Monday, 30 April 2012

Salsa, and further adventures with tortillas

I never read recipes for salsa, because I learned how to make it from my mom, like a real Mexican would.

And my mother's salsa is delicious, so why would I use anyone else's recipe? That is the prologue to my adventure with what I call Shut the Front Door Chipotle Sauce.

But first some exposition.

Salsa means "sauce" in Spanish. In English, the word denotes the chunky tomato sauce that is ubiquitous in Mexican cooking (and a "spicy" Latin dance, but that's of no concern to us).

Just take a moment to reflect on how incredible it is that such a general word in Spanish has come to mean such a specific thing in another language. It is an indication of how important the basic tomato sauce is to Mexican food, but also of how thoroughly Mexico has occupied its niche in the international culinary world.

Of course, salsa also means sauce in Italian, and Italy has definitely embraced the tomato (though Mexico, as I love to point out, was born with tomatoes).

But as Rick Bayless writes, there is a marked difference between the taste of a Mexican tomato sauce and an Italian one. I always thought it was down to the chiles. It ain't. It's the asar.

Bayless writes that there are three techniques that make Mexican food distinctive. One of them is braising, charring, blackening, or otherwise cooking things by placing them on a very hot flat metal thing called a "comal". This is how you make carne asada. It's also how you make tortillas. And if a Mexican recipe calls for roasted tomatoes, they mean "tomates asados".

Of course, I don't have a comal. Outside of Mexico, we use a large dry frying pan on a high heat.

Discovering the asar technique was quite exciting for me, because even my own mother often bulks up her salsa with some tinned chopped tomatoes. Purist that I am, I couldn't help wondering what you did before there was such a thing as tinned tomatoes.

But why was I experimenting with other salsa recipes in the first place?

One of my favourite cookbooks is Thomasina Miers' Mexican Food Made Simple, and as I've written before, her approach to tacos is to prepare some fresh, seasonal ingredients with some Mexican herbs and spices (or their equivalents), wrap it in a homemade corn tortilla, and enjoy. This, after all, is what the Mexicans do.

So when my wife said we needed to use up some asparagus, I decided to dice them with some mushrooms and carmelized corn, sauté them in butter with some tarragon (Mexicans love aniseed) and make Spring tacos.

But what kind of sauce to go on top? Well, Thomasina recommends her sweet chipotle paste, and you know how much I love chipotles.

I had no intention of copying her recipe exactly, but I did take some inspiration from it. However, I wanted a sauce, rather than a paste, so mine was much looser. She calls for chipotles en adobo, but I used dried chipotles. She calls for fish sauce, which I didn't use. She doesn't call for Mexican oregano, but I used it, hoping for a kind of barbecue sauce effect when combined with the smoky chipotles. Also, I put in some white onion, just for the helluvit.

I had high hopes that this sauce would be kick-ass, and I was already planning to call it Shut The Front Door Chipotle Sauce. I did not think of it as a salsa, because it was not going to be chunky (I was even planning to sieve it, but when I tasted it, I rather liked the thicker,puree texture).

Now I know I haven't always been very structured in how I communicate recipes. Partly it's because I use a lot of other people's recipes (and they're copyrighted), and partly it's because I view this blog as more a chronicle of my journey with Mexican food, rather than suggestions of what my readers should cook. However I will put down my recipe for Shut The Front Door Sauce before continuing with my story.

Ingredients
6 medium tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
1 medium white onion, diced
15 g dried chipotles
1 tbsp brown sugar (UK) / raw sugar (US)
1 tsp Mexican oregano

Method
Stem and de-seed the chipotles, reserving the seeds. Reconstitute the chipotles as you would any dried chiles.

Roast the tomatoes and garlic: put a large, dry frying pan on high heat. Put the tomatoes and garlic cloves (still in their papery skins) on the pan. When one side begins to blacken, turn it over (the garlic will blacken first, so keep both eyes on it). Once the tomatoes and garlic have black spots on all sides, remove from the pan and let them cool.

In the same dry pan, roast the seeds for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until they start to change colour. Then grind them immediately with a pestle and mortar.

When the garlic and tomatoes have cooled, remove the skins and core the tomatoes.

Remove the chiles from the boiled water (reserving the water for the sauce).

Put the chiles, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and ground seeds into a blender and blitz, adding some chile water as necessary to keep the mixture running through the blades. The consistency should be loose, with a soft texture, but no visible chunks or lumps.

Taste for seasoning and then add the sugar and oregano, mixing thoroughly. You can add more seasoning if you wish.

Now, right away I thought the sauce tasted good, but was it Shut The Front Door? Not until the next day. This is one of those things where the flavours need to mingle and marry overnight, so make it a day in advance.

Also, the six tomatoes make loads of salsa, without having to resort to any tinned toms, so that's one mystery solved.

Back to my story:

Although I was always happy with mi madre's salsa, I did notice that at some of the better Mexican restaurants the salsa they gave us had a certain je ne sais quois that our family recipe didn't have. However, I never thought to seek it out.

But I found it, practically by accident, while making this sauce! The secret to Mexican salsa is roasted tomatoes and oregano, of all things. (That's Mexican oregano, by the way.)

I love this sauce so much that I am pretty much scrapping my family recipe. From now on, I will use this as the base of my chunky salsa, adding some diced fresh tomato, chopped jalapeño, and fresh herbs to compete it.

I had wanted to take a photo of my sauce in a nice dish, but ended up eating most of it instead. Sorry about that.

The other news is that my tortilla-making skills are coming along nicely. This time I used a combination of traditional hand-patting with rolling in the ziploc bag. The edges were still a bit rustic, but definitely improving.

And finally the two photos: the first is leftover salsa on a sandwich the next day (delicious); the second is my latest batch of homemade tortillas.

Now I'm taking a holiday from the kitchen, but before I go, happy Cinco de Mayo! By the way, this is not Mexican Independence Day. That would be September 16th. Cinco de Mayo is the Battle of Puebla.