Salsa sauce is a great symbol of Mexicans’ taste for the good life and good food. Its history dates back to the Inca and the Mayan Empires, when it was made with fresh tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies and grilled squash seeds into a condiment that was used pretty much the same way it is used today: to give some extra flavor to venison, poultry or fish. It was a clever way to make the best of generous crops of peppers and tomatoes. The Spaniard Conquistadors discovered it in the 1500’s and named it salsa, for sauce. A famous dance was even named after the beloved condiment that is now so popular in North America it has toppled ketchup. Nowadays, if the principle of the basic tomato salsa recipe remains, it has become a wonderful way for even the least experienced cook to express a hint of creativity because salsa can be made pretty much out of any fresh fruit or vegetable.
As many chefs around the Americas have taught us in recent years, the purpose of salsa is to bring some zest, variety, color, nutrition and extra flavor to all sorts of dishes: grilled beef patties or chicken breasts, smoked fish or meat, tofu scallops, shrimps skewers, white fish, you name it. It is especially good as a sauce replacement for most grilled dishes on the pit fire or barbecue.
Things salsas are made of
What’s in a salsa: some crunch, some freshness and some fire.
Made only with the freshest, seasonal ingredients, modern salsa is an ideal way to enjoy the bounty of each summer month because you can change its composition as often as you wish to adapt the preparation to what’s available at your local farmers’ market. Although the traditional recipe calls for fresh tomatoes, onions, and a mix of hot and sweet peppers such as poblano, jalapeno, bell peppers or chipotle peppers, many variations are now part of the salsa sub-culture. Salsa can be made out of almost any fruit (orange, mango, watermelon, peach, pineapple, berries); even green apples dipped in lemon juice can be used to bring a twist of originality to salsa. When Washington Bing cherries become available at an affordable price, I like to make a cherry salsa, using fresh mint, green onions and radishes to complement the sweetness of the cherries with some pungent taste and a bit of crunchiness as well.
A yummy blend of textures and colors
When you think salsa it’s interesting to blend different textures and colors: soft avocado goes well with crisp celery, fennel bulb, radish, corn or green onions; add to this some sweet, acidic ingredient such as tomatoes or a fruit (you can also add a dash of lime or lemon juice). Then complete with chilies for the fire (fresh, dry, as a sauce, a paste or in brine). The final touch is also important and consists of herbs and spices: fresh cilantro, cumin powder, sweet chili powder, fresh mint.
At the base camp
Salsa also adapts easily to the circumstances. Say you are on a kayak trip and you find some fine field strawberries. They could become the basis for a delicious salsa meant to accompany the trout you have just caught an hour before. Add a bit of onion, canned corn, lemon juice, chili sauce and cumin powder and you have a refreshing salsa that will transform your dinner’s meal into a gastronomic fiesta in 10 minutes. And for campers, salsa doesn’t take long to fix. You just need to carry a foldable cutting board and a good knife. Some canned ingredients also come in handy, such as corn, black beans or jalapenos peppers. As always, carry fragile fruits or tomatoes in a non-collapsible container. Pineapple and watermelon will easily keep for 2 to 4 days in the bottom of your kayak or canoe. Fresh Jalapeno peppers and hot sauce are also sturdy travel companions and cumin powder is also part of my kitchen arsenal when I travel as a natural flavor enhancer. Now I confess that although cilantro or mint provide the finest finishing touch for salsa, they won’t travel easily for more than two to three days: keep them rolled up in a humid paper towel and placed in a plastic bag. You can replace them with coriander seeds if you are on a longer paddling trip.
Salsa Recipes for Paddlers
Black bean salsa (4 to 6 portions)
- 1 can black beans, drained
- 1 can corn, drained
- 1 red pepper, finely diced
- 1 fresh or canned jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, finely diced
- 2 small cucumbers, finely diced
- 2 large tomatoes, finely diced
- 1 small red onion, finely diced
- Cumin powder to taste
- One small bunch of fresh coriander
- Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together and serve as a main dish with whole wheat flour tortillas.
Cherry salsa (4 to 6 portions)
- 1 pound of fresh Bing cherries, pitted and cut into small pieces
- 6 medium radishes, finely chopped
- 4 green onions (with the green part), thinly diced
- 1 large green or yellow Poblano pepper (sweet), thinly diced
- A few drops of hot pepper sauce
- Cumin powder to taste
- Celery salt to taste
- A small bunch of fresh mint (or a few crushed dry leaves)
*Make ahead the day of the kayak trip or at camp within 24 hours of departure.* Mix all ingredients together. This is my favorite recipe to impress guests on their first kayak-camping trip. It is excellent with cold cuts, fish or grilled tofu.
Inca inspired tomato salsa (4 to 6 portions)
- 1 large can of diced tomatoes (or 4 large fresh tomatoes, diced), with juice
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
- 1 or 2 hot peppers, seeds removed, chopped
- 1 small avocado, chopped (optional; only in the first 2 days of the trip)
- Hot pepper sauce, to taste (replace hot pepper with 1 bell pepper)
- 1 small cucumber, finely chopped
- Salt, pepper, cumin powder and sweet chili powder to taste
- 1 small bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped (or coriander seeds)
- 6 tbsp of pumpkin seeds, crushed
Mix all ingredients together and eat either with meat, fish or tortillas. Or make it a meal by pouring the salsa over corn chips and top with some grated cheese.