Nothing says “Summer’s Here!” better than sitting in the backyard or, preferably, beach-side in a tropical destination. Bathing suit on. Skin browned. Beer in hand. Snacking on a big bowl of tortilla chips dipped in the perfect incarnation of salsa fresca, or fresh salsa. This is summer incarnate as far as I am concerned. There is nothing better than the mixture of fresh tomatoes, spicy jalapeno and bright cilantro that’s had a good, long while to bask in the glory of a lemon (and sometimes lime) juice bath. The memory of that last bite of summer salsa, scraped greedily out of the bottom of the bowl with a shard of chip, makes me so disgusted with jar-varieties that I can’t get within 20 feet of a Pace bottle without expletive phrases spilling from my mouth. Summer is not summer without this salsa and come June, July and August there is always a jar in my fridge. It was christened “Rooftop Salsa” a hand full of years ago at 1342 DeKalb, Jason’s old building in Brooklyn where every summer he would impress me with his rooftop green-thumbery. One year he grew everything except the garlic for a batch of this salsa, still the most amazing iteration I can ever fathom producing. Until he gets his hands on a real piece of dirt that is so we can grow a year-round salsa garden
– then you better bet I am quitting my job and starting to sell the stuff.
I am pretty much a salsa purist. Tomato, onion, chiles, lemon or lime, cilantro. Sure, pineapple or roasted red peppers or stone fruits are all awesome and I’m sure make a great salsa component. But at the end of the day, when I want to have a real taste of home, of Mexico, of traditionalism, I reach for this salsa. It’s basically the only one I ever make now (aside from Tata’s recipe, which both he and I will go to our graves with. Guess you’ll just have to come over for “Mexican” night).
I have no idea when or how I started making this salsa. I don’t really remember ever being taught how to make it and I don’t recall the first time I had it. I have no seared-in memories of sitting at my grandparents’ kitchen table being taught how to mash the garlic just right and I certainly do not recall either of my parents teaching me how to make this either. I suppose this recipe has just always lived in me, waiting to be perfected through trial and error throughout the years. This is probably one of the few recipes I make over and over again, time and again, without deviating from the way I made this recipe ten or twelve or fifteen years ago. It’s tradition. It’s summer. If this salsa doesn’t make you want to start swear off Pace Picante forever, then you’re loco. Enjoy!
A note about chiles: Oh gosh. It is so hard to help pick out chiles for those who are, shall we say, spice intolerant. What can I say? I love me some spicy chiles. My best advice for those who can’t take the heat is to start with 1/2 of a seeded jalapeno (wear gloves or use a fork when cutting the chile to avoid contact with skin if you are unaccustomed to handling chiles) and go from there. If the spice level’s perfect, hooray! If you can take a little more heat, add the whole pepper next time. Experiment, have fun. You can smell a pepper to help determine spice-level – if it burns your nostrils, you’ve got a spicy pepper. If it just smells fresh, it’s more mild. Also, the spice is in the seeds and membrane (white part) of the chiles, so if you remove that, the pepper is less hot. But if you are like my dear gringa friend Allison, you should probably stick to green bell peppers.
1 tbsp garlic paste (see below)
Juice of 2 lemons or 1 lemon and 2 limes, about 1/4 cup in total
1 lb almost over-ripe Roma tomatoes, rinsed
1 medium onion, diced, rinsed, and drained
2 jalapenos, de-seeded (or not) and diced
1/4 minced cilantro leaves
Salt to taste
Chips to serve – here I am not a purist – this salsa is as good on tortilla chips as it is on potato chips as it is on Fritos
In a large bowl whisk garlic paste and lemon/lime juice together. Add onion and jalapeno and toss to combine. Cut tomatoes in half. Over a bowl, similar to how you would squeeze a lemon or lime half, squeeze the juice and seeds out of the tomatoes. CAREFUL! This is messy. Don’t worry that the tomatoes don’t look pretty anymore, because the next step is to dice them quite small, into about 1/4 inch cubes (reserve tomato juice for pasta or some creative cocktail). Add tomatoes and cilantro to the bowl, again tossing to combine. Salt to taste, crack open a Corona and enjoy!
With the side of a chef’s knife, smash three large cloves of garlic to loosen skin. Discard skin and mince garlic until very fine. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon of course salt over the minced garlic and, again with the flat side of a chef’s knife, begin to smash the garlic into your work surface, using the palm of your hand to create pressure. With the back side of your knife gather the garlic into a mound and repeat until you have a chunky paste. Garlic paste. You can also use a garlic press, but like I said, I am a purist. That’s cheating.