The first time you hear that gravelly, rock-against-rock rotation of the mortar, the first time you smell the irascible aroma of crushed roasted garlic and chiles, the first time you taste the jazz band of seasoning playing through the juicy ripe tomatoes -- you've come face to face with the real Mexico. It's a simple first step, partly because it looks like what we think of as "salsa," partly because we can find the ingredients so easily.
But do go to the extra effort to buy good tomatoes. Then roast them and the garlic and chiles with a confident hand -- that's the technique that sets these flavors apart. With a lava-rock mortar from Mexico, you'll feel centuries of tradition as your hands work the ingredients together.
1. Roasting the basic ingredients.
The broiler method: Lay the tomatoes on a baking sheet and place about 4 inches below a very hot broiler. Roast until blistered and blackened on one side, about 6 minutes; with a spoon or pair of tongs, flip the tomatoes and roast on the other side.
The griddle method: Line a griddle or heavy skillet with aluminum foil and heat over medium. Lay the tomatoes on the foil and roast, turning several times, until blistered, blackened and softened, about 10 minutes. Don't worry if skin sticks to the foil. Cool, then peel the skins, collecting all the juices with the tomatoes. While the tomatoes are roasting, roast the chiles and unpeeled garlic directly on an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet (you already have one set up if you've griddle-roasted the tomatoes) over medium. Turn occasionally until both chiles and garlic are blackened in spots and soft, 5 to 10 minutes for the chiles, about 15 minutes for the garlic. Cool, pull the stems off the chiles and peel the papery skins from the garlic.
2. Grinding the salsa.
The mortar method: In a large mortar, use the pestle to crush and grind the chiles, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to a coarse-textured paste (this will release a wonderfully pungent aroma), paying special attention to breaking up the chile skins. A few at a time, grind in the roasted tomatoes, transferring the ground mixture to a bowl if the mortar gets unmanageably full.
The food processor or blender method: In a food processor or blender, grind the chiles, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to a coarse paste, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Add the tomatoes and pulse a few times until you have a coarse-textured puree. Transfer the salsa to a serving bowl, and stir in any reserved tomato juices.
3. Final seasoning.
In a strainer, rinse the onion under running water, shake off the excess and stir into the salsa, along with the cilantro and optional vinegar. Add water, if necessary, to give the salsa a thickish, but easily spoonable, consistency (2 to 4 tablespoons is the norm). Taste and season with salt, usually a scant 1/4 teaspoon, and the salsa's ready to serve.
This salsa comes into its own a few hours after it's finished, especially if left at room temperature. It can be made through step 2 a day or two ahead, covered and refrigerated. Add the cilantro and onion shortly before serving.
Besides jalapeño, serranos (3 to 5 for this quantity) are also classic. It's also made with habanero (1/2 to 1) or manzanos (1/2 to 1). With habaneros, this typical Yucatecan salsa, called chiltomate, is frequently made without chopped onion or cilantro and is flavored with sour orange juice in place of the cider vinegar.
A Different (but Traditional) Guacamole: Make the salsa as directed, but don't add any water. Coarsely mash 3 avocados, stir in a cup or so of the salsa, add a little more chopped cilantro if you wish, taste for salt and the guacamole is ready.
Spicy Chicken "Hash": In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, fry an onion (sliced) in several tablespoons of oil until golden. Add about 1 1/2 cups of the salsa and cook until thick and reduced, then stir in 3 cups of boiled-until-tender, roughly mashed red-skin potatoes. Keep frying and turning and working everything together until the potatoes brown and the mixture holds together. Stir in a cup of shredded smoked (or roasted) chicken and some chopped cilantro or green onion, warm through and the hash is ready.
Jalapeño-Baked Fish: Lay four 5-or 6-ounce fillets - such as snapper, mahimahi, grouper or bass - in an oiled baking dish in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Spoon 2 cups of salsa over them. Bake in a 400-degree oven until the fish just flakes when firmly pressed (it'll take about 8 minutes if your fillets are 3/4 inch thick). If you like richer flavors, sear the fillets on both sides in an oiled skillet over medium-high before laying them in the pan. If the sauce seems too juicy, pour it into a saucepan and boil gently until reduced. Sprinkle the whole dish with some chopped cilantro before serving.
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From Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavor of a World-Class Cuisine, by Rick Bayless.