa and cook it down to make a mole [a chocolate sauce cooked with meat] or people make a salsa with fruit like strawberries and ancho chile and chocolate" to make hazelnut tortes or a relish for ice cream.

Carlotta Flores, mother of Candace and chef-owner of El Charro Café, recommends that people experiment more with chiles such as mashing habañero chiles or just using habañero Tabasco sauce to mix with caramel as a topping for ice cream. Or try combining nectarines, mangos, peaches, purple onion, cilantro, red or green jalapenos and a little hot sauce (which extends the shelf life of your salsa). Just about anything can be made into a salsa if you think about it, says Carlotta Flores, who just came out with a recipe book entitled El Charro Café through Fisher Books. You can either choose to sweat from the heat of the chile or the summer sun of Tucson, she laughs.

As for what salsa Candace prefers most, she is partial to El Charro Café smooth salsa roja (red salsa) that she refers to as their salsa picante (spicy salsa). "It has oregano and garlic and white onion and it has a special type of chile called chiltepin which is a very expensive, very hot chile that goes a long way."

Candace remembers going with her parents as a child to get chiltepin chiles. "We'd go in summer on these horrible monsoon nights in a station wagon. And you remember driving back and your eyes just burning because we'd have bags of chiltepin."

One reason for the expense is that chiltepin don't grow well in cultivated plots but rather under the shelter of another tree to shield it from the elements. For more than 8,000 years the chiltepin have grown wild in the Southwestern United States as well as in Mexico, Caribbean and Peru. Of the 2,000-plus varieties of domesticated chiles grown worldwide, the chiltepin is thought to be the progenitor of all chiles eaten in the United States.

As for me, I grew up eating mostly salsa fresca working with whatever fresh chiles or tomatoes that were on sale. For an easy salsa try this:

  • Mix 4 cups diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 to 4 finely chopped chiles (or more if you like it hot)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
  • The juice of 1 to 2 limes depending on juiciness
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt (to taste)
  • 2 cloves of minced garlic
Let the salsa sit for 10 minutes before eating so the flavors can mingle. Also if you feel like mixing it up, try roasting the garlic--with the skin on--in a hot pan without oil before you chop it up. Roasting the chiles is tasty too. Put the chiles on a barbecue or under a broiler, turning them so they blister all over. Then let the chiles rest in a closed paper bag or in a bowl with a towel on top so that the skin steams loose, making them easier to peel.

Then after you've got a salsa fresca down, try experimenting with different ingredients as well as cooked salsas. In no time you'll be ready to enter your new concoction into the newly reinstated salsa cook-off contest at the Some Like it Hot Tucson Jazz Society salsa festival on October 1. Call the Tucson Jazz Society (903-1265) for an entry form. All recipes must be cooked on site and contestants may either enter the amateur or restaurant category.

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