Salsas for the Season
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis in the ’70s and ’80s, where Mexican food meant Chi-Chi’s chain restaurant. Salsa to me was the rather bland stuff they served with their (admittedly delicious) free freshly fried chips or the El Paso brand jarred salsa my mom bought at the grocery store for when she’d make ground beef hard-shell tacos for dinner. It wasn’t until college, when I spent a winter studying abroad in central Mexico, that I learned real salsa is more varied and mind-blowingly delicious than everything I had experienced before.
Since then, I’ve been exposed to countless wonderful salsas, both while traveling in other parts of Mexico and at the excellent authentic Mexican restaurants and food stands that have proliferated throughout the States in the last couple of decades. And I have found that salsas easily translate to Wisconsin’s local ingredients.
Modern salsa is born of a clash of cultures—the beautiful mestizo offspring of Old and New World foods. The word “salsa” comes from the Spanish term for “sauce,” which in turn comes from the Latin for “salty.” This mixture of tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and lime juice was first coined “salsa” in 1571 by a Franciscan missionary in Mexico City named Alonso de Molina, while writing the first Spanish-to-Nahuatl (the Aztec language of pre-Columbian Mexico) dictionary. But for thousands of years before the Spanish conquistadores first came to Central and South America in the 1520s, the Aztecs and Mayans of ancient Mexico, Guatemala and Belize made spicy sauces out of their native tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies, squash seeds, avocados and beans to accompany ground corn, meats and seafoods. The Spanish brought European limes, garlic, and cilantro to Mexico, which the Aztec and subsequent mestizo cultures promptly assimilated into both their agriculture and native salsas.
Many classic Mexican salsas in raw or cooked forms have evolved since those early hybrids were born. Here’s a rundown:
Salsa Fresca: Also known as salsa cruda and pico de gallo, this raw salsa is a simple and delicious mix of fresh tomatoes, fresh hot peppers (usually jalapeño or serrano), onion, lime juice and cilantro.
Xni-Pec: A Mayan salsa from the Yucatàn that uses classic salsa fresca as a base and adds roasted habaneros and fresh orange juice.
Mango or Pineapple Salsa: Both fruits were cultivated in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Combined with fresh onions, hot peppers, lime juice and cilantro, they’re now very popular in Caribbean cuisine.
Guacamole: Another variation of salsa fresca with pre-Colombian origins, but made with native avocados mixed with lime juice, garlic and salt, and sometimes with chopped tomatoes, fresh hot peppers and cilantro as well.
Salsa Picante: The classic chunky cooked and preserved salsa that we find in jars in the grocery store or that we can make and preserve at home.
Salsa Ranchera: A smooth salsa made with roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic, dried chilies and spices, typically eaten hot with enchiladas or huevos rancheros.
Salsa Verde: A piquant green salsa made with cooked tomatillos and fresh onions, cilantro, garlic and hot peppers.
Sikil P’ak: Another traditional Mayan salsa from the Yucatàn, but made with toasted pumpkin seeds, charred tomatoes, habaneros or dried chiles, and cilantro.
Raw or Cooked
Corn and/or Bean Salsa: Roasted corn and beans can be added to a base of either fresh or cooked salsa to add extra flavor, texture and nutrition.
Traditional salsas are great, but the evolution doesn’t have to stop with them. These classic salsas can be easily tweaked to use other ingredients we grow here in the Midwest. Try adding berries, peaches, radishes, cucumbers, apples, cranberries or pears—whatever is in season at the moment—to the classic mix of onions, garlic, hot peppers and cilantro instead of, or in addition to, tomatoes.
Cucumber or strawberry salsa is very exciting in the early summer before tomatoes come on the scene.
In winter, I love making a mostly local salsa fresca with beauty heart radishes and apples instead of fresh tomatoes.
Don’t like cilantro? Try substituting fresh mint, marjoram, or oregano.
Make your own salsa history!