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Salsa - The new way to think about global warming

Classic, colorful Salsa Fresca
Striped bass or bluefish
I've always had this theory that eating hot foods on a hot day equalizes the temperature inside and out so you don't feel it as much. That's the real reason drinks like tea and hot spicy dishes were invented in tropical climates. And there is rarely a better way to spice up an otherwise bland, colorless meal than with an accompaniment of salsa!

Salsa , Mexico's humble sauce, crossed the border decades ago, and has since inspired countless creative variations. Besides its spicy-to-sweet versatility, accenting a dish with an inspired combination of diced fruits and vegetables is a healthy way to take advantage of the bounty of summer gardens. Certainly salsas offer much more excitement than the standard old ketchup or tartar sauce. 

We first discovered salsa, as most Americans, as a dip for tortilla chips.  But we soon found it gracing Caribbean dishes in restaurants, and all manner of foods on a trip to Mexico .  Unfortunately, because I had a nasty attack of tourista once from eating cold gazpacho in Spain , I knew we couldn’t partake of any raw salsas in Mexico if we wanted to avoid Montezuma’s revenge. 

Indeed, in the Mexican kitchen, salsa has been an indispensable element since the Aztec civilization. Regional varieties encompass both cooked and uncooked versions. What they have in common is the explosion of bright flavors and colors, distinct but perfectly balanced, that each produces. North Americans first embraced these simple mixtures, ranging from mild to fiery, as appetizing dips and eventually adapted them as companions for main dishes, marinades for grilled foods and bases for stews and soups - mimicking their uses in Central America.

They are low in fat, cholesterol and calories, and their bold flavors are ideally suited to Americans' favorite summer pastime - barbecuing. They also possess transformative properties, a welcome asset for adding earthy intensity or fruit character to a plain piece of broiled fish.  They also add that much needed color for the eyes when serving “white dishes” like fish with rice.

Prepared salsas have graduated from chip dips to exotic combinations of ingredients.
Despite its Latin American heritage, salsa has outgrown its roots. Given availability of global ingredients, some of today's salsas bear more kinship to the condiments of Southeast Asia or the Caribbean than to Latin America . Concoctions made with ingredients such as papaya, pineapple, mango, cucumbers, beans, olives, ginger, basil, lemon grass and chilis now appear alongside the traditional salsa fresca, which essentially comprises fresh tomatoes, onion, chilies, cilantro and lime juice. Indeed, similar unions in other cuisines, like the sambals from Indonesia and Malaysia, the chutneys from India, pesto from Italy, tapenade from France and Moroccan harissa, are inspiring new variations on salsa fresca.

The single most identifiable element of salsa is the chili pepper - so much so that it's a chief consideration when attempting to pair wine with a chili-driven, salsa-accented dish. When composing a meal centered around wine, one should proceed cautiously. Because most of a chili's heat can be found in the inner membranes of the pod, one can achieve piquancy rather than searing spiciness by scooping out the seeds and the veins beforehand. A chili's heat will also vary according to the season, so an astute cook will cut into a pepper, touch their fingertip to the cut surface, taste it and then adjust the quantity accordingly.

Usually, the smaller the pepper, the more intense the heat. Red indicates a ripe and probably sweet chili. But there is a wide range of exotic flavors, from snappy, sparkly jalapeños to smoky chipotles (dried and smoked jalapeños) and earthy poblanos and anchos (dried poblanos).

Indeed, subtlety is not a general trait of these sauces. All successful salsa variations include a number of intense, loudly competing flavors - some sweet, some sour, some hot, some earthy - that seem to tantalize every taste bud at the same time. Neither is a refined cooking technique a valuable commodity when it comes to salsas. Most require no more than chopping and stirring or, at most, a few minutes' use of a saucepan or a food processor. Uncooked salsas preserve the heat in the peppers. Cooked salsas usually require a three-step process of heating (by boiling, broiling, sautéeing or roasting), puréeing and then straining.

Even wine lovers are turning up their thermostats and enjoying the salsa heat. More citrusy salsas work well with white wines such as Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc that show similar lime, grapefruit and pineapple flavors; Gewürztraminer, with its sometimes spicy and sometimes floral traits, makes a good match as well. Wines with an inherent spiciness, such as Syrah and Zinfandel, can partner with earthy, somewhat piquant salsas, especially if the chilies are smoky.

Much in the way one learns about wine, discovering the perfect complement is often a trial-and-error process. We're now chopping up chilies, cucumbers, mushrooms and fruits, and using them in combinations that were unimaginable just a few years ago. You can't just throw ingredients wildly together - they have to make a connection. In a good salsa, each component retains its own taste, texture, and personality so that each bite will contain a myriad of flavors and a kaleidoscope of textures. If you roast onions and garlic, as well as tomatoes and chilies, they last a lot longer. Doing so also mellows their aggressive flavors and brings up their sweetness. 

