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March 12, 2010

Salsa’s in my blood. I love it, and I’d like to think it’s because I am from Texas.

As far back as I can remember I’ve been eating salsa, on everything. There are countless combinations and varieties of salsa to name, as there are countless numbers of Mexican restaurants in Austin. Just go ask Robb Walsh, he’s written a few books on the subject.

I’m not going to go into the history of salsa (just yet), but I will tell you a story and tell you how to make one of my favorite varieties. It’s super easy.

Here’s the story. A few years ago I was working at a restaurant in Houston. This restaurant did not serve Mexican food, but the cooks who worked in the morning were of Mexican descent. At night they went off to work at another restaurant, a well-known high-end restaurant, that one might say has strong Mexican influences…But in the earlier hours of the day (like about 8 a.m.) we would respectively trot in to prepare for the day’s work. We also had a bit of a ritual to pay homage to, and that’s called breakfast.

Like clockwork, a waiter would be sent to the store for a package of corn tortillas, and at the same time one man was in charge of the salsa and that man was Jole. He made what ever type he felt like that day, and he didn’t take requests. It was generally the roasted type, which is a smart idea when you work in front of a flaming hot grill….utilize your resources. On that grill, he’d throw down whole onions, halved tomatoes, whatever peppers were on hand (usually Serrano), and sometimes if he felt so inclined, pineapple. In a saute pan he’d brown some garlic (at least 4 cloves) in a bit of good oil. To the blender he added the grilled goodness, the garlic, and a good fistful of cilantro, some salt and pepper, and the juices of an orange and lime. The taste would always vary depending on the ratio of tomatoes used, as well as the type of tomatoes to the peppers (and varietal of) and to the onions. But in a happy nutshell that’s it. Something so simple, is so ridiculously good. really. I usually consummated the moment with a sprite, on crushed ice.

By this time, the waiter would be back with the tortillas. After they’d been cut into large triangles, another skilled cook Aqua, would fry them directly, until they puffed and floated to the top of that canola bath, gasping for air.

The kitchen was bustling. Eager hands began to scoop into to that hypnotic salsa (that burns like an itch you just can’t stop scratching) with freshly salted chips. In between slicing french bread for pudding, Appollo was busy transforming watermelon into juice, with his large, worn, bare hands.

DeMarco, a food runner was wiping plates for lunch service, setting up his station and also taking our coffee orders. In a kitchen corner, eggs were being fried, and more torn corn tortillas were being added to a very large skillet, along with sliced tomatoes, more onions, and just the right amount of Jole’s hypnotic salsa to become the famed Chilaquiles… and this would be our breakfast. Don’t get me started on the fragrant permeation that was wafting through that kitchen. It smells a lot like comfort.

This ritual would not occur every morning, but some more than not. Please, don’t get the idea we didn’t work, it’s not as if we were lounging around drinking aqua frescas and eating fresh chips and salsa all day. We did work, all day. I’d generally be there at 8 a.m. and leave by 11 p.m. The guys would start their day here at restaurant A, and end the night at restaurant B. This was more than a ritual, more than a homage to a much missed distant country, this was fuel, this was an experience, and it was simply just food. On one occasion I had decided, and had the remarkable realization after just two bites, that I would want this to be my last meal, ever. It is just that good.

If you’ve never had Chilaquiles, find some. now. please. for me. You won’t be disappointed, trust me. See I grew up eating Migas, which is the Tex-Mex version of Chilaquiles, and Chilaquiles is authentically Mexican, and authentically so, so good… Is one better than the other? Well I guess that’s just another page on the blog, but let me say that it wasn’t until I moved to Houston that I was exposed to the real thing, and I am thankful for that exposure. I know only one other person who makes an incredible dish of Chilaquiles, my friend Mayra’s mother (Houston’s Menudo Queen). Her Chilaquiles are so incredible, I once ate  them for breakfast and dinner, and I would have eaten them for lunch if I’d had enough. She serves hers with crumbled queso fresco, chopped radishes and cilantro leaves and it is Heaven on Earth. It does give Jole’s version a run for the money, but please don’t make me choose one over the other. I’d like to think they are both perfect, to me.

So I don’t live in Texas anymore, and I didn’t think salsa would be that hard to find and it probably isn’t, but I just hadn’t found any that I liked that much. So when in doubt, you make your own. Look to the right, in the picture above. One could argue it isn’t salsa because it isn’t blended, it is pico de gallo a chunky salsa. Some like to differentiate the two, but technically the word salsa means sauce, and has connotations with spiciness, and being tomato based. I grew up watching my mom make pico de gallo, and it is one of the tastiest and easiest things to make. After returning from Austin this week, I was having a craving for Mexican food (the one thing I didn’t eat while in Texas) so I decided to make my own pico de gallo after being disappointed by the selection at Mollie Stone’s. There I stood, for at least 3 minutes, contemplating the selection of about 6 different brands on the dry good shelf. It was either something in a jar by Pace Picante (no!), or the vaguely familiar brand by Arriba! (Houston, yes!). I  made my way to the refrigerated section to see what was fresh. I’m a sucker for green salsa

and there were quite a few local brands with questionable labels, so I decided to try the Casa Sanchez brand. It’s made in California and apparently one of the 1st and 2nd highest selling products in the region? (o.k.) Between you and me, it isn’t that good, just not spicy enough for me, or that flavorful…. Maybe I need to taste it again, maybe I need more chips (I do), maybe it’s better on beans…. And maybe I’ll venture to the local Whole Foods and see what they’re carrying. I’m betting on the fact that as an Austin based company (that Whole Foods is), they’d stock some more of my favorite Texas brands, like this one from Tears of Joy, whose website is a little wonky right now so I offer you an image from Flickr (click the link) from yet another satisfied customer.

In the meantime, I’ll be making my own, searching for comparable blends to feed my particular and spice demanding palette, and hoping for a care package to mysteriously arrive from Deep in the Heart of Texas..

Pico de Gallo

about 3 large tomatoes

a few cloves of garlic

about 1/2 red onion

1/2 bunch cilantro

1 serrano (or 2 if you like heat)

juice of 1 lime, or a lemon

kosher salt to taste

Rough chop all ingredients and put into a bowl. Squeeze the juice of a lime over the top, hard. Sprinkle with salt. Give it a few good stirs with your favorite wooden spoon, and then taste for flavor. It’s best prepared earlier in the day before you plan on serving it, and left in the fridge to marinate. I sometimes eat it straight away after making it, but like some wines, it tastes so much better the next day…

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