For awhile now, I’ve liked green salsa more than red. Green was always brighter, more acidic. A drizzle on my taco set off sparks on my tongue. And when the salsa had avocado, as green taquería salsas often do here, I wanted to curl up and take a nap in its creaminess.
Red salsa never hit me that way. It wasn’t luxurious or intense. Red salsa just sat there. Blinking. (Little did I know red salsa doesn’t work like that. It plants a seed, and then hurries away to see what you do with it.)
In the past few months, whenever I’d visit taquerías, I’d find myself looking at the red more than the green. I already knew what the green contained: chile serrano or chile verde, maybe chile de árbol or an avocado. But the red remained an enigma. Did the taquero use tomatoes? They’re not essential. Which chiles did he use? Guajillo, cascabel, mora? There were no acidic tomatillos to mask everything. With red salsa, you tasted the chiles themselves. The result was subtler, more mysterious.
I’ve been wanting to experiment with red salsas at home, so I tiptoed into the game with a batch of guajillo-árbol salsa from Ricardo Muñoz’s excellent book Salsas Mexicanas. I’ve used it several times before, always with good results.
This salsa contained a few tomatoes, pureed with toasted chiles until they became a thick, deep-red soup. (In another time five thousand years ago, maybe I could’ve dyed my hair with this stuff.) One bite murmured of garlic and the piney herbs of the guajillo. Then came the searing heat — like, straddling the line of edible — from the 8 chiles de árbol I used. Heat is the main difference between a table salsa and one you’d cook meat and vegetables in, by the way. The former, if you like spicy food, should be tongue-swellingly hot.
Seven days later, I still have a glass jar of this salsa in my fridge. I’ve slowly been working my way through it, spooning it into quesadillas, on chips, over eggs. It’s fabulous on anything.
Recipe below. Oh, and tell me — where do you come down on the fence? Red or green, and why?
Red Taquería Style Salsa
Translated from Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s “Salsas Mexicanas”
The original recipe calls for 10 chiles de árbol, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, for fear of creating something so hot no one would eat it. I used eight. It was perfect.
8 chiles de árbol, seeds removed and reserved (you’re going to add them to your salsa later)
2 guajillos, seeded and de-veined
3 ripe roma tomatoes (300g/11 oz.)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/3 cup water
salt to taste
Toast the chiles briefly on a comal over medium heat. You’ll only want to do this for a few seconds, until they get slightly softer and aromatic. Try not to blacken them — black spots add a bitter flavor. Remove the chiles to a bowl and cover them with hot water. Let them sit for about 20 minutes, until softened.
In the meantime, raise the heat slightly on the comal and toast the tomatoes on all sides, until soft and blackened in spots. (It’s okay to char the tomatoes, just not the chiles!)
Add the chiles, tomatoes, garlic and water to a blender, and pulse until smooth. Add salt — I used about a teaspoon — and pulse some more. Don’t forget that salt is really important in a salsa, so if it doesn’t taste right, chances are you need more of it.
Serve at room temperature.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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