By MaryAnn Miano
If your life needs a little kick, a little lift, a little spice…try salsa! No, not the dancing kind, but the savory kind. Salsa is a Spanish sauce that can be eaten either hot or cold. The term is usually applied in Spain and Mexico to spicy sauces, often hot with chiles, and particularly to uncooked sauces or dips used as a condiment.
Salsa actually predates the Spaniards. The ingredients, such as the tomato used as the base of the sauce, were domesticated by the Aztecs and Central American nations. The tomatillo (used in salsa verde) also originated in the Andes in the area we know as Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru.
The spectacular sauce is made by combining chiles, tomatoes, and foods such as beans and squash seeds, corn, garlic, and various spices such as cilantro. The Aztecs consumed this mixture as a condiment with seafood, turkey, and venison. Alonso de Molina, a Spanish priest and missionary, termed it “salsa” in 1571. In 1807, we can find the first bottled hot sauces made with cayenne chiles appearing in Massachusetts. In 1898, a cookbook appeared in the U.S. containing two recipes for salsa fresca: Salsa Picante de Chile Colorado (a spicy red chile sauce) and Salsa de Chile Verde (a green chile sauce).
As we moved into the 20th century, a person by the name of Charles E. Erath of New Orleans is the first to manufacture a salsa product he called “Extract of Louisiana Pepper.” It was a red hot creole sauce, but not a dippable salsa. By 1923, there was a brand called Bruce Foods that manufactured Crystal Hot Sauce and the Original Louisiana Hot Sauce (still in existence today).
It wasn’t until 1941, however, when La Victoria Sales Company brought to market a new salsa line. With this line, red and green taco and enchilada sauces were introduced as the first salsa hot sauces in the U.S. Other companies followed suit through the years, and today we have a wide array of salsa to choose from, with an ever-increasing delight in consuming Mexican food. By 1991, salsa overtook ketchup as the leading condiment.
Almost everyone who enjoys spicy food would agree that salsa is delicious, but how does salsa stand up as a health food? When compared against sugary ketchup, salsa is sugar-free, except for salsas that are made with naturally occurring sugar in fruit. Salsa is low in calories and has no fat, and the tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro contain vitamins A and C with generous amounts of potassium in the tomatoes.
Chunky or smooth, salsa can be used as a pizza topping, on top of grits and burgers, or as a sauce dip for shrimp. There are many wonderful flavorful combinations of salsa, such as black bean, cherry, chipotle, cilantro, corn, mango, and more. Uncooked (raw) salsas are simple in appearance, yet balance interesting flavors that make it attractive and tasty. Cooked salsas possess a smooth, velvety consistency with an underlying richness.
May is National Salsa Month. Try the following recipes to experience a fiesta for your senses:
AUTHENTIC SALSA CRUDA
2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 medium-sized white onion, chopped
2 green onions (scallions), chopped
1 jalapeno chile, diced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon salt
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well. Serve immediately at room temperature or store in the refrigerator. It can be stored up to 2 days in the refrigerator. Makes about 2 cups.
2 pasilla chiles, roasted, skinned, seeded, and chopped
2 New Mexican red chiles (fresh, not dry pod), roasted, skinned, seeded, and chopped
½ cup cold water
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon garlic salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon chili powder
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ yellow onion, finely diced
Place all the ingredients except the garlic and onion in a blender and process on low speed until thick and pulpy. If the salsa is too pasty or stiff, add water a teaspoon at a time until the desired consistency is reached. Pour into a small bowl and stir in the garlic and onion. Use immediately or cover and store in the refrigerator up to 1 week. Makes about 1 cup.