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SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

A Salsa for all Seasons

Spike Tomatoes with Chipotles for a Condiment That's Good to the Last Drop

April 18, 1999|DONNA FRAZIER | Donna Frazier last wrote about strawberries for the magazine

One of my friends has recently been working her way through a new illustrated cookbook and with casual aplomb tends to whip up dishes such as coq au vin as snacks or to show up at parties bearing pastry-shop-perfect cakes she's just decorated with hand-candied chestnuts. I'd always thought I would be that kind of cook, the maker of dishes as memorable for their visual artistry as for their taste. "Complexity is no object" would be my motto. As luck would have it, though, I've been upstaged by the simple. Time and again, I'll spend hours in the kitchen on some new recipe, only to find that at the end of the evening, my guests are still raving about the chipotle-flavored salsa that I'd set out to assuage their hunger while I put the finishing touches on the main event.

This has happened so often that I've come to regard that lowly salsa as a rather magical dish. I know it's folly to make extravagant claims for a condiment as ubiquitous as this, so I don't. I just double or triple the recipe each time and watch as people devour it with their chips, spoon it into cups and not-so-surreptiously drink what remains as if it were gazpacho.

I'm not certain exactly what chemistry makes this so, but intriguingly, this is a salsa for all seasons--even the too-long winter months when the supermarket selection of tomatoes forces one to choose between gorgeous but boutique-priced fruits imported from Holland or Israel and domestic varieties, which seem almost to crunch. I can't bring myself to pay $3 or $4 for one tomato, or even two or three arranged on a lovely stem, so I generally use romas. Yes, they're a little hard, but they work surprisingly well. Once I realized that red-but-slightly-hard tomatoes taste fine in this dish, I began to push the envelope. One time I tried using mostly romas and adding an orange-y beefsteak tomato with a whitish interior (the kind that makes you long for summer) just to see what would happen. That night a guest asked me admiringly, and without a trace of irony, where I'd gotten the delicious tomatoes for the salsa: Were they some special variety?

I imagine that you could, with good results, substitute canned chipotles in adobo sauce for the reconstituted chipotles in this recipe. But if you've not brought home a small bag of these dried red jalapenos, you're missing a great treat. Chipotles (I order mine from Penzeys, the wonderful Wisconsin mail-order spice company, and you can find them at Grand Central Market and Mexican grocery stores) have an almost intoxicating smokiness and depth of flavor that inspires experimentation.

I haven't given up on the idea that one day my signature dish will be something unusual and amazing. I'm looking into pomegranates and Persian cookery. But part of me also knows that on the evening of the next big"banquet" at our house, a meal that may have taken me days to prepare, the likeliest response is: "That was great. Can I have your salsa recipe?"

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

SALSA

Adapted from "Coyote Cafe," by Mark Miller

(Ten Speed Press, 1989)

Makes about 2 cups

*

1-2 dried chipotle chile peppers

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons onion, finely diced

2 cups tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 cup Mexican beer

2 teaspoons salt

*

Place chile peppers in small bowl and cover with water. Microwave on high until water boils, about 1 minute. Cover bowl and set aside until peppers have softened, about 15 minutes. Drain peppers, reserving soaking liquid. Puree peppers with 1 tablespoon of soaking liquid in blender or small food processor.

Put onion in strainer, rinse with hot water and drain. Combine onion, tomatoes, cilantro, sugar, beer and salt and mix well. For moderately hot salsa, stir in 1 teaspoon of pepper puree. Add more or less puree to taste.

Refrigerate salsa at least 30 minutes before serving.

*

Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson

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