Salsas should be seen as spicy condiments, like steak sauce or ketchup, where a quarter teaspoon is added to main dishes to "create an explosion on the palate," according to chef Roberto Santibañez. If you like to down your salsa a cup at a time with a bag of corn chips, by all means. But that's not the purpose of a salsa. Chiles, roasted over a fire and beaten into salsa, are "part of the foundation of all Mexican cuisine," says French-trained Santibañez, a native of Mexico City who is the former culinary director of famed New York eatery Rosa Mexicana, and lately, the chef-owner of the upscale Fonda restaurants and La Botaneria small-plates bar in Brooklyn, New York, and Manhattan. Here, Santibañez offers three recipes so you can make classic Mexican salsas – a red, a green, and pico de gallo – to pair with dinner at home.
Salsa Roja de Molcajete
This simple roasted tomato salsa, omnipresent in Mexico, is the one most Americans associate with the term salsa. It's best when the garlic, roasted chiles, and salt are pounded to a paste in a molcajete, a traditional Mexican volcanic-stone mortar and pestle. But you can easily substitute a blender.
1 lb tomatoes (about 3 medium)
2 fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles, stemmed, or more to taste
1 small garlic clove, peeled
1/2 tsp kosher salt, or 1/4 tsp fine salt
1. Preheat the oven or toaster oven to broil (or 500°). Core the tomatoes and cut a small X through skin on the bottom. Cook tomatoes, cored sides up, with the chiles on a foil-lined baking pan, turning chiles after 8 minutes or so. Roast 15 minutes total, or until chiles are tender, blistered all over, and partly blackened. Remove chiles and cook tomatoes another 15–20 minutes until the tops blacken and they're cooked to the core. Cool slightly.
2. Peel off tomato skins, and remove the chile skins (you might have to use a paring knife).
3. Put peeled chiles, garlic, kosher salt, and one-third of roasted tomatoes in blender; puree until fairly smooth. Add remaining tomatoes and pulse a few times to keep texture chunky. Season to taste with additional salt.
Salsa Verde Cruda
This tart and spicy fresh tomatillo salsa is chef Santibañez's favorite ("I live for this salsa"). Learn to tweak the tomatillos' acidity with a little lime juice and salt "to make it all sing," he says. It tastes best fresh – no more than a few hours after you make it.
(Makes 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 lb tomatillos (5 or 6), husked, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 fresh serrano or jalapeño chiles, coarsely chopped, including seeds, or more to taste
2 tbsp chopped white onion
1 large garlic clove, peeled
3/4 tsp fine salt, or 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
Put the tomatillos in the blender jar first, then add the remaining ingredients. Blend until the salsa is very smooth (tomatillo seeds will still be visible), at least a minute. Season to taste, adjusting flavor if desired with additional chile and salt, then blend again.
Pico de Gallo with Lemon Zest
This raw, saladlike tomato salsa, also known as salsa Mexicana, is a riff on the classic, swapping lemon for lime. It is best made anywhere from a few hours to 30 minutes before serving to marry and deepen the flavors.
(Makes about 2 cups)
1 1/2 cups diced seeded tomatoes
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
Heaping 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
2 tbsp plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste
1 1/2 tbsp finely chopped fresh serrano chiles, including seeds, or more to taste
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, and stir thoroughly to distribute everything well. Season to taste with more chile, lemon juice, or salt, if desired.