Although the Spanish word salsa translates into English simply as "sauce" (sals is an obsolete form of the English sauce), we understand the term to mean a mildly to intensely spicy uncooked condiment most often, though increasingly less so, associated with Mexican and other Latin American cuisines. Chips-and-salsa sit on the tables of most Mexican restaurants, and market shelves are lined with scores of variations of the increasingly popular relish. Traditional salsas—and many innovative versions—begin with tomatoes, fresh ripe ones in season and canned tomatoes the rest of the year, or tomatillos—but the concept has been stretched to incorporate everything from watermelon, cherries, mangos, and bananas to pumpkin seeds, green olives, black beans and minced clams. Made with good ingredients and the proper balance of heat, acid, and salt, nearly any mixture, however unusual, can be wonderful, though I prefer not to deviate too far from the original tradition. There's a point at which a salsa should be called something else.
Salsas are most often rough textured, with the ingredients cut into small to medium dice, but there are also several traditional salsas from Mexico that are smooth or nearly so. In Mexico and beyond, salsas are used as condiments with egg, fish, poultry, meat, cheese, and rice dishes and, of course, on tacos. You find similar condiments, differently named of course, in Africa, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, anywhere that peasant foods are flavorful and robust and where there are plenty of fresh vegetables available.
Makes about 2 cups
This is the simplest and one of the most common of the traditional Mexican salsas and its coarse texture really makes it more of a relish. But made with ripe tomatoes it is as good with tortilla chips as it is with tacos, grilled meats and onions, and rice, anywhere at all that you want a bright, tart, savory accompaniment. If the only tomatoes you have at hand are plum tomatoes, you may need to add three or four tablespoons of water to achieve the right consistency.
In a medium bowl, toss together the tomatoes, onion, peppers, and cilantro. Add kosher salt to taste and let the mixture rest at least 30 minutes before serving.
Not quite as basic as salsa Mexicana, salsa cruda is nearly as common as an all-purpose salsa.
Peel and core the tomatoes. Cut them in half and gently squeeze out the seeds and excess liquid. Chop them coarsely and place them in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the onion, garlic, and chilis and toss. Mix together the tomato purée, lemon juice, vinegar, and olive oil and pour it over the vegetables, tossing to blend well. Add the cilantro and oregano and then taste the salsa. Add kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Let the salsa sit at least 30 minutes before serving.
This one's a garlic lovers delight.
Peel and core the tomatoes. Cut them in half and gently squeeze out the seeds and excess liquid. Chop them coarsely and place them in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the onion, cucumber, garlic, and chilis and toss. Mix together the tomato purée, lemon juice, and olive oil and pour it over the vegetables, tossing to blend well. Add the chives and cilantro and then taste the salsa. Add kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Refrigerate the salsa for one hour before serving.
Makes about 3 cups
Delicate and pleasing to both the eye and the palate, this light salsa is excellent on chilled poached chicken breasts and simple grilled seafood.
Cut the tomatoes in quarters (or smaller, if they are larger cherry tomatoes). Toss together the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and pepper. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, and cilantro leaves and toss again. Season with salt and pepper and let the salsa rest for 30 minutes before serving. If you must hold it longer than 30 minutes, refrigerate the salsa until 30 minutes before using.
The reason to make this visually dazzling salsa is the availability of lots of differently colored tomatoes, the more the better. I prefer the texture of this salsa with the tomatoes peeled, but it is not absolutely necessary.
Either remove the cores of each tomato or peel and core them, cut them in half, and gently squeeze out excess liquid and seeds. Chop each tomato separately and place them all in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the onion and peppers and toss lightly. Add lime juice to taste, olive oil, the fresh herbs, toss again, and taste the salsa. Add kosher salt and several turns of black pepper to taste. Let rest at least 30 minutes before serving.
Copyright 1996 by Michele Anna Jordan, author of The Good Cook's Book of Tomatoes. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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