Salsa (Recipe: ropa vieja)
- The word "salsa" means "sauce" -- not only in Spanish, but also in Arabic and Italian.
- Salsa fresca or salsa cruda is made of fresh, raw ingredients: tomato or tomatillo, chile peppers, onion, cilantro, and an acid (lime juice is most common). It's also called pico de gallo ("rooster's beak"), though there's no poultry in it. The most likely theory is that originally it was eaten with the thumb and forefinger, and retrieving and eating the salsa mimicked the actions of a pecking rooster.
- In the 13th Century, the Aztecs in central Mexico first combined tomatoes with chiles and ground squash seeds to eat as a condiment. Tortilla chips came along much later, in 20th Century Los Angeles, which makes me wonder what the Aztecs used for dips, and for nachos.
- Salsa, the hot-and-spicy mambo-like dance style, came along 400 or so years after the sauce, though clearly the sauce inspired the dance. It originated in Cuba, but really came into its own in New York's large Puerto Rican community.
- In 1991, sales of salsa (in dollars, not in units) surpassed sales of ketchup in the United States for the first time.
- Salsa made with cooked tomatoes is called salsa roja ("red sauce"), but it's nothing like the "red sauce" appellation we give traditional Italian restaurants here in Rhode Island.
- Salsa adds more than zing and flavor to your meal; it also adds a serving of vegetables, and sometimes fruit, to help meet your 5-a-day goal.
- While it's easy to make your own salsa fresca, it doesn't save many calories. Most commercial fresh salsas don't contain added fat and only use miniscule amounts of sugar, or none at all, making salsa a much healthier alternative to ketchup.
- Keep several bottles of store-bought salsa in your pantry, including interesting combinations like habanero-lime and spicy peach from Trader Joe's, to make a quick sauce or add to cheese-filled quesadillas or burritos or soup. Store opened salsa in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a month or more; the high acid content is a natural preservative.
- Substitute your favorite commercial salsa in any of these recipes: roasted tilapia with black bean and mango salsa, seared scallops with mango-melon salsa, cod with strawberry salsa, cheese-stuffed poblanos, and pasta with salsa cruda and ricotta. Have fun -- mix and match!
Ropa vieja ("old clothes")
Every time I make this dish, it's a bit different. This time I combined two of my favorite techniques: cooking in the slow cooker, and improvising when I realize that I don't have the right ingredients for the recipe, proving once again that there is no right or wrong when it comes to cooking. This ropa is not traditional, but it is completely delicious! Serves 10-12; tastes best when made ahead, and can be frozen.
3-4 lbs flank steak, visible fat removed
Dozen or so black peppercorns
6-8 oz favorite salsa (I used Trader Joe's habanero-lime, very spicy)
8 oz tomato sauce
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp mild chili powder
2 cups water
Place the meat in a slow cooker with a few black peppercorns, and water to almost cover. Cook on low for 9 hours. Remove meat and let it cool to the touch. (Note: you can refrigerate or freeze the cooked meat at this point, and finish making the ropa at a later time.)
Cut the meat across the grain into 3-inch wide strips. Then, with your hands, shred the meat and place in a large nonstick frying pan. Add remaining ingredients, and stir well to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and the meat has turned to "rags."
Use as a filling for quesadillas or burritos, or a main dish served over rice and beans.