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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Five Bright Summery Salsas

Spicy Cilantro Cotija Pesto Sauce, Pico de Gallo with Agave, Mango and Cucumber Salsa, Pico de Gallo with Strawberries and Bell Peppers

Five Bright Summery Salsas
by Victoria Challancin

Words have meaning, of course they do, but they also sometimes have a special connotation, that subtle meaning that goes beyond the literal, that meaning that evokes something far beyond the actual word.  Salsa is just such a word.  Setting any thought of Latin music aside, the word salsa simply means "sauce;" however, the connotation of the word is much more.  Say it to almost any Mexican, and he or she will probably automatically think of a spicy sauce condiment that contains chiles--some version of which is found on literally every table in the country.  Red. Green. Or nowadays, maybe some fresh fruit. Cooked. Raw.  All of these are salsas, but it is the connotation that is so much more.  It is surely a cultural thing...salsa as home, salsa as culture, salsa as a personal preference, salsa as what mother made. Everyone has a favorite.  And everyone has at least one salsa that represents home.

Pico de gallo is one such sauce--one such ubiquitous table condiment in Mexico that perks up the blandest of culinary offerings.  Literally, it simply means "rooster's beak," but in culinary terms it is a fresh, uncooked sauce (often just called salsa fresca here in San Miguel) which is made from chopped plum tomatoes, white onion (use only white onions in Mexican cooking!), cilantro, fresh serrano chiles (or other fresh chile of choice, such as jalapeños or habaneros), sharp lime juice, and a sprinkle of salt.

Modern fruit versions of pico de gallo are now popping up everywhere, with a basic formula of fresh fruit, some sort of onion (white, spring, or red), raw chile, cilantro or mint, lime juice or a touch of sugar, if needed, and salt.  There.  How easy is that?

In a recent class for Mexican students we made five table salsas, each one good enough on its own to lift the mundane to the level of the sublime.

How to make 3 varieties of Pico de Gallo:
(Recipes and idea adapted from

Chef Mark Miller’s Pico de Gallo Salsa with Agave
(This one came from one of Chef/Restauranteur Mark Miller's cookbooks--can't remember which)

     2 tablespoons finely diced red or white onion
     1 ¼ teaspoon salt
     ¾ teaspoon sugar or agave nectar
     1 pound cherry tomatoes (or seeded plum tomatoes, chopped)
     1 tablespoon finely minced serrano chile
     Zest of ½ lime
     1 tablespoon lime juice

Stir all ingredients together in a bowl.

Serve with tortilla chips, as a condiment with Mexican dishes, stirred into rice or quinoa for a flavorful pilaf, or as a topping for grilled fish or chicken.

Strawberry Pico de Gallo Salsa

1-1/3 cups chopped strawberries
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1-2 tablespoons diced jalapenos (remove seeds and membrane for less heat)
1 garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro (may substitute chopped mint of parsley, if preferred)
1 tablespoon lime juice (from approximately 1/2 lime)
Salt & pepper

Stir all ingredients together in a bowl adding salt and pepper to taste. Best if served right away, but may be chilled for several hours. Drain any accumulated liquid before serving, if necessary.

Serve with tortilla chips, fish tacos, stirred into rice, or as a topping for grilled fish or chicken.

Mango and Cucumber Pico de Gallo

1 1/3 cup chopped mango (2-3 small mangoes, or 1-2 large mangoes)
1/2 cup chopped cucumber (unpeeled Persian cucumber, or peeled waxed cucumber)
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1 to 2 tablespoons diced jalapenos (remove seeds and membrane for less heat)
1 garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro (may substitute chopped mint of parsley, if preferred)
1 tablespoon lime juice (from approx. 1/2 lime)
Salt & pepper

Stir all ingredients together in a bowl adding salt and pepper to taste. Best if served right away, but may be chilled for several hours. Drain any accumulated liquid before serving, if necessary.

Serve with tortilla chips, fish tacos, stirred into rice, or as a topping for grilled fish or chicken.

Other Ideas for Fruit Pico de Gallo:
Keep in mind the "formula" for a basic recipe I gave of using fruit, an herb (cilantro, mint, or basil--even dill, possibly), some onion, chile (I like to use serranos, but there are many chiles that work here--or use bell peppers if you don't want the heat), lime juice and/or a sweetener sugar, honey, agave nectar) depending on the fruit used, and salt.  Black pepper, if you like. Cucumber, jícama, and avocado could easly be added as well.  Serve them with corn chips or make cinnamon chips by brushing a flour tortilla with a bit of melted butter, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, cut into triangles, and bake until golden.  Other additions that can perk up a fruit salsa:  citrus zest, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds.
  • Cantaloupe, Honeydew, or any sweet melon, or a mix of them with mint and cilantro
  • Watermelon and cucumber or jícama with mint or basil--and a touch of feta or queso cotija
  • Any fresh berry
  • Mango and Kiwi
  • Peach and Pineapple
  • Pineapple and tomatillo, roasted or raw
  • Kiwi--make it alone as the base of a salsa or add it to almost any fruit for a sharp/sweet kick
  • Peach and basil
  • Pineapple, mango, mint, and coconut
  • Stone fruit salsa--peach, plum, apricot
  • Citrus salsa--blood oranges, oranges, grapefruit, lemon, lime, and mint--and avocado
  • Apple and berries (optional) with different colors of bell pepper
  • Pear with both mint and cilantro  (be sure to toss with lemon or lime juice to prevent browning)
  • Mango and tomato
  • Any mix of fruits that appeals to you!

