Years ago I did a semester abroad in Mexico, and one of the first things I did upon arriving in Oaxaca was to buy a 10-pound mortar and pestle made of solid basalt. This stunning act of shortsightedness meant that I would spend the next four months hauling a melon-sized chunk of volcanic rock around in my luggage.
It was called a molcajete, a traditional tool that's still commonly used for grinding spices and making fresh salsas and guacamole. But really, what was I thinking? They've been making them for 8,000 years, but I couldn't wait until the end of the semester to buy one?
I was just so excited by the way the molcajete combined flavors through sheer brute force. Which is why, to this day, I'm still a bit suspicious of salsas consisting of neatly diced cubes of tomatoes, onions and so on. A molcajete simply pulverizes all the ingredients, melding them into a satisfying melange of colors and flavors.
I don't still have the molcajete. It was super heavy, and too hard to keep clean. But I continue to believe that the best way to make salsa is to combine the ingredients as thoroughly as possible.
Fortunately, there's another kitchen tool that will achieve this same result. It's called a blender. It not only produces a superior salsa, but it's faster and much less tedious than doing it by hand.
Cilantro is Not the Only Herb!
The essential ingredients of salsa are tomatoes, onions, chiles, herbs, lime juice, and salt. Considering how many different types there are of chiles and tomatoes alone, this simple preparation can give way to a million variations.
It's a different story when it comes to the herbs, however. Most salsa recipes (including this one) specify cilantro, and cilantro is a wonderful herb to use in salsa. But there are others. For one thing, not everyone likes the taste of cilantro. But also, not every salsa needs to taste alike. Parsley, chives, tarragon, and even rosemary are good choices to substitute for some or all of the cilantro. Seriously, try fresh rosemary in your salsa. (Only the green parts, though, not the woody, stemmy parts.)
You're going to have to eyeball it when it comes to the herbs. If you're using cilantro, about 1/2 cup of whole leaves should be right. The same for parsley. With chives you might want to start with 1/4 cup of snipped chives. If you're using rosemary, start with one tablespoon. In every case, you can add more to taste, so there's no harm in starting with less.
Tomatoes, Onions and Chiles
This salsa recipe uses Roma tomatoes, but you can use whatever kind you want. Got cherry tomatoes growing in your garden? Use them! The same goes for onions — this recipe calls for white onions, but by all means try yellow, red, sweet, spring, whatever.
And now let's talk about chiles. Jalapeños are probably the most common, and they're a nice medium hotness. But substitute serranos peppers if you like, which are a little bit hotter, or habanero peppers if you prefer a much spicier salsa. But use caution, because habaneros can be anywhere from 10 to 100 times hotter than jalapeños.
Roasting Ingredients Brings Out Flavors
I absolutely love to roast the chiles when I make salsa. It brings out tons of flavors while also tempering the raw heat of the hotter peppers.
Heat up a dry cast iron skillet, place the chiles on it and let them sit there until they turn slightly black. Roll them around with tongs to blacken them all around. From there you can pull off the stems and add the chiles straight into the blender.
Or seal the roasted peppers up in a plastic bag for five minutes, which loosens the skins so you can peel them off. This isn't strictly necessary, but the skins can be difficult for some people to digest, and once they're roasted the skins peel right off, so it's easy enough to do.
You can do the same with your onion. Cut it in half, peel it and place the halves cut-side-down on the skillet until it's brown and caramelized.
For that matter, you can even roast the tomatoes. To do this, halve them, drizzle them with olive oil and roast them on a sheet pan in a 450°F oven for 10 to 20 minutes, until they're tender and wilted.
Once your ingredients are in whatever form you want them, simply purée them in a blender or food processor. Ideally you'd let the salsa sit in the fridge for a few hours so that the flavors can marry, especially if some or all of your ingredients are still warm from roasting. But if you're starving, you have my permission to break out the chips and dig right in.
Finally, if you're interested, here's a traditional Mexican molcajete that someone will deliver straight to your door instead of you having to lug it through airport security and all.
- 1 lb Roma tomatoes (6 to 8)
- 1 onion (white)
- 3 jalapeño peppers
- 1/2 cup fresh herbs (but see above)
- 1 lime (juiced)
- Kosher salt (to taste)
If you're roasting the tomatoes, halve them and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with Kosher salt and roast in a 450°F oven for 10 to 20 minutes. Otherwise, quarter them and add them to the blender.
If you're roasting the onions and/or jalapeños, heat up a dry cast iron skillet. Halve the onion, remove the skin and place the onion cut-sides-down on the skillet along with the jalapeños. Roast the onion until the cut sides are browned and slightly caramelized. Roll the jalapeños around until blackened all around.
Seal the jalapeños in a plastic bag for 5 minutes, then remove the stems, peel off the skins, and add the peppers to the blender.
Roughly chop the onion and add to the blender.
Add the herbs, lime juice and salt to the blender and process until thoroughly puréed. Transfer to a bowl and chill for at least 4 hours before serving.