Monday, August 15, 2011

"Some Like it Hot" Salsa

Continuing on my salsa theme, my latest challenge was to create a salsa meant to be served warm. This was a fun puzzle...most of the hallmarks of salsa - fresh tomatoes or other fruits, fresh chilies and onions, cilantro, that pleasing contrast of soft and crunchy, saucy and chunky textures, and principally uncooked ingredients - are all challenged by the "serve warm" requirement. It forced me to think about what is most essential in a salsa - what's at the heart of our love affair with salsas? What's the difference between a salsa and a sauce or a condiment?

First and foremost, salsas are for dipping corn chips, or accompanying Mexican or Southwestern foods. They are characterized by Mexican and Southwestern flavors - chilies, acid (lime or tomato are typical), garlic and onion. Sometimes they are very simple - tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalepenos, salt and pepper, rough chopped - and sometimes they are complex - with multiple aromatics, including cilantro, oregano, cumin, annato, cinnamon, cloves, etc., plus the many, many varieties of fresh, dried and smoked chilies.

Having said all that, salsas are, of course, sauces: salsa is the Spanish word for sauce. And they are also condiments: we use them to enhance foods in much the same way we use ketchup, or chutney, or sauer kraut, or chow-chows. So a salsa is really defined by its culinary context - the flavors it contains, and the food we're eating it with.

So here's a hot salsa - yes, spicy hot, but more importantly, temperature hot. It's pretty addicting. I love it served in a warm, shallow bowl, sprinkled with queso fresco, and eaten with good quality tortilla chips.

"Some Like it Hot" Salsa
(makes about two cups)
1 T canola or light olive oil
2 large or 3 medium shallots, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1-2 fresh habanero peppers, stemmed and rough-chopped - DO NOT TOUCH WITH BARE HANDS!
3 dried ancho chilies, stemmed, seeded and torn into pieces
4 roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and rough chopped
2 pinches dried oregano
1/2 tsp cumin
Fresh ground pepper - about 1/3 tsp
Kosher salt to taste

Saute shallots, garlic and habaneros in oil over med-low heat until well-softened and just starting to brown. Add remaining ingredients, plus a cup or more of water. Add some salt at this point - about a 1/2 tsp - but you'll add more later. Increase heat to medium and bring to a low boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until about half of the liquid has evaporated, and the tomatoes and anchos are well-softened, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest until cool enough to touch.

Pour everything into a blender and puree until very smooth. If needed, add a bit more water (or chicken or veggie stock) to make it loose enough to blend well. It should be just a bit looser than the consistency of ketchup. Taste, and adjust salt at this point. Using a spatula, scrape into a storage container and refrigerate for 1-3 days allowing the flavors to develop.

To serve, pour into a large shallow bowl and warm in a 250-degree oven until hot - about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with queso fresco, and serve with fresh or high-quality corn tortilla chips and Mexican beer or margaritas. Garnish with sliced radishes if you want.

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