In defense of mango salsa

First, a word about terminology. Although it has come to designate a very specific genre of Tex-Mex condiment for the hungry American, the Spanish word salsa merely means “sauce”, and so can refer to very different things. It comes from the homologous Latin word salsa, which means “salty” and is obviously derived from the Latin sal, “salt”.

The word itself refers to just as broad a range of preparations in Mexico as does sauce in the English speaking world. To whit: “Tabasco sauce” and “chocolate sauce” are clearly both “sauce”, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

For the purposes at hand, I should note that although most Americans think of salsa as a runny, red (and possibly piquant) tomato-based concoction which might more accurately be referred to as salsa picante, salsa roja, or (depending on the method of preparation) salsa fresca. These are most basically a puree of tomatoes, chiles (either jalapenos or serranos), onion, garlic, and cilantro. However, if you boil those same ingredients whole before pureeing them, you have salsa ranchera, which is EXCEEDINGLY delicious poured, still steaming, over fried eggs. You can also make a concoction similar to salsa roja using tomatillos rather than tomatoes, and this would be called salsa verde. This can also refer to a cooked preparation, however, such as the salsa verde that’s simmering in here in the Republic of Dogs Presidential Kitchens as we speak…destined to cover enchiladas de pollo with tangy goodness. In my neck of the woods, tacos are commonly served with a condiment that you might think would be called salsa verde (since it’s green), but it’s basically just pureed jalapenos, and is generally just called chile.

With the incipient trendypantsification of “latin cuisine” (whatever that is), the word salsa has gained a much wider and looser currency. Although confusing (insofar as it gives rise to things like “mango salsa”), it is probably more accurate, since it brings the word back to its original broad meaning.

However. Most of these salsas nuevas are far less pourable than the mental image most Americans see when they think salsa. This is not without precedent. In my part of the world (south Texas/el norte de Mexico), we heartily enjoy a chunky sort of relish made of diced tomatoes, diced onions, diced chiles, and chopped cilantro. You might add a little lime juice to this, but that’s pretty much it. It’s not cooked. It’s fresh and a little crunchy, and nothing is better with barbacoa tacos on a lazy Sunday morning. This preparation is more broadly known as salsa cruda, but Tex-Mex parlance, it is called pico de gallo (the beak of the rooster).

Most fruit salsas are more like pico de gallo than salsa roja. They are chunky, rather than pureed, and therefore more like a relish than a sauce in the parlance of American cooking.

Second, the combination of fruits with piquant flavors has a long and honorable heritage based on the simple fact that it’s delicious. Whether it’s a dash of black pepper in a berry sorbet or the chili powder sprinkled over fresh fruit at roadside fruiterias across el norte, heat and sweet is a winning combination. That’s why salsas crudas made from mango or pineapple or orange or papaya are freaking delicious, despite what salsa-haterz like Almostinfamous might say in their youthful culinary bravado.

I suppose that the real proof is, as they say, in the pudding. Fortunately, these salsas are the simplest things in the world to make. If you can wield a knife, you can make these. It is a further instance of good fortune that these salsas are most satisfying with grilled meats, which Americans are mandated by federal law to prepare and consume at least once a week during the months of June, July and August. So give these a spin. Like Midniter, you may still harbor grave doubts about fruit salsas. Like him, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Mango Salsa

eat me, cobagz!!!1!

This recipe is based on one from the 1997 revision of The Joy of Cooking, which is an interesting measure of just how much American food as changed. However, comparing editions of Joy is an exercise for another day. Ethan Becker, whose smarmy editorial voice suffuses (and degrades) the entire revised Joy, suggests that “Papaya, pineapple, peaches or apricots can be substituted for the mango; basil or parsley can stand in for the cilantro”. I would concur with the first clause of that sentence, but violently reject the second. Call me provincial, but to my mind, replacing the cilantro with basil would basically sever the roots of this dish in the cuisines of Mexico, and make it…I don’t know. Something else. Possibly delicious, but not salsa.

