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grilled salsa, four ways

Temperatures have been in the 90s around here all week. But if you live in the United States, you probably know that already, because it’s been super hot everywhere:

When it’s this hot, it’s not even worth trying to cook. I’ve been getting by with a steady diet of cold brew coffee, iced tea, ice-cold cheap beer, cabbage-based salads, and ice water, but today I decided to fire up the grill for one of my favorite cold snacks: salsa.

If you are someone who can make great pico de gallo, my hat is off to you. I try every few months to make a really killer fresh salsa and I never can make it happen. Sarah, who is better at fine-tuning flavors, has better luck than me, but we can never replicate the pico de gallo at La Carta de Oaxaca. So more often than not, I make some sort of roasted salsa using the broiler. But what is an oven’s broiler if not an inverted grill? In addition to being an excellent meat-cooking device, a charcoal or gas grill is a great way to prepare salsas.

Tomatillo Salsa on the Grill

Today I made four different salsas, all based on recipes from Rick Bayless’s Salsas That Cook. In addition to the standard tomato and jalapeno salsa, I made a tomatillo-serrano salsa, a garlicky, herby arbol chile salsa, and a smooth chipotle-cascabel salsa.

Grilled Salsas

When you’re roasting salsa fixings on the grill (you can also do this under the broiler, or in a foil-lined cast iron pan on your stove, but it will take more time since you’ll have to work in smaller batches), you want to keep an eye on your ingredients. Here is what should happen:

  • tomatoes and tomatillos should blacken in spots and begin to collapse
  • onions should get light grill marks and become nice and soft
  • garlic cloves should color a little bit, but mostly get soft and fragrant

This can take as little as 8 minutes and as long as 20 minutes, depending on the size of your grill, how hot your coals are, the size of your ingredients, etc. Don’t feel compelled to hurry things along. Every 5 or 6 minutes, open up the grill and move things around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. If something looks done, pull it off the heat. If you discover that your grill has some hot and cool zones, use that to your advantage, moving larger and/or slower cooking stuff to the hotter areas.

Once your ingredients are grilled, it’s time to mix them up. You’re going to need a food processor or an immersion blender for this. The basic strategy is the same for all four salsas:

  • if called for, rehydrate the dried chilies
  • pulse the the roasted chiles, onions, and garlic until they’re a thick, chunky paste
  • puree the tomatoes or tomatillos
  • mix in the fresh cilantro, salt, and vinegar or sugar if called for
  • let cool completely, then taste and adjust flavors if needed (since salsas are usually served cold, they need to be flavored boldly, with a good dose of salt and, in the case of tomato salsas, some vinegar)

If you’re just going to make one, I recommend the tomato-jalapeno, which is going to be a nice, middle of the road condiment for tortilla chips or nachos. The tomatillo-serrano salsa is also nice for dipping; you can also use this sauce in chilaquiles or enchiladas. The last two salsas feature dried chiles and are smoother sauces, more suited to cooking with. Drizzle them into tacos, spoon them over eggs, or marinate some chicken thighs in them.

Finally, a word on heat: I would say these are all “medium” spiciness. If you are concerned about the heat level, roast the full number of chilies but set one or two aside when you blend the salsa up. If you think it needs more heat, whiz that last chile in the food processor and mix it back in. Otherwise, you can enjoy a milder salsa. Obviously, you can do the opposite if you like a spicier sauce. For the dried chile salsas, you can use more chilies and/or add in one or more spicier dried chilies, such as chiles de arbol.

Tomato Salsa fixins

Tomatillo salsa fixins

Unlike their fresh counterparts, these salsas keep for up to a week in the fridge. They also freeze very nicely, so don’t be afraid to make a double or triple batch. So go get a tasty beverage, a few bags of tortilla chips, and call up some friends: SALSA TIME!

Roasted Tomato-Jalapeno Salsa

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
makes about 2 1/2 quarts salsa (easily halved or doubled)

Ingredients

  • 4 1/2 lbs. tomatoes
  • 3-4 oz. jalapenos, stemmed (about 3-4 large chilies, or 4-5 smaller ones)
  • 6 oz. white onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 in. thick (1 medium onion)
  • 12 cloves garlic
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 generous tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Directions

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatoes and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove the tomatoes to a bowl and the chilies, onions, and garlic to a separate bowl.

If using a food processor, pulse the chilies, onions, and garlic until roughly chopped. If using an immersion blender, you’ll have a hard time getting it to do much since there’s not any liquid yet, so go ahead and add the water to the mixture to get it going. Either way, remove this to a large bowl.

Coarsely puree the tomatoes with the food processor or immersion blender, then add to the large bowl with the other grilled ingredients.

