Don't Fear The Heat
Sauces and Salsas Continue to Diversify in Spice & Flavor
If you can stand the heat, then get it into the kitchen. Why? With the emergence of interest in Mexican flavors, more and more Americans are looking for spice in their food. A 2015 study by Nation's Restaurant News showed that of those polled, 50 percent eat Mexican food at least once a month.
While the more than 2,000 Chipotle locations around the country may have helped get more people eating burrito bowls, that doesn't even put a dent in the influence Mexican restaurants have on American culture. As of 2014, there were more than 54,000 Mexican restaurants throughout America. But while some may think Tex-Mex is typical Mexican fare, it's just the tip of the iceberg.
"Mexican food is not all fried, fatty or spicy," said chef Victor Palma, executive chef of the Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. "It's what you get in the small markets or if somebody invites you home for a meal. We're giving nice presentation and more organic ingredients. We take things from our history, with high-quality products. That's why now Mexican food is getting more success every day."
And at the core of Mexican food: chiles. Mexican cooks, whether in a restaurant or at home, use a variety of both fresh and dried chiles in numerous dishes and especially in their sauces, or salsas. For the most part, every restaurant and taqueria has its own salsa, Palma said, and you use different chiles to make different salsas for different dishes.
"We have a trio of salsas," he said. "We do different levels of spice and have like 10 different salsas. We have habanero, jalapeño, Serrano, different dried chiles, moles, adobo. If you're doing al pastor tacos, the salsa is with dried guajillo chiles. Green tomatillo is one of the most popular salsas in Mexico."
Palma added that even though many Americans preparing Mexican food know the more common ingredients like chipotle peppers, which are actually just dried jalapeño peppers, he uses ingredients that likely haven't made their way to America yet. He loves substituting the juice from xoconostle, the fruit of the Nopal cactus, for lime juice when making pico de gallo or other salsas. Xoconostle, pronounced choko-nos-leh, looks like prickly pear and has a sour, acidic taste. Palma uses it to make jam, salsa and even adds it to guacamole.
At Los Chingones in Denver, chef/owner Troy Guard offers his guests a variety of salsas on his menu because "some people like sweeter, some like spicier, some like earthier so we change it up to accommodate their tastes," he said. Los Chingones has six salsas on its menu — the Rooster house salsa, chile-pasilla lime, chipotle pineapple, guajillo, tomatillo and a fiery-hot habanero. Customers receive a free Rooster salsa and chips when they sit, but if they want more or any other flavor, it costs $1.50. Some people balk at the idea of having to pay for salsa at a Mexican restaurant, but it makes sense.
"It costs the restaurant money to fry the tortillas, to buy the local ingredients and to make the salsa," Guard added. "And the salsas are made fresh daily in-house."
Guard and his crew make all their salsas and it's not hard. If you don't want to take the time to chop all the ingredients, he said you can easily toss everything into a blender to make a salsa.
Mexican sauces and flavors don't have to just go with Mexican food either. Drew Davis, the executive chef and COO of Chicago-based Eastman Egg Company, adds Mexican flavors to a few of his made-to-order, egg-based breakfast sandwiches.
Davis makes a sweet chili sauce for the namesake sandwich with a farm egg, Slagel Farm ham, Egmont cheese and cucumber on ciabatta; and uses a salsa verde on the Crown with chorizo, Egmont cheese, avocado and the farm egg. But when it comes to breakfast sandwiches, are people thinking about Mexican flavors and sauces?
"One of the big things we're dedicated to is helping people rethink breakfast," Davis said. "Our goal is to bring in those flavors without being too aggressive or reaching too hard. The flavors pair really well with eggs."
The beauty of all the different flavors from Mexico that you use in sauces for larger plates is how diverse they are and in how many directions you can take them.
"Whether it's bitter, acid, sweet or heat there's a ton of variety represented in Mexico," Davis said. "Mexican cuisine uses a lot of different cooking techniques pretty organically. You can do salsa fresh, steamed, fire roasted and more. You can alter ingredients — it's like a NFL playbook and there are endless variations you can tinker with and choose from."