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Not the Same Old Salsa
By Rachel Travers, Chile Pepper Magazine
Mango salsa arrived on the scene just a few years ago. It was a daring departure from a decade's worth of supermarket salsas, that tomatoey glop whose flavor horizons stretched only as far as mild, medium, and hot. But the avant-garde has become passé; today, mango salsa barely merits a second glance. Instead, you'll find shelves and menus packed with salsas built around pickled watermelon rind, or asparagus, or radish, or even clams.
"You can get so many flavors without adding a lot of fat," says Lynette Moshier, who uses salsas to spice up the menus at Zephyr on the Charles in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Hyatt Regency. "Last winter I had been doing a smoked duck with a pickled cherry and grape salsa," she says. "This summer the duck became lobster on the menu, and I kept the pickling idea. Pickled watermelon rind was such an interesting ingredient, and combined with zebra tomatoes or tomatillos it had the right balance-unusual yet familiar."
Today's chefs bank on such combinations to help bring pizazz to tried-and-true dishes. To understand the unusual salsas, though, it is necessary to understand their roots.
Chef William Phillips is responsible for teaching salsa basics to up-and-coming chefs. At the American Bounty Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he teaches his students how to duplicate traditional recipes and how to create new recipes based on this knowledge.
"Traditional Mexican salsas are tomato-based; some are cut and diced, some are puréed," explains Phillips. "Onion or something piquant is used for the bass notes; for the high notes, you would typically finish with some citric ingredient-in Mexico that frequently comes from limes. Pineapple will give a sweet high note. What you want is a good balance between bass and treble."
"Each type of chile pepper has its own fruit-flavored profile," says Phillips. "These flavors change when they're dried; they become more intense and you get the stronger fruity flavors. Some fresh green chiles, like the poblano, have more of a vegetable flavor. When that chile is dried, it starts to taste like raisins and prunes. Fruit salsas often have habanero chiles in them; once you get by the heat of the habanero, it has a tropical fruit flavor that matches well with mango, pineapple, and papaya."
Phillips notes that the more unusual salsas come out of Southwestern cooking rather than the Mexican tradition. Since Southwestern cuisine borrows from Native American cooking, Mexican cooking, and Anglo cooking, the salsas include more unusual fruits and vegetables.
"We think of them as unusual, but they're really not so unusual," explains Phillips. "Tomatoes, tomatillos, and avocados are fruits. Chiles are botanically a fruit as well. So it makes sense to travel in that direction using other fruits."
Patricia Quintana, who has been referred to as "The Julia Child of Mexico," says that even some of the traditional Mexican salsas have unusual qualities. "Here in the Mexican state of Jalisco we prepare a pico de gallo with green mango, pineapple, jicama, orange sections, coconut, cucumber, and even carrots. This is basted with lime juice, sprinkled with salt, and dusted with chile powder."
Quintana agrees that the Southwest influence opened up the salsa repertoire into the unusual. "The new ideas came about with the Southwestern chefs such as Robert del Grande, Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, and John Sedlar," says Quintana. "All of them have created salsas with mangoes, red onions, and jalapeno chiles, and have gone beyond these flavors combining pineapple and cilantro. Some salsas even have a touch of tamarind paste and coconut milk."
"After Southwestern cuisine paved the way for new combinations in taste, the public was more open to what is now called New World Cuisine," says Carole Kotkin, founder of the South Florida American Institute of Wine and Food and co-author of the cookbook, Mmmmmiami.
Kotkin explains that the "Mango Gang"-consisting of Norman Van Aken, Douglas Rodriguez, Allen Susser, and others from south Florida-paved the way for cutting-edge combinations frequently highlighted by salsas.
"The media dubbed this group the Mango Gang to give the innovative chefs of south Florida a label," says Kotkin. These chefs were among the first to use ingredients that had always been here in southern Florida in recipes that had been brought in by the Latin American, Caribbean, and Cuban immigrant population. For example, mangoes had always grown here, but they were eaten out of hand, never diced and added to a salsa. These chefs added Scotch bonnets and spices and put a modern spin on the traditional recipes."
Chris Schlesinger, chef/owner of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and co-author with John "Doc" Willoughby of Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys & Chowchows, says, "In creating a salsa, we're trying to do something different or something that hasn't been done. There are no real new combinations, only new plays on combinations. You build on old flavors, but put them together in new ways. For example, to come up with a new twist, you might take out raw tomato and substitute pickled or fried or roasted or smoked tomato.
"You need something sour from an acid ingredient like lime, lemon, or vinegar; you get the spicy element from the earthy flavors of cumin or coriander; you get the aromatic quality from the heat, which is usually some sort of chile; and for the overall canvas you use some combinations of fruits and vegetables. I try to stay within those parameters."
An outstanding salsa will give the taste buds a kick like a fine wine; you taste it on the sides of your tongue, then get a residual bite at the back of your tongue as the tasting progresses. Unusual salsas bring out flavor notes you can't get with a simple tomato salsa: the delight of delicately diced fruits and vegetables, combined with the fresh fruity or dried fruity flavors of various chiles, and a smattering of spices.
Unusual salsas are also appearing on specialty store shelves these days. Renfro Foods, Inc., in Fort Worth, Texas, producers of Mrs. Renfro's products and originators of the first habanero salsa, manufacture for private label customers in the gourmet food business. They depend on the unusual to stay in business. "Six years ago we started hitting salsa barriers," says Doug Renfro, president of the company, "so we invented a black bean salsa. Our habanero salsa is now our No. 1 red salsa, and we've since come out with chipotle corn salsa and a roasted garlic salsa. Our papaya habanero relish is really a chunky salsa. The lines have been blurred."
For a while they had a customer producing an artichoke salsa as well. "It was really interesting, but you'd have to explain to everyone on a one-to-one basis what to do with it," Renfro explains.
But by mixing tradition with flights of fancy, American chefs don't have to explain; they're giving us some unusual salsas to accompany the eclectic dishes that appear on menus across the country. "The most important thing to remember about salsas," says Schlesinger, "is that, like the Latin dance that shares their name, the best ones are wild, loose, and loud."
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