Saturday, January 19, 2008

January 19: Chips and Tomato Salsa, Guacamole, Chile Con Queso

This is, no kidding, the best salsa in the world. And let me say this about it as well: it is almost a blank canvas. The great thing about salsa is that it can embrace a thousand different ingredients. I use this salsa not just as-is, but I have added the following at different points:

  • Small-diced radishes
  • Small-diced seeded and peeled cucumber
  • Sweet corn, cut off the ear and toasted in a dry skillet
  • Canned black beans, drained and rinsed
  • Minced chipotle in adobo
  • Small cubes of mango
  • Grilled pineapple, diced
  • Different peppers
  • Heirloom tomatoes
  • Different herbs
  • Roasted, chopped red peppers
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • Chopped oil-cured black olives

Do you see where I'm going here? Possibilities are limited only by your own imagination. This also addresses the problem of winter tomatoes. Winter tomatoes are generally inedible, hard, pale, and flavorless, but the marriage of flavors and the other ingredients coax a little breath of life into the grocery store travesties that pass as tomatoes in January.

I love that this salsa is as great on chips as it would be over a piece of broiled fish, or tossed with hot pasta and olive oil, or on a taco or nachos. And guacamole? How can anything that looks so awful taste so great? It does though, and it's full of heart-healthy fat and I can eat it by the boatload. Enough guacamole is never enough.

Let me say this about guacamole: If the avocados aren't great, if they are rock-hard and emerald-green on the outside, if they squish under light pressure, put them down and move on. Your guacamole will only serve to disappoint you.

If the avocados are unsuitable, go with the chile con queso. It sounds complicated, but it just really isn't. We were visiting family in San Diego in April, and had dinner in a Mexican restaurant in Old Town. There were little old Mexican women in costume making fresh tortillas in the storefronts, and they served an appetizer called queso fundido, which was a big crock of hot, oven-baked cheese with crumbled chorizo sausage. You scooped up gobs of it in fresh flour tortillas, wrapped it up, and tried to not let it dribble down your chin. Ohh, just the thought of it makes me miss California a little bit. It's not exactly practical for a party, since it really has to stay bubbling hot or it sort of hardens into a rubber-cement consistency, but chile con queso is a great alternative. The list of ingredients is sort of long, and make no mistake--this is spicy. But it's a crowd-pleaser.

Start here, with the salsa. If you make it ahead, wait to add the salt--everything will weep a little, and your salsa will be watery. Also, for more spicy, leave some or all of the seeds from the jalapenos in.

Tomato Salsa

1 1/2 pounds firm, ripe tomatoes , cut into 3/8-inch dice (about 3 cups)
1 large jalapeño chile, seeded, flesh minced (about 2 tablespoons)
1/2 cup minced red onion
1 small clove garlic, minced (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon table salt
pinch ground black pepper
2 - 6 teaspoons lime juice from 1 to 2 limes

1. Set large colander in large bowl. Place tomatoes in colander and let drain 30 minutes. As tomatoes drain, layer jalapeño, onion, garlic, and cilantro on top. Shake colander to drain off excess tomato juice. Discard juice; wipe out bowl.
2. Transfer contents of colander to now-empty bowl. Add salt, pepper, and 2 teaspoons lime juice; toss to combine. Taste and add minced jalapeño seeds, sugar, and additional lime juice to taste.

Guacamole does not hold very well--it tends to oxidize and turn brown. Don't make it much ahead of time if you can help it, and it you can't help it, spray the top with lime juice--the acid will help to prevent browning--and place a layer of plastic wrap directly against the guacamole, pressing out as much air as you can, and cover tightly.

Make this recipe en masse, if possible--it multiplies well, and it will be popular.


2 small ripe avocados
1 tablespoon minced red onion
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press
1/2 small jalapeño chile, minced (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
Table salt
1 tablespoon lime juice from 1 lime

Halve, pit, and scoop flesh from avocados into a bowl. Sprinkle lime juice over and mix lightly with fork until mashed, with a few pea-sized chunks. Add onion, garlic, chile, and cilantro. Adjust seasoning with salt, if necessary, and serve. (Can be refrigerated up to 1 day. Return guacamole to room temperature, removing plastic wrap just before serving.)

You can make the chile con queso with chorizo. Brown 1/2 pound bulk chorizo sausage in a skillet over medium heat, breaking up with a wooden spoon. Drain very well, and stir into the finished queso. Keep this dip warm in a fondue pot or Crock pot or a chafing dish, and stir it occasionally to keep it from separating. Serve everything with lots of tortilla chips--regular ones, blue corn tortilla chips, whole-grain, even the new flour tortilla chips, if you like.

Chile con Queso

1/2 pound fresh poblano or Anaheim chiles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup chopped white onions
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
2 cups milk or cream
2 cups grated Cheddar
1 cup grated Jack or Pepper Jack

Roast the peppers by placing them on an open gas flame, turning them frequently with tongs until all sides are charred black, about 7 to 10 minutes. Place the blackened peppers in a plastic or paper bag, and let rest until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Peel the peppers, split in half lengthwise, and discard the seeds and the stems. Roughly chop and set aside.

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cayenne. Cook, stirring, until very soft, about 6 minutes. Add the flour and stir until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chopped chilies, and cook for 1 minute. Slowly add the milk or cream and stir until thick, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the cheeses and cook, stirring, until melted and well incorporated. Remove from the heat and adjust the seasoning, to taste.

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