Tropical fruit salsa can grace your table from breakfast through dinner.
Salsa covers the gamut for breakfast, lunch and dinner - tropical fruit salsa on pancakes, savory and spicy salsa on grilled steaks or chops, sweetly textured salsa on fish, nut salsa on dessert. You can also cook with the salsas in a variety of ways, using them for the filling in empanadas or omelets; as a base for soups; as part of the emulsification for salad dressings; as a garnish for mashed potatoes, macaroni-and-cheese or desserts like ice cream or puddings; as a topping for chicken breasts or fish fillets; as a head start on a pasta sauce; or to brighten up heavier starch dishes such as rice.  

We treat salsa as a flavor counterpoint, a contrast to the flavor of whatever it is being served with, like mangoes, peaches, sun-dried tomatoes and jalapeño pepper paired with char-grilled shrimp or roasted chicken. Or try a sauteed salsa of onions, tomatoes, chipotle and apples for a wonderful contretemps to pork.

Classic European elements often compose salsas that encompass influences from France and the Mediterranean . For instance, grilled fish is served with a salsa made from olives, oregano, red onions and vinegar that would seem perfectly suited in Madrid . A platter of oysters might be served with a purée of shallots, red wine and vinegar. For an Asian touch, salsa of dried aji Amarillo peppers, chopped red onions, lime juice puréed with olive oil and ginger as a foil for raw tuna. It's a balancing act - the rich flavor of the tuna versus the acidic, sweet, spicy flavor of the salsa.

This description captures the spirit of the deep, chunky salsas that combine flavorful, raw fruits and vegetables with fresh herbs and spices commonly used in Mexico and Latin America . The salsas that restaurants typically serve with grilled fish or roasted meats are complex and full of intense, conflicting flavors. Because they come from the southern half of the Western Hemisphere , they usually include herbs like cilantro and oregano, spices like cumin and chili powder, and a range of vegetables and fruits from corn to tomatoes, papayas to pineapples, and mangoes to tomatillos.

Indeed, these days "global warming" may refer as much to our shared taste for the heat imparted by salsas as it does to weather patterns and the Latin dance that shares the name.  The best salsas are "wild, loose, spicy, and loud," we say. And here in the Americas , salsas are like the people who eat them - cross-pollinated until the mosaic makes a pattern that you’d never experience in its individual parts.

Spice Rubbed Grilled Fish Fillets with Mango and Red Onion Salsa

Serves 4

Salsas add summer color and kick to otherwise bland looking foods, like fish.

1 small mango, diced
1 small ripe avocado diced (Hass or Fuerte)
1 red and 1 green pepper, diced
1 red onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh chili pepper, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped (a key ingredient but we substitute basil, oregano, or parsley as Alex is allergic to cilantro)
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
5 tablespoons lime juice (very important)
1/4 cup pineapple juice (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste

2 pounds fish fillets – mild flaky fish like striped bass, flounder, cod or tilapia
2 tablespoons olive oil

Spice Rub:

1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Or, for a quick and easy alternative rub...

1 teaspoon Old Bay or SeasonAll
1 tablespoon dill weed chopped

For salsa, mix all ingredients together and set aside.

Brush olive oil onto the fish fillets. Mix all the ingredients of the spice rub together and rub the spice mixture onto the oil-coated fish fillets. Grill the fish fillets on medium heat for three to four minutes per side. Top with salsa and serve. Yummy!

Tomatillo & Avocado Salsa

Tomatillos are green fruits first cultivated by the Aztecs that have now made their way into American markets.  They are distant relatives of the tomato, and provide the tart flavor characteristic of Mexican green sauces.

This versatile sauce is served with tortilla chips as a classic appetizer. It also goes well with grilled meats, chicken and fish. It can be used like a lighter, spicier guacamole. The chunky-textured original was made with a Mexican stone mortar and pestle. Those are great to have on board for long-distance cruising. If using a food processor or blender, adjust the texture to your liking. It's good chunky or puréed very smooth.

2 garlic cloves, cut in chunks
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
2 - 3 (or to taste) serrano chiles, stems removed, cut into chunks
6 - 8 average-sized tomatillos, cut into quarters
4 - 6 cilantro sprigs
1 ripe avocado

Grind or process the garlic and salt to a paste. Add the onion, chiles, tomatillos, and cilantro. Process to make a slight chunky puree. Scoop out the avocado flesh and process to the desired smoothness. Makes about 2 cups. Serve right away.

Now turn up the heat onboard!

Striped bass filets

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