So, chop up a small red onion and toss it in a bowl with 1/4 cup of fresh lime juice. Cube the flesh of two ripe mangos (not too ripe…those are best eaten standing over the sink, with the juice running down your chin!), and toss that in with the onions and the lime juice. Give it a quick toss – the lime juice will keep the mango fresh-looking. Chop and add the following: 1 small red bell pepper, 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves (no stems, slackers!), 1 clove garlic, 1/4 cup fresh orange juice (just squeeze half of a juicy orange, catching the seeds), and 1 jalapeno, sans seeds and membranes. Toss it all together, and season it with a small pinch of salt and cracked black pepper to taste.

I served this over strips of a flank steak that had been crusted with ancho and chipotle chili powders and seared. It would have been equally fantastic grilled.

Orange-Avocado Salsa

Ignore my Martha Stewart trappings, I'm delicious!

This is based on a recipe from the April issue of Everyday Food. I was frankly doubtful of this combination, but the picture looked so appetizing that I was forced to try it. To call it a “revelation” would perhaps overstate the matter, but this is really delicious with grilled chicken.

Whisk the juice of half a time with a teaspoon or so of honey in a medium bowl. Season with salt and fresh cracked black pepper, and set aside. Cut away the peel and pith of one large navel orange Slice the segments into chunks and toss them in the bowl. Chop 1/4 of a medium-sized red onion and add it. Finally, pit and dice one firm, ripe avocado. Add it to the bowl and toss lightly. You’re done!

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10 Responses to “In defense of mango salsa”

  1. blue girl Says:

    Bravo!

    …to the post! ….and the delish dish!

  2. Clif Says:

    I love mango salsa. I make mine without the red bell pepper or the orange juice, but otherwise it’s just the same. Also I take about 1/3 of the salsa and coarsely puree it in the food processor and mix that back into the remaining 2/3rds. Serve it with grilled mahi-mahi and, as we used to say in the South, it’s so good it’ll make you slap your momma.

    Now I’m wishing I had done that for tonight, but I suspect that the grilled pork chops with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and rosemary that I’m making will taste okay. 🙂

    P.S. – Avoid the Whole Foods mango salsa like the plague. They put black beans and corn in it which is just wrong and should be punishable by law.

  3. Res Publica Says:

    Clif, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who regards the orange juice and bell pepper as superfluous. I meant to mention that. I’ve made it with and without, and I’d say that they’re both optional. And with the orange juice, I mean REALLY optional. It’s already got lime juice, for petesake!

    And yeah, whatever ridiculous uberhonkey decided that you can’t have salsa without black beans and corn niblets in it needs to be killed. Immediately, and painfully. Whole Foods gets on my nerves a little anyway. Somehow, it reminds me of the South Park episode where everyone bought hybrid cars and became so self-satisfied that they loved the smell of their own farts.

  4. midniter Says:

    I do have to say that I don’t think that the mango salsa would go well with barbacoa and flour tortillas.

  5. Res Publica Says:

    Nor did I suggest that it would.

  6. midniter Says:

    You’re just upset that I smacked you down in Scrabble.

  7. almostinfamous Says:

    that was quite a stirring defense.

    And yeah, whatever ridiculous uberhonkey decided that you can’t have salsa without black beans and corn niblets in it needs to be killed

    i wwould like to help in the process of the uberhonkeys de-life-ification, or asymmetrical warfare, depending on what you plan on doing.

  8. Adorable Girlfriend Says:

    Nice, he cannot win Scrabble or bake-offs!

    UC had a mango mojito this weekend. Perhaps that and the salsa would go well together.

  9. Res Publica Says:

    I most certainly can win at scrabble. It was late, I was tired, and I’d just cooked dinner for that heiffer.

  10. Claire Says:

    Looks delicious!

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