If you didn’t add the water yet, add it now, along with the cilantro, salt, and vinegar. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or vinegar if desired.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa with Serrano Chilies

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
makes about 2 1/2 quarts salsa (easily halved or doubled)

  • 5 lbs. tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed briefly
  • 4-5 oz. serrano chiles (about 3-4 chilies), stems removed
  • 1 lb. white onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick (about 1 large onion)
  • 12 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/2 cup water, plus more if needed
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • sugar, if needed (I didn’t need it, but you might want to add 1 or 2 teaspoons if your tomatillos were really tangy – taste and see at the end)

Directions

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatillos, serranos, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatillos and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove the tomatillos to a bowl (they will be very soft and watery) and the chilies, onions, and garlic to a separate bowl.

If using a food processor, pulse the chilies, onions, and garlic until roughly chopped. If using an immersion blender, you’ll have a hard time getting it to do much since there’s not any liquid yet, so go ahead and add the water to the mixture to get it going. Either way, remove this to a large bowl.

Coarsely puree the tomatillos with the food processor or immersion blender, then add to the large bowl with the other grilled ingredients.

If you didn’t add the water yet, add it now, along with the cilantro, salt, and vinegar. Give it a good stir. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or sugar if desired. You might also need to add more water after it cools: tomatillos have a lot natural pectin, which really firms up the salsa when you put it in the fridge. It should be spoonable, so don’t be afraid to add another cup or so of water if you need to.

Chipotle-Cascabel Salsa with Thyme

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
Makes about 1 quart salsa

Ingredients

  • 6 dried chipotle chiles
  • 6 dried round cascabel chiles (if you can’t find cascabels, which are cute little spherical chilies, substitute guajillo or pulla chilies)
  • 1 lb. tomatillos,  husks removed and rinsed briefly
  • 1 lb. tomatoes
  • 12 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 lb. onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 in. thick (1 large onion)
  • 1 tablespon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 2 generous teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar, if needed

Directions

Cut the tops off the chilies and tear them open. Shake the seeds out and discard. Pack the chiles into a small bowl and add just enough hot tap water to cover. Let stand 20-40 minutes, or until very soft.

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatoes, tomatillos,, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatoes, tomatillos, and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove the tomatoes and tomatillos to a bowl (they will be very soft and watery) and the chilies, onions, and garlic to a separate bowl.

Drain the water off of the chilies and reserve.

Puree the tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies, and 1 cup of the reserved chile soaking water with the food processor or immersion blender until very smooth, about 1 minute. Add the onions and garlic and continue to process until smooth. Remove to a bowl.

Add the thyme and salt. Give it a good stir. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or sugar if desired. You might also need to add more water after it cools: tomatillos have a lot natural pectin, which really firms up the salsa when you put it in the fridge. It should be spoonable, so don’t be afraid to add another few tablespoons of water if you need to.

Red Chile Salsa with Roasted Garlic

Adapted from Salsas That Cook, by Rick Bayless
makes about 2-3 cups (easily doubled)

Ingredients

  • 4 dried New Mexico chiles (or substitute guajillo or pulla chiles)
  • 1/2 lbs. ripe tomatoes
  • 2 oz. white onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick (1/2 small onion)
  • 1/2 heads garlic, peeled (about 12-16 cloves of garlic)
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar, if needed

Directions

Cut the tops off the chilies and tear them open. Shake the seeds out and discard. Pack the chiles into a small bowl and add just enough hot tap water to cover. Let stand 20-40 minutes, or until very soft.

If using a charcoal grill, light a chimney full of coals and let them ash over almost completely, about 20 minutes. Dump into your grill and spread into an even layer for direct heat. If you’re going to be making more than 2 different salsas, or if you’re planning on grilling other things, add another 1/2 chimney full of (unlit) coals over top so your fire lasts long enough. Cover and let the grate heat up for about 10 minutes.

If you’re using a gas grill, preheat all burners on high for 10 minutes.

If you’re using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and preheat the broiler to high. Turn your exhaust fan on.

Lay out piece of foil and make a little tray for your garlic cloves so they don’t slip through the grates. Place tomatoes, onions, and garlic on the grill or on your sheet pan. Cover and grill/broil for 10 minutes, then check. Rotate everything and move it around a bit to make sure it’s cooking evenly. Continue to grill, covered, until the tomatoes and chilies are blistered and soft and the onions and garlic are lightly browned and fragrant.

Remove everything to a bowl. Drain the water off of the chilies and reserve.

Puree the tomatoes, chilies, and 1 cup of the reserved chile soaking water with the food processor or immersion blender until very smooth, about 1 minute. Add the onions and garlic and continue to process until smooth. Remove to a bowl.

Add the oregano, salt, and vinegar. Give it a good stir. Let cool, then taste for seasoning, adding additional salt or sugar if desired.

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