A True Mexican Collectible

Versatile Summertime Salsas Are an Easy Blend of Fresh Flavors

By Patricia Jinich
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When asked recently whether I was a collector of some sort, I thought of my grandmother's cabinet that holds hundreds of elephant figurines -- more than 60 years' worth, from many places. And she's still adding to the lot. So my response was no.

Then a few days later I realized that I am a collector: of foods tasted throughout my life, or at least the memories of them. This is especially true of salsas. I have countless papers scattered on my desk with notes about the names of them, the places I ate them, their ingredients, the cooks who made them and, when generously given, directions on how to re-create them.

When the mood strikes, I search to find that precise note (which may be in a coat pocket, bag or drawer). Or I sit down with eyes closed and try to remember the feel of the sauce.

When all else fails, I make one up.

If you look in my refrigerator, you will find a salsa. That is mainly because my husband is always asking for one but also because salsas can pump up the beauty and richness of any meal. To me, salsas are one of the exceptional elements of Mexican cooking: delicious, accommodating and versatile. Among the many possibilities, we eat salsas on top of rice, beans, potatoes; alongside meats, chicken, seafood and vegetables; spooned inside or outside all sorts of dishes such as tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas; scooped with a piece of toast and spooned straight from the container.

I wouldn't dare guess how many salsas there are in Mexican cooking as I am sure to be wrong, and the cuisine keeps evolving. But I can safely say that if I were to give you a different salsa to taste each month, my lifetime, however long, wouldn't give us enough time to cover the choices.

Salsas can be eaten from morning till night, and are known to be especially savored after midnight when the food stands on Mexican streets -- and some in Los Angeles, as well -- serve their secret-recipe salsas with antojos and quick dishes. The late-night crowds crave them.

Some are made with dozens of ingredients, prepared in laborious ways. Others use a few easy-to-find ingredients and can be assembled in minutes. For me, the latter sound like the perfect salsas for summer.

Three of my no-cook favorites, from my ever-growing and scattered collection, are a raw tomatillo and chipotle salsa, made lush with the addition of avocado and fresh cheese; a luxurious mango salsa with slivers of red onion, jalapeƱo and chopped cilantro; and a versatile, ancho chili pickled salsa, which keeps in the fridge for months.

If you are so inclined, please leave comments online about the accompanying recipes (or share with me whatever food-related things you tend to gather). I will collect them all.

Patricia Jinich is a cooking instructor and chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute. Her Web site is http://www.patismexicantable.com.

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