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Salsa (Recipe: ropa vieja)

Ropa vieja

Ten things I know about salsa (you'll be glad to know them, too):

  1. The word "salsa" means "sauce" -- not only in Spanish, but also in Arabic and Italian.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. In 1991, sales of salsa (in dollars, not in units) surpassed sales of ketchup in the United States for the first time.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Mock guacamole
Black bean and peach soup
Floribean chicken chili
Spicy skirt steak
Roasted halibut tacos with mango salsa

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


Thanks Lydia, this was interesting and will be a help in my creation of a new salsa for an art project! Just what I needed!

I like the simplicity of that recipe and the list of facts.

Coe's book "America's First Cuisines" actually goes into detail about what the Aztecs ate -- insofar as it's known.

Well, I only came close on one out of ten! I'm a complete novice when it comes to salsa verde, so I'll have to check that out.

I've become addicted to salsa verde with tomatillos. Num!

I love the simplicity of seasoning the ropa vieja with salsa! Have you ever tried ropa nueva? A play on the concept using skate wing instead of flank steak.

I just found your blog and am enjoying it very much. Loved the top 10 salsa facts. I just posted my experiment with slowing cooking and Latin dishes. It wasn't as successful yours. You've got a new subscriber!

How very interesting. A colleauge of mine does an annual salsa making party with her friends.

I'm thinking of canning (cooked) salsa next autumn...

Salsa verde is my favorite. I prefer green salsas over red. The habanero-lime sounds wonderful!

My knowledge of the words salsa is limited to the orange type sauce used to dip tortilla chips ... your post is so informative :D

The clothes look great, old they may be. ;)

I liked the recipe,and also the way of your narration.

You've just reminded me that its been an insanely long time since I sat down to a dinner of salsa and chips. Ah, single girl days... Sometimes I miss them, sometimes I don't :-)

Your old clothes (giggles) look so good! Thanks for all the interesting info about Salsa! I've worked up a good craving now.

Ilva, now I'm the one who's intrigued. An art project? Do tell us....

Mae, that sounds like a book that should be on my reading list. Thank you.

TW, I love the flexibility of salsa. I've only recently begun to deviate from recipes to create my own combinations.

Alanna, me too. Wish I grew them in my garden.

Julia, never heard of ropa nueva -- and though I've eaten skate wing, I've never tried to cook it. Fascinating...

Joan, glad you found your way here. My own slow cooker experiments have been mixed, but more good than not. I'm still learning!

Jasmine, a salsa-making party sounds terrific. May I come?

Pam, I'm partial to "thinner" salsas rather than the cooked supermarket varieties that are so heavy with tomato.

Noobcook, almost all salsa are good with chips, aren't they?

Eating Club, thanks -- these "old clothes" are quite delicious, I must admit.

Culinary Schools, thank you.

Ann, a meal of salsa and chips sounds divine. Throw in a bowl of spicy sopa de lima and I'm there.

Reeni, salsa is one of those pantry products that I crave, too!

Salsa is one of the must-have staples in my pantry, although I prefer to make mine fresh. I use it on anything from omelets to chili, to serving with chips and on top of baked potatoes.

But the one thing I would love to learn is #4, salsa dancing (not my husband's cup of tea). Maybe someday...

I also JUST made Ropa Vieja this week and planned to post about it. Funny...

Salsa is the ultimate pantry item for me. Especially a brand called "better than Fred's" I simply put a cut of pork in the slowcooker with a jar of their carribean salsa and serve at the end of the day with canned black beans on rice or in a tortilla.
fresh veggie garnishes optional depending on what's in the fridge!
Try this salsa - you will not be disappointed!

Wow, this was such a cool post. I love salsa and can't believe that sales surpassed ketchup in 1991!

I especially like fruit salsas, like mango/pineapple. I think they taste great with the salty tortillas.

That looks really tasty. Making your awn salsa is always fun.

Sandie, I prefer fresh salsa, too, but love to keep a few jars of store-bought in the pantry for "emergencies", like when the urge to make ropa vieja strikes and I'm out of almost everything I need to make it. And if I could throw my hips like JLo, I'd want to learn salsa dancing, too!

Caroline, there must be something in the air....

Carol, I've never heard of this brand, but now will search for it. Where do you buy it?

Maris, the fruit salsas are wonderful, and I've been experimenting with using them in bean soups and am in love with that combination.

Kevin, agreed -- fun to make your own, and if I had the foresight to can my own salsa in fruit season, I'd probably not buy from the store. But, alas, I'm never that organized in the summer.

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