Saturday, March 15, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Salsa

Salsa over the last decade and a half has gained such popular national acceptance that people tend to forget how novel of a condiment it was once considered. Plus, as Seinfeld would point out, it's a lot of fun to say. What is great about salsa is that it can vary so much, and be used for so many different things that it is one of the few things that can act as a sauce, a dip, and an ingredient.

I look at salsa as existing in three basic types, the kind you buy in the store that is from a big giant manufacturer, the kind you buy that is freshly made and considered “gourmet”, and the kind you get in restaurants or make yourself that can consist of just about anything and still be loosely defined as salsa.

Among the basic salsa’s, such as Pace, Tostitos, Old El Paso, Newman's Own, and Chi-Chi's, I always gravitate towards the Tostitos. Newman's Own could be considered borderline basic because it has some interesting versions, but I like it for it’s depth of flavor, it’s chunky texture, and a consistently subtle heat. Tostitos tends to be more of a tomato liquid, with big chunks of vegetables, but they get the heat levels right better than any other store bought salsa. Pace, Old El Paso and Chi-Chi's all make me add hot sauce to the medium or hot, and often their “mild” is so bland that it’s like eating an oddly flavored tomato sauce.

It is hard to determine the "best" gourmet salsa, since it is made differently almost everywhere that you find it on sale. Dean & Deluca sells some great gourmet brands, and I’ve found some amazing salsa at farmer stands that make it fresh from their own ingredients. Gourmet salsa usually uses the same ingredients as your basic salsa, except the vegetables are fresh, the cilantro, and other elements are distinct flavors that you could almost pick out with every bite, and the container is never sitting out for days. Gourmet salsa also tends to be much chunkier and like a container of finely chopped ingredients, than the sauce like consistency of the kind you find in your supermarket Mexican section. These types of salsa’s go best with the higher quality tortilla chips. Most people have had these, but rarely buy them. They usually come in some odd looking bag, some grease may have made the front a little see through, and they are very thick, and usually made with corn. You need these strong chips to hold up a big scoop of chunky salsa.

Last, but not least, is the type of salsa that is not sold, but is actually used in a dish and very rarely resembles the typical Mexican salsa us Americans know and love. Adding a citrus or avocado salsa on a dish in 2008 seems practically clich├ęd since it has become such a standard, but it still needs to be pointed out that this has really only become the norm in the last 10 years or so. I can’t remember growing up ever seeing a mango salsa, or an avocado white bean salsa on top of fish. Heck, my mom now makes a cranberry mango salsa at thanksgiving. The only thing that seems to keep these delicious sauces in the salsa category is they usually have onions, cilantro and some heat, like a jalapeno. And you know what? I love it. Keep up the good work inventive chefs, and come up with another crazy salsa for me to try!

Salsa not Seltzer

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