Since moving to New York, Crayton and I have suffered from intense salsa deprivation.
It took me awhile to start making my own because I kept looking for chile de árbol, the go-to red table salsa ingredient in Mexico City. But the chiles de árbol in Queens always looked stemless and old and sad. The best-looking dried chile in New York, hands down, is the chipotle — a fact no doubt tied to the large numbers of Poblano immigrants who live here. (Qué viva Puebla York!)
The chipotle is hugely popular in Puebla. It’s served in salsa with tacos árabes, and made into sweet-and-spicy rajas that are then slathered on tortas. Fondas serve little bowls of chipotle en escabeche to accompany any meal. The chipotle is a dried jalapeño that’s been smoked using mesquite, and actually the smoking technique was developed in Puebla in prehispanic times, says Alonso Hernández, the chef at Puebla’s well-known Mesón Sacristía restaurant and an intense researcher of Mexican food. The jalapeño itself is native to Veracruz.
The chipotle is spicier than an ancho or guajillo and measures about two inches long, with blackberry-colored skin. In New York they’re often sold loose in the produce section of the supermarket. Whole Foods in Midtown East carries them (I bought four for 30 cents), and so does Met Food in Jackson Heights on 37th Ave. The Mexican bodegas I’ve visited in Corona and Elmhurst tend to offer huge bags of them, which works if you’ve got space to store them.
Making this salsa — a fresh salsa that requires no charring or boiling — takes about 10 minutes, if you don’t count the part where the chiles are soaking in water. For this batch, I seeded the chiles (you don’t have to, if you want more heat), then soaked them, then zapped them in the blender with two very ripe tomatoes and a small amount of onion and garlic.
The result was smoky and garlicky and tart, and, after the addition of some salt, wholly excellent with the homemade spinach empanadas I’d made. (Is it possible that the salsa overshadowed the empanadas? Totally.)
I’ve heard lots of people already complain about finding good Mexican food in New York, but it’s possible to make your own at home, using ingredients you can find at most grocery stores. If the Poblano Yorkers can do it, you can, too.
Quick Chipotle Salsa
Note: What’s known as the chipotle in New York is often called a mora in Mexico City. The rougher, leathery chipotle meco is a little harder to find at the bigger supermarkets here, but you can get it at the smaller bodegas at the edge of Jackson Heights and in Corona. If you use the meco, the salsa won’t be as hot — Hernández says the meco is actually boiled first before it’s smoked, which removes some of the heat.
This salsa keeps in an airtight container for at least 5 days.
4 chipotle chiles (see note)
1 heaping tablespoon diced onion
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
2 small tomatoes, cut into quarters (I used hothouse tomatoes, similar to the ones seen here)
1/2 teaspoon plus one pinch salt
1. Using kitchen shears or a knife, make an incision in each chipotle and scoop out the seeds. Fill a small bowl with hot water and add chiles. Let soak for 15 minutes, until skin is plump and pulpy. Once the chiles are fully hydrated, don’t discard your chile water just yet, in case you might need it later.
2. Chop chiles roughly. Place onion, garlic and chopped chiles in a blender jar and pulse a few times. Add half of tomatoes and pulse once or twice. Then add the remaining tomatoes and pulse again a few times, until salsa is a little smoother, but still with some texture. (If you over-blend it’s not the end of the world.) If you like your salsa thinner, now is the time to add in a tablespoon of that chile water you saved.
3. Pour salsa into a bowl and taste, just so you have an idea of what this tastes like without salt. Then add your salt to taste — I thought it was perfect with 1/2 teaspoon plus a pinch. Serve immediately.