Cooking Class with Chef Ivan Flowers: Lesson Nine - Salsa!

By Chef Ivan Flowers,

Last week, we learned how to make the very flavorful and versatile sauce, chimichurri. This week we will learn another sauce that has many variations and uses. Can you guess what it is? We are going to make salsa!

Salsa is the Spanish term for sauce. A salsa is usually tomato based, though some are not, with varying heat levels. A pico de gallo, which is translated as the rooster’s beak, is also known as salsa fresca. It has similar ingredients to a salsa, but much less liquid. A salsa verde is a green sauce that has tomatillos instead of tomatoes. Tomatillos are in the gooseberry family and grow with a brown husk around them. They have a tart, acidic flavor. This lesson will cover a traditional tomato salsa, a pico de gallo and a salsa verde, plus some spins you can put on these techniques. So, let’s get cooking.

We will start with the basic tomato salsa. You will need twelve roma tomatoes, I like romas for salsa because they tend to be firmer than a slicing tomato and have less pulp. I find that that the amount of pulp in a roma simply works better in a salsa. One half of a red onion, yes, you can use white, but I think a red onion has a little tartness to it and I think it brightens the other flavors in the sauce. One clove of garlic, two jalapenos, one half cup of cilantro, two limes and salt and pepper to taste. Rough chop the tomatoes, onions and cilantro and put them in a blender.

Next add the garlic clove, minced. With the jalapenos, if you want the salsa spicier, keep in the seeds and ribs, if not remove them. Mince the jalapenos and along with the juice of the two limes and cilantro, add it all to the blender. Now pulse until the salsa is the consistency you would like.

Finally salt and pepper to taste. This, along with the other salsas, will stay fresh in your fridge for up to a week.

Now, let’s make pico de gallo. You will use all the same ingredients, except for the garlic. You will want to uniformly dice all ingredients. Start with the Roma tomatoes. Before dicing, use a spoon and scrape out all the seeds and ribs. With this sauce, we want very little liquid. Next fine dice your jalapenos and onion. Finely, finely chop your cilantro. Put it all in a large bowl and squeeze in the juice of two limes, then salt and pepper to taste.

That’s it! Here is a tip, if you want a fabulous guacamole and you have made pico de gallo, simply mix the sauce with fork mashed avocados and add a little more salt. Delicious.

For our salsa verde, we will need sixteen tomatillos with the husk removed. Lay them out on a large baking sheet and lightly oil them. With the oven set on broil, put tomatillos on top rack. Broil for five to seven minutes, until the skin is blackened. Set aside and let them cool completely. Once cooled, you will rough chop them.

While they are cooling, you can get the other ingredients together. For this salsa I like to use a sweet white onion because it helps offset the very tart tomatillo. You will need one medium white onion, coarsely chopped. You will also need one clove of garlic minced, one half cup of chopped cilantro, the juice of two limes and two serrano peppers, minced. Serrano peppers are hotter and fleshier that a jalapeno. So, again, if you don’t want too much heat, remove the seeds and ribs. If you can’t find a serrano pepper, jalapenos are a fine substitute. Put all in a blender with one more ingredient, one quarter teaspoon of sugar. Why? Because the tomatillos are so tart and acidic, you need that touch of sweetness to balance the flavors. Now pulse away. Salt and pepper to taste at the finish.

Easier than you thought, right? Believe me, once you make salsa at home, you will never want the jarred stuff again.

Now that we have learned the basic technique, let’s make some variations. First is a fire roasted salsa. You can grill the ingredients, which adds a very nice smokiness to the sauce, or oven roast them. If grilling, oil all ingredients and cook over medium heat until done. If roasting, place all ingredients, tossed in oil in a 450 degree oven and roast about 20 minutes. You will use all the same ingredients as in the standard salsa, they will simply be roasted. Yes, including the jalapeno and garlic. For the garlic, take a full head, with husk on and place on foil. Drizzle with a little olive and wrap tightly in the foil. Put into oven with the other vegetables, or on grill, for about thirty minutes. The garlic is roasted when it is soft to the touch. If you have never had roasted garlic before, you are in for a treat. It is transformed. It is sweet, buttery and slightly nutty in flavor. Because of this change, we will add six cloves of roasted garlic to this salsa. Once everything is roasted, let items cool completely before rough chopping. If you don’t wait, all that wonderful roasted liquid will be lost on the cutting board instead of going into the salsa. Put the tomatoes, onion, garlic, jalapenos, cilantro and juice of two limes into the blender and pulse. Finish with salt and pepper.

Okay, one more! Mango pico de gallo. Follow the same technique and ingredient list as you did for the regular pico de gallo, except you will use ten tomatoes instead of twelve and add ten mangos finely diced. This is a wonderful sauce for chicken and fish. Remember, if you don’t like mango, you can use watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches or honeydew melon. All would be delicious.

Now you know how to make a wide variety of exciting salsas. Have fun and experiment a little. As with any technique or recipe, the most important component is the cook’s heart. The heart is what creates delicious.

Chef Ivan Flowers brings 25 years of fine cuisine experience to Top of The Market, San Diego. Prior to becoming Executive Chef at Top of The Market, Chef Flowers owned Fournos restaurant in Sedona, Arizona, named a top 25 restaurant in Arizona. He was also Executive Chef at L’Auberge de Sedona, the AAA Four-Diamond, Four Star award winning restaurant. Flowers has created extraordinary cuisine for some of the finest restaurants in Arizona, including T. Cooks at Scottsdale's Royal Palms Resort and the Phoenician's Mary Elaine's and Different Pointe of View.

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