The immediacy of a taco, handed to you hot from grill and comal, simply can’t be equaled. You can stand there and eat yourself silly with one taco after another, each made fresh for you and consumed within seconds. A great taco rocks with distinct tastes that roll on and on, like a little party on your tongue, with layers of flavor and textures: juicy, delicious fillings, perfectly seasoned; the taste of the soft corn tortilla; a morsel of salty cheese and finally, best of all, the bright explosion of a freshly-made salsa that suddenly ignites and unites everything on your palate. At the end of your two- or three-bite taco you just want to repeat the experience until you are sated.
That essential salsa is far more than just a sauce. It completes the taco the way icing completes a cake. It’s about balance again, as you add not only flavor but color and texture as well, carefully chosen to complement the filling. Rich and meaty tacos need an acidic salsa, such as one made with tomatillos and coarse salt. Citrus flavors such as lemon and lime jump out with a the touch of hot salsa. Fresh tomato, onion and cilantro go with almost anything, especially a creamy melted cheese, or a smoky char-roasted chile. Fish and shrimp fairly pop with fresh hot peppers and fruit, given an herbal edge with cilantro. Throwing on just any salsa, or too many different salsas, misses the point completely.
Choose impeccable ingredients of great character – ripe tomatoes, fragrant mangoes, fierce chilies, vibrant cilantro and lime. Be bold and unafraid! Go a little over the top with your seasoning. Timidity has no place in a salsa. Remember, each taco will have only a small amount of salsa, and the salsa has to stand up to all the other tastes and unite them. The flavor of acid, salt, sweetness and heat escalate when the salsa is properly, that is to say, assertively seasoned. A perfectly crafted salsa will seem almost too powerful, but each taste will balance the others, and that little taste will make your simple taco exceptional. (from Amor y Tacos)
Tomatoes – choose Roma or pear-type tomatoes. You don’t have to peel them, but you do have to seed and core them. Sorry. Check the video for some fast techniques.
Onion – white or red onions only, please. A really good onion will make you cry. Accept it.
Tomatillo – green tomatillos are the most common,
but a good Mexican market will sometimes have the tiny milpera which is more authentic. Before cooking, remove the papery husks and wash in warm water to remove the sticky, bitter coating.
Garlic – buy heads of fresh garlic, grown in the USA, and separate cloves as you need them. It’s easy to get the skin off – just tap the clove gently with the side of a knife. Don’t buy peeled garlic. It’s old, has preservatives and often comes from China. Yick.
Chiles – use a fresh green chile such as a jalapeno or serrano. Serranos are reliably spicy, jalapenos a bit milder. For flavor and less heat, remove the seeds before dicing.
Cilantro – wash, shake dry and place stems in a cup of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Pluck stems as needed. Always chop cilantro immediately before you need it. If you hate cilantro, leave it out.
Lime – you WILL use the juice from fresh limes only, please – no bottled juices. Invest in a little hand juicer, preferably a Mexican esprimador. The best limes are small, thin-skinned limones with a little yellow on the skin; buy them at Latin markets. As an additional benefit, fresh juices also immeasurably improve the quality of your margaritas.
Salt – kosher or sea salt is best. Iodized (table) salt has a bitter aftertaste.
PICO DE GALLO (adapted from Amor y Tacos)
The simplest salsa of all- ripe tomato, seeded and diced, mixed with sweet white onions,
- Pico de Gallo
cilantro, lime, a pinch of salt and fresh hot chiles. If you prefer, omit the hot chiles; it then becomes salsa fresca. You may also choose to add more onions. Roma tomatoes are a must for this salsa, which is a classic on all types of tacos. Mix the salsa ingredients just before serving, and season with plenty of salt and fresh-squeezed lime juice (from limes, not a bottle) until the flavors jump! Makes about 2 ½ cups.
4 large, ripe roma tomatoes, cored, seeded and diced small (2 cups)
½ cup small dice white onion
½ medium serrano chile, minced, or more to taste
½ cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, or more to taste
SALSA VERDE /TOMATILLO SALSA
(adapted from !Baja! Cooking on the Edge)
Tomatillos are a kind of ground cherry native to Central America. They have a tart, pleasantly acidic flavor that is delicious with grilled meats. Choose firm tomatillos with their papery husks intact. Remove the husk and wash off the sticky film that remains under warm running water; it is bitter. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
6 medium (2-inch diameter) tomatillos, about 2 cups
1 clove garlic, peeled
¾ cup white onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large jalapeno or serrano, stemmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 sprigs cilantro, stemmed (1/4 cup packed leaves, 2 tablespoons chopped)
- Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos and wash under warm running water. Cut into quarters and place in a 1 1/2 –quart saucepan along with the garlic, onion, jalapeno, and salt.
- Add just enough water to barely cover the tomatillos and quickly bring to a boil over high heat. Boil the vegetables until the tomatillos have just begun to soften, and the tip of a knife can be inserted, about 5 minutes; do not overcook.
- Drain and reserve the cooking water, and transfer the contents of the saucepan to a blender, along with the whole cilantro leaves.
- Pulse the tomatillos until a thick, textured sauce forms, adding some of the cooking water as needed to form a fairly smooth sauce.
CHILE DE ARBOLES HOT SAUCE ( adapted from Amor y Tacos)
This sauce, made from dagger-shaped chiles de arbol, has a enjoyable sharp heat that quickly dissipates. It is excellent on anything rich or cheesy. If you want a hotter sauce, add the optional habanero chiles. Makes about 2 cups.
2 roma tomatoes
3 large garlic cloves, un-peeled
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup stemmed and seeded chiles de arbol
OPTIONAL: 1 or 2 fresh habanero chiles, stemmed and chopped (please wear gloves)
1 cup water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt