When it comes to recipes that scream versatility, chef and owner Marcie Turney of Philadelphia restaurants Lolita and Jamonera swears traditional Mexican salsas can’t be beat. “In Mexican cooking, there’s a basic group of salsas that are made more like pastes,” she says. “They’re really versatile, and you can use them in so many ways.”
Her favorite, salsa negra, typically combines chiles with water, oil, garlic and piloncillo, an unrefined Mexican sugar somewhat similar to brown sugar. It’s made using the same technique employed for mole, where various seeds and chiles are progressively toasted in fat to season the oil, which is later used as the emulsifier. For her variation, Turney makes a salsa negra with hints of smoke, chocolate and tobacco, along with heat.
“Morita chiles are my absolute favorite dried chiles,” she says. “They’re jalapeños that are allowed to turn super red before they’re dried and smoked, so they get really fruity. We get them in five-gallon buckets, and when you take the lid off, it’s the best smell in the world.” To that salsa base, she adds apple cider vinegar to balance the smoke, plus ginger and peanuts, which together make for a bright yet decadent flavor combination (see the recipe).
Once worked together, the thick salsa paste is a balance of sweet and sour, with hints of smoke and earth. It can be easily stored in the refrigerator or freezer. And while she says just a spoonful or two will bring tons of flavor to the other salsas you serve on the fly, that’s not the only way she uses it in her kitchens.
A Super-Smoky Mayo
For a take on Mexican street corn, fold in a tablespoon of salsa to a cup of mayonnaise and slather it on grilled corn and top with cotija cheese, chili powder and fresh lime juice. Or use it on sandwiches with lots of heft, like a Cubano. It’s also the perfect condiment served as a dipping sauce for fried appetizers like arancini or cheese curds.
Boozy, Bloody Cocktails
For a Bloody Mary or michelada with layered, dynamic flavor, add a tablespoon of salsa to enough tomato juice + booze to make two servings–before you add any additional hot sauce or heat. For a fancy brunch garnish, thin out the salsa with a little oil and use it as a marinade for shrimp, then grill and serve them warm on the glass. To kick it up yet another notch, pickle some morita chiles, slices of onion and garlic in a bath of equal parts water, sugar and vinegar, then serve the lot on a skewer.
An Autumnal Aguachile
When tomatoes and cucumbers seem past their prime, juice them with any combination of celery, cilantro and jalapeños (grill the tomatoes first for a smoky, charred flavor). Stir in a tablespoon of the salsa negra paste per eight ounces of vegetable juice. Then toss in lightly poached shrimp, sliced scallops, blanched calamari or crabmeat. Add a little orange, lemon or lime juice to help the fish cook through fully, as well as some freshly chopped cucumbers and tomatoes. Serve with chips for an aguachile that’s bright and fresh but with a bit of smoke and char.
Grilled Meats and Oily Fish
Because of its heft, the salsa works extremely well with hearty grilled proteins like pork, beef and oilier fish. To use as a marinade, thin the smoky and sweet paste out with a neutral or light olive oil, slather it on your protein, let it sit, and then brush off the excess before grilling so that it doesn’t burn. To baste chicken or ribs, add a tablespoon to a cup or two of barbecue sauce, and then baste toward the later stages of grilling.
A Rich Braising Liquid
Play up the chocolate and tobacco flavors of your braising liquid, perfect for rich meats like lamb shank, short rib or pork butt, by adding crushed Mexican chocolate, some more peanuts and a few tablespoons of the salsa (along with your stock and mirepoix). Once the meat has finished cooking, blend and strain the braising liquid for a rich, sweet sauce. Or for a take on carnitas, add cinnamon, onion, orange juice and orange zest. “Those flavor profiles are awesome with the combination of peanuts, ginger and chile,” Turney promises.
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