For those of you who don't know queso cotija, it might come as a surprise,  Mexico's answer to feta, it is sharp, strong, and crumbly.  And I love it.  And for those of you wanting to know a bit more about the rather amazing world of Mexican cheeses, see my post here.  When I found the following recipe on blog friend Nancy Lopez-McHugh's inspiring and beautiful site where she served it over a corn pasta, I knew immediately that I would love it.  While Nancy rightly calls it a "pesto," for me it works beautifully on its own as a dipping salsa for totopos, or corn tortilla chips.

Spicy Cilantro and Cotija Pesto Sauce

By Nancy Lopez-McHugh

50 grams or 1.76 oz of unsalted almonds (or toasted pumpkin seeds)
70 grams or 2.47 oz of Cotija cheese
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
One small green Serrano chile, stem removed and roughly chopped
75 grams or 2.65 oz of cilantro leaves (try to remove as much of the stems as possible)
78 ml to 100 ml (or 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup) good quality extra virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt, to taste

Place the whole almonds in the food processor and process just until they have broken down to a coarse grain -- do not over process and turn into almond butter. Next break the cheese up into several pieces and add it to the food processor, pulse until it breaks down -- about three pulses. Now add the garlic and chile and pulse a couple of times so it blends into the cheese and almonds.
Now turn the processor to the lowest setting and as it is swirling pour in the olive oil. Slowly add more oil until you achieve the texture you would like for your pesto sauce.

Using the rubber spatula scrap out the finished pesto into a large bowl. Taste and if needed sprinkle in a little bit of salt and throughly mix until well combined, but be careful as cotija cheese is very, very salty.   

This last salsa is a marvel.  And although I adore fresh huitlacoche (sometimes spelled cuitlacoche), I wasn't sure I would like this recipe or not.  Once made though, to say it was a hit is an understatement.  As I said...this salsa is a marvel.

What is Huitlacoche?  In simple terms, it is corn smut, a fungus that often infects ears of corn during the rainy season.  In the United States, it is considered a pest, a plague.  Here in Mexico we know better and often refer to it simply as the Mexican truffle.  It is just that exotic and magical.  One of these days, perhaps during the upcoming rainy season, I promise to write more on this incredible ingredient.

A close-up look at some huitlacoche, or corn fungus, mixed with chopped nopal cactus that I used for a quiche.  Yum.

Cook's Notes:  This was made with fresh huitlacoche.

Huitlacoche Salsa
(Recipe by Aaron Sanchez for Food Network)
Yield:2 cups
2 tablespoons olive or corn oil
1 red onion, finely diced
1 green bell pepper, finely diced (or chile poblano)
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 yellow bell pepper, finely diced
1 jalapeno, finely minced
2 (6-ounce) cans huitlacoche or 1/2 pound fresh huitlacoche
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped scallion
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

Serving suggestion: serve with chicken or other poultry—or with tostadas or totopos

In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, peppers, and jalapeno, and saute for 5 minutes.

Add the huitlacoche, deglaze with the vinegar and oil, and season with salt and pepper.

Set aside to cool for 10 minutes. When the mixture has cooled, mix in the scallions and cilantro.

Parting Shot:

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende,


Joan Nova said...

Perfect summer fare -- lots of salads and fresh toppings.

Unknown said...

This is so timely! Our "boys" are coming to town and they LOVE salsas with their homemade totopos. They all look yummy.

Anonymous said...

Oops. I didn't realize I had to choose an identity to post my comment. The unknown person is me. said...

I guess you can tell I am not normally a poster of comments. Can't seem to get my name on my comment. Will just sign it. Jan ��

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What clever ideas Victoria!! I'm intrigued by the strawberry version. And you really do learn something new every day. I had no idea what pico de gallo meant!

laura ann loveland said...

This post,Victoria, has left me drooling! I also love adding diced pineapple to the mango, cucumber, and red bell salsa. And the mention of queso contija and huitlacochi makes me want to drop everything and run off to the mercado! Muchas gracias, Laura

janet @ the taste space said...

Great post! I love the idea of a huitlacoche salsa! said...

Yes lots of colors and my favorite thing to make in summer where you have so much to work with. Gret pics and deliciousness

The-foodtrotter said...

Your salsas assortment is so lovely and this huitlacoche salsa is completely unexpected! I'd be curious to taste it, but I'm not convinced on my country it will be easy to find ^^

Eha said...

Better late than never it is said! Well, could not post from a hospital bed :) ! Love your recipes and tuition and the fact that winter at last seems on its way is not going to hold me back from making most!! Want to try the mango and cucumber concoction first of all and the pesto sauce has definite 'how will that taste?' appeal!!

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

All great sounding but the Cotija cheese one sounds especially interesting.

Hotly Spiced said...

This is my kind of food! All the colours and flavours look incredible. I would love to try the mango dish however unfortunately, mangoes just aren't in season right now xx

Nagi@RecipeTinEats said...

Perfect for summer! This is somehow my kind of food. The colours are incredible! Yummy!