Genaro Dispa, general manager of Carlos'n Charlie's at the Flamingo Las Vegas, rattles off the ingredients of a good salsa: tomatoes, serrano peppers, onions, cilantro, garlic, salt and pepper.
He also lists the ingredients of a totally different, but equally good, salsa: tomatoes, serrano peppers, onions, cilantro, garlic, salt and pepper.
Yes, same ingredients. It's how they're treated that makes the difference. For the latter, roast the tomatoes, some of the pepper and some of the onion, and the garlic.
"Mix everything and you have a quite different salsa, but it's the same ingredients," Dispa said. "It will have more kick - be spicier."
"It's got more depth," agreed Brian Baldwin, corporate director of culinary operations for Station Casinos. "You can taste the char of the vegetables, where the fresh is a little more clean."
Summer seems the perfect time for salsas, in part because it's prime season for tomatoes and some of the fruits that can be used to make them, in part because they have a natural affinity for meats hot off the grill. But in Mexico, Dispa said, salsas are an integral part of every meal.
"Every meal, every fish, every chicken can be transformed because of the salsas you use," he said. "You can use salsa with every meal, and it's the difference in every dish."
"The characteristics of Mexican cuisine is heavily influenced by salsas and marinades," said Terry Lynch, executive chef of El Segundo Sol at Fashion Show mall. "The way you build flavors is pretty much the same. A lot of the character comes out of those two things."
As in many things, the quality of the ingredients is important. And for that reason, Lynch - who uses eight varieties of chilies in his kitchen - doesn't use jalapenos.
"Unfortunately, in America the jalapenos have been bred of all flavor," Lynch said. "They just taste like green bell peppers."
Americans, he said, "like the word, but don't want the fire." His "go-to" pepper, he said, is the serrano.
"It's got some character, it's got some heat," Lynch said.
Lynch, too, likes to char vegetables to build flavor. He likes to caramelize onions to a "deep, deep caramel" and deep-fry garlic in the head, and then put peelings and all into the sauce.
"It provides great depth of flavor," he said.
He also likes to use dried chilies and advises buying those at Mexican markets, where the inventory of dried peppers tends to turn over more quickly, resulting in a product that's generally fresher.
"They should be flexible, not brittle," Lynch said. Stem and seed them and open them like a book, he said, before broiling them for only about 10 seconds, watching for "the faintest hint of smoke," unlike fresh peppers, which should be cooked to a good char.
Balance is important, Lynch said, and in the vegetable-based Mexican cuisine, that usually involves adding sugar.
"All that is brought alive by the addition of sugar," Lynch said. "It might be a very small amount, but sugar makes everything happen."
He also suggests checking salsas periodically to ensure they're still in balance, adding that they "constantly need a little pinch of salt or sugar to keep them alive."
While pico de gallo, with its base of fresh tomatoes, is overwhelmingly popular, the chefs suggest branching out with different ingredients.
"In the U.S. it's been hard to go that step to changing from red salsa to green salsa," Dispa said. "You shouldn't be afraid. Green is healthy, it's pretty, it's optimistic."
Lynch said he's doing a salsa of deep-fried garlic and deep-fried serrano chilies pureed together, and a "really hot" one with charred habanero chilies that was inspired by a lobster taco he had in Baja California. And a borracha salsa, or "drunken salsa," with tequila and beer and roasted chilies.
"And salsa rustica, with charred serranos and charred tomatoes that we mash by hand in a molcajete," or Mexican-style mortar and pestle, he said. "Just those two items with a little bit of lime juice and cilantro. We do that with some braised pork."
And occasionally he does a fruit salsa - maybe with pineapple, peeled and studded with slivers of habanero chilies, then caramelized in a cast-iron pan.
Fruit salsas go well with fresh fish, Baldwin noted.
Salsas also can be used as cooking sauces, for instance with shrimp, instead of using something cream- or butter-based, he said.
"And I think one thing that's good to use salsa for is as a salad dressing," he said. "It's kind of a healthier alternative to a mayonnaise-based dressing, and it adds good flavor to a salad."
