Super Bowl Smackdown VI: Salsa for a crowd

January 31, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI will be a rematch of the two teams that gave us that memorable championship game four years ago when, against all odds, the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots and ruined any chance that Tom Brady and his teammates would dump a cooler of baked beans on their coach for completing a perfect 19-0 season.

Hey, c’mon, if the mayors of these Super Bowl adversaries can wager their cities’ signature foods on the outcome, why can’t the winning players get more creative with their post-game Gatorade showers? Imagine: The Green Bay Packers could dump cheese curds on their coach, Mike McCarthy. The San Francisco 49ers could pour cioppino on Jim Harbaugh. The Redskins could squeeze little packets of mumbo sauce all over Mike Shanahan.

Oh, sorry, I need to get on with the show here, namely the sixth annual Super Bowl Recipe Smackdown, which in honor of the rematch between two East Coast teams is dedicated to — you guessed it — salsa. Cue that old Pace Picante commercial in which the cowpokes threaten to “git a rope” and hang the poor chuck-wagon cook who somehow on the godforsaken trail bought a jarred salsa made in “New York City!”

So maybe our choice of snack food this year didn’t align with the teams that eventually made it to the big game. So what? Save the rope for tying up your bumper the next time a text-happy driver rams you.

Besides, salsa is the perfect party food: It’s easy to make (unless you’re my editor, Bonnie S. Benwick, who practically turned her salsa into a public works project). It’s easy to eat (remove chip from one bowl, dip into another, place in mouth). It requires no extra plates (unless you insist on having your own salsa station on your lap). And it comes in many flavors, heat levels and textures: a condiment guaranteed to please just about any guest likely to stare at your TV on Super Bowl Sunday.

The key to preparing a high-yield salsa — one that’ll last at least through Madonna’s costume changes at halftime — is not to just double a recipe you find online, notes writer, TV host and chef Patricia Jinich, whom we solicited for advice. Go ahead and double (or triple or quadruple) the basic ingredients such as tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and milder herbs, Jinich says, but not the more powerful ones such as garlic, chile peppers and pungent herbs like cilantro.

Jinich suggests you prepare your salsa in batches: one batch with chiles and others without. Then, as you combine the batches in a larger bowl, you can spoon in the chile-laden one until you reach the desired heat level. “You can always pump up the heat by adding more, but it is a nightmare to try to tone down the heat,” Jinich e-mails, noting that peppers from the same tree can vary wildly in their heat quotient.

Benwick followed the chef’s advice with her Smackdown entry, a complex concoction she dubs International Salsa. It’s a cross-cultural condiment that combines Latin, Asian and Indian ingredients to heady effect, and it even provides an element of crunch without the benefit of a tortilla chip, which is the salsa’s own particular genius. Benwick’s recipe calls for not one, not two, not three, but four kinds of peppers. To her credit, she did give up the ghost (pepper), which could turn one’s attention away from the heart-stopping action on TV to, well, the heart-stopping action in your chest.

My own salsa is an homage to the late Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo, founder of the Ninfa’s chain of Tex-Mex restaurants that started in Houston, my old stomping ground.

“Mama” Ninfa, as everyone knew her, is credited with inventing this creamy condiment, which is a “salsa” only in the strictest definition of the term: It’s a sauce, equally comfortable slathered over fajitas as it is clinging to the tip of your chip. At Ninfa’s, this cooling green sauce is paired with a fire-breathing red sauce, a battle of good vs. evil right at your table. As with life, the ultimate Ninfa’s experience was a mixture of both.

Because I live on the East Coast now, I routinely pine for Mama Ninfa’s green sauce, a velvety avocado-and-tomatillo salsa that’s as hard to find in these parts as a decent Tex-Mex combo plate smothered in Velveeta. I tried to add an element of char and heat to Laurenzo’s recipe and found that even six jalapenos and 10 cloves of garlic could not penetrate the fatty fortress of Ninfa’s green sauce.

I took strange comfort in that: One of Mama Ninfa’s most durable legacies refuses to bow before a food snob’s hubris.

RECIPES:

International Salsa

A Gringo’s Ode to Mama Ninfa’s Green Sauce

Past Super Bowl Smackdown recipes

More dip recipes from our Recipe Finder

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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