August 24, 2010

Searching for Red Crack

Cat in a basket next to a bowl of peppers and tomatoes.

Several years ago Eddie Alterman wrote about the religious experience he had with the salsa at Mercado Juarez in Dallas. He said, "The salsa flipped the central-nervous-system switch for all five senses. It was meaty, steamy, creamy, hot, and rich, and it was clear that the blood of a young goat was somehow involved. We ate fast, six bowls of it: not talking, just eating. When we were full and done with our main meals, we asked for two more baskets of chips and more salsa. The default setting of my brain is now set to this sweet, sweet sauce. Salsa is almost too soft a word. It needs to be called something more sinister, like blood dip or red crack". (Automobile Magazine, October 2002) . We had eaten at Mercado Juarez a couple of times before and didn't remember the salsa at all, but everyone in our picante-loving family decided it was time for a road trip. Wasting no time, we piled into our trusty minivan, motored 17 hours down to Dallas, and high-tailed it over to the Mercado's Northwest Highway location to sample the goods.

And the salsa was indeed delicious! A cooked sauce, it's served warm at the table, and we ate one round to enjoy it and one round to see if we could determine what was in it. That's when we began our Red Crack Project. We asked ourselves, can we create such a salsa in our own Fort Wayne kitchen?

THE TASTE TESTING


After researching both online and in my vast collection of cookbooks I learned that salsa recipes are like chili recipes - there are different varieties, different schools of thought, that give a salsa its particular structure - and so I narrowed things down for sanity's sake by making a secondary mission to use as much home produce as possible in my tests. Alert readers will already know that we had an abundance of tomatoes and jalapenos this summer, so those ingredients dictated the recipes I chose. The first two recipes I decided to use came from the internet. I can't really credit the first one because it was reproduced on so many websites, and it seemed to be connected to a subscriber-only video tutorial, but Salsa de Molcajete had the bare bones ingredients I was looking for and included an iron skillet, which sounded cool, so I printed it out to use for Batch #1.

The second hot sauce recipe came from www.great-salsa.com and is called Margaret's Picante Sauce. (Coincidentally, another Margaret is famously connected with salsas; artist Margaret Pace Willson, co-creator of Pace Picante Sauce. This is not Margaret Willson's recipe. Darn!) For the sake of the taste testing, and since I modified it a bit, I renamed it Salsa Margarita. The original recipe makes 17 pints. I cut it down to make a much smaller batch and even then it made more than you need for one testing. I chose this recipe because it was a cooked sauce and had several spices added that I felt would get me started in learning what flavors a top-notch salsa should or shouldn't have.

Finally I chose Homemade Picante from The Texas Experience, my cookbook from the Richardson (Texas) Woman's Club originally published in 1982. I figured those gals down there in North Dallas knew their salsas as well as anyone, and this recipe (yield: 15 pints) was a completely different type of cooked sauce than Margaret's, so would stand as a nice comparison.

It took me nearly 6 hours to prepare these recipes. I did each one, one at a time, because that's how my brain works, but maybe I could have peeled all the tomatoes at once, or done all the chopping and seeding at once, or something like that, to save some time. I was fine with it though; I like working in the kitchen. But because of the time spent on the salsas our supper that evening was chili dogs. Quick and easy, chili dogs are vaguely Tex-Mex therefore they were sort of in the same spirit as our pre-meal taste testing. I used three different kinds of salsa bowls, one for each salsa, and everyone got their own bowl, so there were three little bowls at each place setting, and there were heaps of regular tortilla chips at the ready (I had my own stash of multi-grain chips).

We sat down and began the serious work of critiquing each sauce, noting similarities and differences, and forming personal preferences. They were all three very, very different tasting and we agreed that each sauce was good in its own way and would get good grades served alone, but our task was to pick a winner. After a while, the Salsa Margarita was chosen unanimously as the best of the three. The Salsa de Molcajete was awesome though. I will make it again very often. I was the only one who didn't like the Richardson ladies' Homemade Picante.

THE RECIPES 


Close-up view of simmering salsa.
A close-up view of Salsa Margarita as it steams and simmers in the pot.

Salsa Margarita

6 large ripe tomatoes 
 1/2 large red onion 
1 large green bell pepper 
4 or 5 large jalapeno peppers 
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 
2 teaspoons salt 
1/2 teaspoon pepper 
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper 
1 teaspoon sugar 
1/2 teaspoon oil 
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon vinegar 
1/4 teaspoon cumin 
1/4 teaspoon paprika 
1/4 teaspoon chili powder (I used Ancho) 

Put tomatoes, one or two at a time, in a pot of boiling water for 15 seconds and then in ice water. This will make it easier to peel as the skins practically slide off. Dig out the slime and seeds and chop the tomatoes. Set aside. Next, either by hand or using a food processor, chop the onions, bell peppers and jalapenos. Pour into a large pot. Add the tomatoes and the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes.


Salsa de Molcajete "by Lupita M in Rouxbe"

Roasted tomatoes and jalapeno peppers add incredible flavor to this simple Mexican salsa. (Note: The molcajete is a traditional Mexican kitchen tool similar to, if not identical to a mortar and pestle.) This was really my favorite but lost points because it only made enough for a few dips each. Makes 1 1/2 cups

6 medium tomatoes 
1 jalapeno 
1 to 2 cloves fresh garlic 
3/4 tsp kosher salt 

Preheat a cast-iron skillet over high heat until it starts to smoke. Roast the tomatoes, garlic (unpeeled) and jalapeno in the dry skillet until charred, turning occasionally until most sides are blackened. Place into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam, so the skins loosen. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the peeled garlic and salt until it forms a paste. Once the jalapeno is cool enough to handle, peel the skin off and remove the stem. Peel the tomatoes. Roughly mash the jalapeno with the garlic. Add the tomatoes and pound again, keeping it somewhat chunky. (My mortar and pestle is small so I used a potato masher in a medium bowl to mash the tomatoes with the garlic/jalapeno paste.) Taste the salsa for seasoning and serve.


Homemade Picante

8 tomatoes 
4 onions 
10 jalapeno peppers 
1 1/4 teaspoons salt 
1 1/4 teaspoons pepper 
1/3 cup vinegar 

For "HOT" sauce leave seeds in the jalapenos. For milder sauce, remove the seeds." Peel and seed tomatoes. Process vegetables in a food processor until chopped. Cook until desired thickness. --based on a recipe from The Texas Experience cookbook, 1982

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