Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Charred Tomato Chile Salsa

For most of us, when we think of making salsa, we think of pico de gallo. Chopped fresh tomatoes, chopped fresh cilantro, onions or scallions, maybe a fresh hot jalapeno or serrano, and then a splash of lime or vinegar to pull it all together. Perfect with tacos, or for scarfing down with chips.

But there's another kind of salsa out there: the cooked salsa. I'm not talking about the jarred stuff at the grocery store, which mostly tastes of canned tomatoes. I'm talking about the salsas served in squeeze bottles at your local taqueria. The green salsas, tangy with tomatillos. And oh, the red salsas. For a while I had no idea how these were made. You couldn't really identify individual ingredients within the smooth blend. Every now and then you saw a chile seed, or a fleck of charred something-or-other, but for the most part it was a spicy mystery.

It turns out that this class of cooked salsa is easier to make than you'd think (or than I'd thought, at any rate). You need a fruit to carry the body of the salsa, generally a tomato or tomatillo (unless you're braver than I am, and can go it with just chiles). The tomatoes/tomatillos are seared, and the chiles can also be seared too (although it tends to result in choking smoke), and maybe an onion or garlic. Everything is soaked or simmered, then pureed, with some vinegar or lime to brighten it up, and fresh herbs stirred in at the end. This post gives a great overview of the process.

For a while, I was partial to a variation from the New Vegetarian Epicure, with guajillo chiles and tomatillos. But this version, from Chow, is my new love. It's adapted from a taqueria, Papalote, in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood. I've been there, and can vouch for it: fairly standard burritos, amazing salsa. I don't know how Chow's recipe compares to the original (they had to freestyle it themselves), but it's definitely my current favorite. It's spicy from the chiles (sharp Chiles de Arbol and a richer Pasilla), but is mellowed out by pumpkin seeds, which give it a smooth body and slightly nutty flavor. The interplay of caramelized tomatoes and vinegar gives it a perfect sweet-tart balance. We've had it on top of tacos, on top of chips, and straight from a spoon. Even a chile wuss like me can't stay away.

Charred Tomato Chile Salsa
adapted from Chow's Ersatz Papalote Salsa
makes about 2 1/2 cups

Although the recipe is written for Roma tomatoes, I used the Stupice tomatoes in our garden, and it worked wonderfully. Just reduce the amount of water if you're using a juicy tomato (you can always add more later). And if you're a pumpkin seed-lover like me, resist the urge to add more to the sauce. The amount as written provides just the right amount of balance, without making it overwhelmingly nutty.

5 medium Roma tomatoes, cored and halved (or an equivalent amount of other tomatoes)
10 dried Chiles de Arbol, stemmed and seeded
1 dried Pasilla chile, stemmed and seeded
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp sugar (less, if your tomatoes are particularly sweet)
1 1/2 cups water (less, if you're using juicy non-Roma tomatoes)
2 Tbsp hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted
2-3 Tbsp white vinegar
1/4 cup minced scallions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

- Preheat your broiler. Place the tomatoes in a greased baking dish, skin side up. Char under the broiler until the skins are slightly burned, and the tomatoes have started to give up their juice a bit (this can take just a few minutes).

- Slide the tomatoes into a saucepan, along with the chiles, salt, sugar, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

-Add the vinegar, cook for another minute, then turn off the heat. Add a scoop of this mixture to a blender along with the pumpkin seeds, and puree until almost totally smooth. Add the remainder, and puree until smooth (you want the pumpkin seeds totally blended into the body of the sauce, but specks of chile and such are fine). Stir in the cilantro and scallions, and taste to adjust seasoning. Allow to chill for several hours, for the vinegar to mellow and the flavors to meld. The salsa will thicken a bit the first day, and considerably the day after (if there's any left).


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