GREEN TOMATILLO SALSA WITH AVOCADO
5 serrano chilies
11 ounces green tomatillos
1 garlic clove
1 serrano chili without seeds in vinegar (escabeche)
1 tablespoon of the liquid from the chilies in vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 ounce chopped cilantro
1 avocado, peeled
4 ounces chopped onion
Put the chilies in boiling water, and after 5 minutes add the tomatillos. After 3 minutes, drain the water.
Mash the chilies, tomatillo, garlic, chili and chili liquid. Add the salt and cilantro; mix. Then cut the avocado in small dice and add it, along with the onion.
- Recipe from Genaro Dispa, Carlos'n Charlie's
ROASTED TOMATO SALSA
2 large ripe tomatoes (about 1¼ pounds)
2 to 3 jalapeno peppers
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
1/3 cup finely chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon salt
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add tomatoes, jalapenos and garlic; cook 15 minutes or until tomatoes are blackened. Turn frequently. Remove from pan; cool slightly.
Peel, seed, and chop tomatoes; place in a medium bowl. Remove and discard the stems and seeds from jalapenos and finely chop. Add to tomatoes. Peel garlic and finely chop. Add to tomato mixture. Add onion, cilantro, lime juice and salt and toss well to combine.
Makes 2 cups.
- Recipe from Cooking Light
FRESH PEACH SALSA
2 cups chopped, peeled fresh peaches
¼ cup chopped sweet onion
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped, seeded fresh jalapeno peppers
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon snipped fresh cilantro
In a medium bowl, stir together peaches, onion, lime juice, peppers, garlic and cilantro. Cover and chill for 1 to 2 hours.
Makes 2 cups.
- Recipe from Better Homes & Gardens
FRESH TOMATILLO SALSA
½ pound small fresh tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1 large garlic clove
1 tablespoon chopped fresh serrano chili with seeds, or to taste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons water
Coarsely chop tomatillos, then puree with remaining salsa ingredients and ½ teaspoon salt in a blender until smooth.
Makes about 1 cup.
- Recipe from Gourmet magazine
3 large ripe avocados, halved, pitted, peeled, coarsely chopped
8 ounces fresh tomatillos, husked, rinsed, coarsely chopped
2 serrano chilies, seeded, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped white onion
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
Combine all ingredients in processor. Using on/off turns, process until chunky puree forms. Transfer to medium bowl. Season with salt. (Can be made 4 hours ahead. Press plastic wrap directly onto surface of salsa and chill.)
Makes about 2¾ cups.
- Recipe from Bon Appetit magazine
1/3 cup zesty Italian salad dressing
½ cup fresh cilantro, divided
1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped (divided use)
4 cups fresh strawberries, finely chopped
1 navel orange, sectioned, chopped
¼ cup finely chopped onions
Blend dressing, ¼ cup cilantro and half the pepper in blender until smooth.
Chop remaining cilantro; place in medium bowl. Add fruit, onions, remaining pepper and dressing mixture; mix lightly.
Makes 4 cups, or 32 servings.
- Recipe from Kraft Foods
½ fresh pineapple, finely chopped
1 medium red pepper, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup zesty Italian salad dressing
Mix all ingredients until well blended.
Serve immediately (or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve) with grilled pork chops, fish or chicken.
- Recipe from Kraft Foods
ROASTED PINEAPPLE SALSA
4 (½-inch-thick) round slices of fresh pineapple
¼ cup mild olive oil or vegetable oil
1 medium red onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
½ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice, or more to taste
2 fresh habanero chilies, minced, including seeds
½ teaspoon fine salt, or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Set the oven to broil and preheat, or heat a lightly oiled grill pan over medium heat. If you're using the oven broiler, position the rack 8 inches from the heat source.
Brush the pineapple slices with some of the oil and roast or grill them until they're browned on both sides and tender, 5 to 6 minutes a side on the grill pan, or 8 minutes a side under the broiler. Let them cool to room temperature.
Dice the pineapple (about 1/8 inch), discarding the core, and mix it in a bowl with the remaining ingredients. Season to taste with additional lime juice and salt.
This salsa keeps in the refrigerator for as long as one day.
Makes 2½ cups.
- Recipe from Epicurious.com.
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review journal.com or 702-383-0474.