I’m not opposed to ready-made foods, supermarket shortcuts, already cleaned shrimp, and I do not make everything from scratch. Small kitchen, busy life, etc.
But I’ve found there’s a strangely large range in the edibles we outsource to others. Some are truly difficult or time-consuming to make at home, and I’m happy to pay for a vinegar professional to turn wine into vinegar so I don’t have to (maybe one day, Sandor Ellix Katz). But others can be whipped up fresh quickly and easily. They take just a few ingredients and hardly more effort than the opening of that purchased jar. Salsa is one of them. And the payoff is big.
(See also: Hummus.)
Especially now, when ripe tomatoes and tomatillos are coming, there’s no reason to spend money on a premade jar. I find a lot of the jarred salsas taste alike, even when they claim different flavors. And, they’re always shockingly acidic and overly salty. Even in winter, you can make a better batch from a can of whole tomatoes. The flavor of homemade is simpler and more immediate.
To elucidate the condiment that’s more popular than ketchup and do justice to “the soul of [Mexican] cuisine,” I wanted to post four different ways you can make some salsa at home. The roasted version may be the simplest, as there’s almost no chopping, but there’s not a clear hierarchy among the four types.
**Four Ways to Make Salsa at Home**
Tomatoes or Tomatillos + Fresh Chiles + Quartered Onion + Garlic Cloves + Lime
Put about two pounds of the tomatoes or tomatillos on a baking sheet, whole, with a jalapeño or two trimmed of its stem, a peeled onion cut into fourths, and a few garlic cloves still in their skin. Toss generously with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast at a high temperature (500°F works) for about 15 minutes, until nearly black in places. Remove the garlic from the skin. Put everything in a blender and run until smooth. Add lime juice and salt to taste.
Tomatoes or Tomatillos + Garlic + Fresh Chiles + White Onion + Cilantro + Salt
Instead of roasting the fruit, you quickly blanch them in boiling water before transferring to the blender. Instead of cooking the coarsely chopped onion, chiles, etc., you add all the rest of the ingredients to the blender raw, which balances out the mellowed tomatoes or tomatillos with a bright punch. If you prefer a chunkier salsa, use the food processor instead of the blender.
Canned Tomatoes + Garlic + Onions + Herbs + Dried Chiles.
Forgive me for writing this, but making simmered salsa is a lot like making everyday spaghetti sauce, just with different herbs. Heat up some oil, add chopped garlic and onions, and cook them until just barely soft (retaining some texture is good). Add the tomatoes and herbs–you can do dried Mexican oregano or fresh cilantro, and simmer for 10 minutes or so, so the flavors meld. You can add minced jalapeño with the garlic and onion, but this is a place where I reach for my dried chile stash. Soak 1 or 2 dried chiles like guajillo or ancho in water for a few minutes, then pulse them in a food processor with some of the tomato liquid and add that to the pan with the tomatoes. Season with salt and cool to room temperature before serving.
Diced Vegetables + Minced Onion + Minced Cilantro + Minced Fresh Chile + Lime Juice + Oil Drizzle
Pico de gallo means “rooster’s beak,” but no one seems to know why. The typical raw tomato salsa is popular in Mexico and seen at every burrito joint in the U.S. To make it, combine about 1 pound of chopped ripe tomatoes with half of a minced white onion, 1 minced jalapeño, 1/2 cup minced cilantro, 3 tablespoons of lime juice, and a solid drizzle of oil. Season with salt.