The cop pulled me over and shined his flashlight in my face. In my possession at the time, in my backpack, was a stack of freshly printed handbills.
The handbills advertised an event intended to raise money for a group of Montana farmers, teachers and agriculture students bound for Cuba. Chef Boy Ari will be along, getting the food scoop and faithfully e-mailing it home from the farms, kitchens and tables of America’s closest and most favorite enemy.
The handbills promised that the event would include “a little salsa down your pants,” not the least of which was a bottomless chips and salsa bar, to which Taco del Sol and Fiesta en Jalisco had donated eight gallons of salsa. How could the two restaurants have known that this fateful collaboration would change the face of salsa forever?
Now, one week later, the salsa party has come and gone, but the salsa remains. And I’m sitting in court, watching a docket of fellow citizens receive swift judgment. Most alleged traffic violators would probably be pissing in their pants at a time like this, but I’m grinning, because I’m thinking about salsa, and what I did with the leftovers after the event.
See, after several attempts to make salsa and squirrel it away in jars, I gave up, because I can never get what comes out of those jars to taste as good as what went in.
It’s tricky, because salsa needs time to marinate. The way salsa tastes when you first mix it up is not as good as it will taste the next day, or the day after that. Further, the heat imposed upon the salsa during the canning process will take the edge off of it, yielding spicy tomato sauce, rather than salsa.
Thus, making salsa for canning takes a different blend of ingredients, a blend that will taste like salsa after a little marination, heat and storage time.
In Spanish, the word salsa simply means sauce. In English, salsa basically means spicy tomato sauce for dipping corn chips and putting on top of Mexican food. Whatever its end state, the evolution of salsa seems to be about building on and playing off previous mixtures. Then, mix it with food and eat.
Or mix it up on the dance floor. In the early ’70s, the word salsa was applied to the spicy and muy danceable music that emerged in New York, combining Cuban son and rumba with American jazz and big band. In the last few decades, both the music and the sauce have won over North America. Salsa music has become the cutting edge of hip, and more salsa sauce is sold than catsup.
Fiesta en Jalisco (FeJ) and Taco del Sol (TdS) offer very different interpretations of Mexican food: old-school Mexican vs. old-school California. TdS serves authentic San Francisco Mission-style burritos and tacos with a salsa that is fresh and chunky. The FeJ salsa, on the other hand, is very thin. It is obviously made from canned ingredients. It has a delicious and authentic flavor-balance of acid, age and spice. FeJ salsa is good to dip into with fresh, hot tortilla chips, as you drink beer and wait for your food.
Back in the lab, I sterilized pint jars and filled them with salsa. One jar contained TdS salsa. Another had FeJ salsa. A third jar held a 50/50 mix of the two. I placed these jars into an empty pot and then poured boiling water over the cold jars of salsa. After waiting a few minutes for heat transfer, I put the jars in a pot of boiling water and boiled for 30 minutes.
Blind taste tests were performed by willing housemates. The runaway winner was the 50/50. It had plenty of TdS chunk, despite the cooking, while absorbing the root flavor of FeJ. The 50/50 wasn’t just the runaway winner here; it would whup ass head-to-head with any canned salsa.
Just when I had perfected salsa, Mistletoes walked into the kitchen, counting boys on her fingers and toes. “Maybe you should try adding some chopped chipotle peppers,” she said.
Mistletoes was correct, although I haven’t worked out the exact proportions. And just like that, I’m back at the drawing board. So I’ll leave you here with a new recipe before the judge calls my name.
Fried Chips and Salsa:
Heat up oil (grapeseed oil and/or bacon grease) in a hot pan. Add two handfuls of tortilla chips to the hot oil. Crack an egg or two on top of the chips. When you smell the chips almost burning, dump 1/3 cup of salsa in the pan. It should steam. If not, add water until it does. Stir, then put a lid on it. Turn down to medium. After one minute, stir until cooked.
That’s it until next time. Hasta mojitos, baby.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org