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      RECIPE TITLE "Essential Chopped Tomato-Serrano Salsa (Salsa Mexicana Clásica) "
    Recipe from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant flavors of a World-Class Cuisine  by Rick Bayless

    ... more great recipes by Rick Bayless on our GREAT CHEFS page!

    yields makes 2 cups difficultyeasy

    The tenderness of ripe tomato against the crunch of raw onion, the tap dance of serranos backed up by aromatic cilantro, garlic and lime -- this is Mexican cooking at its most beguiling.

    Of course, Salsa Mexicana is best when each ingredient is perfect -- from warm, just-picked tomatoes to green-tops-on white onions -- but don't miss the pleasure of this salsa even when the tomatoes are less than perfect. Chop everything with a sharp knife so nothing gets bruised and finely enough that the flavors really meld. Make your salsa within an hour or so of serving for great texture and vibrant flavors.


      RECIPE INGREDIENTS

    12 ounces (2 medium-small round or 4 or 5 plum) ripe tomatoes
    Fresh serrano chiles to taste (roughly 3 to 5, 1/2 to 1 ounce total, or even more if you like it really picante), stemmed
    A dozen or so large sprigs of cilantro
    1 large garlic clove, peeled and very finely chopped (optional)
    1 small (4-ounce) white onion
    1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
    Salt, about 3/4 teaspoon

      RECIPE METHOD

    Core the tomatoes, then cut in half widthwise and squeeze out the seeds if you wish (it will give the sauce a less rustic appearance). Finely dice the flesh by slicing it into roughly 1/4-inch thick pieces, then cutting each slice into small dice. Scoop into a bowl.

    Cut the chiles in half lengthwise (wear gloves if your hands are sensitive to their piquancy) and scrape out the seeds if you wish (not only will this make the salsa seem less rustic, but it will make it a little less picante). Chop the chiles as finely as you can, then add them to the tomatoes. Carefully bunch up the cilantro sprigs, and, with a sharp knife, slice them 1/16, inch thick, stems and all, working from the leafy end toward the stems. Scoop into the tomato mixture along with the optional garlic. Next, finely dice the onion with a knife, scoop it into a small strainer, then rinse it under cold water. Shake to remove excess water and add to the tomato mixture. Taste and season with lime juice and salt, and let stand a few minutes for the flavors to meld.

    Advance Preparation -- This salsa tastes best within a few hours of the time it's made, though if using as the base of a cooked dish you can make it early in the day.

    Other Chiles You Can Use -- Three to five jalapeños can be substituted for serranos, as can habaneros, though in the last case you'll want to use just 1/2 to 1 chile.

    Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

    Guacamole; Roasted Cactus Salad; Classic Seviche Tostadas; Mexican Rice Supper; Deluxe Scrambled Eggs; Shrimp a la Mexicana

    Simple Ideas from My American Home

    Great Summer Supper -- When you're making the salsa, chop an extra 2 garlic cloves and 2 serranos and mix them with 2 or 3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce and a little grated lime zest. Use this mixture to marinate about 1 1/4 pounds of trimmed skirt steak (to serve 4) for an hour, then charcoal-grill and serve with a liberal sprinkling of the salsa.

    Simple Confetti Pasta -- Make the salsa without the lime juice. Boil 12 ounces of fresh pasta for 4 people until al dente, drain, return to the pan and drizzle on a little olive oil. Mix in the salsa, tossing until everything is warm, then divide onto plates and sprinkle with finely crumbled Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan and chopped cilantro.

    A Different Potato Salad -- Cube a pound of boiling potatoes and boil in salted water until just tender. Drain, and, while hot, gently toss with olive oil and a little mellow vinegar. When cool, gently stir in about a cup of the salsa and more cilantro if you like.

    Fresh Serrano Chiles

    In the workaday world of my kitchen (restaurant or home), fresh serranos are indispensable. They're hot and intense with a pure-and-simple flavor that only can be described as "green chile," unless of course they've matured to a sweeter -- but still hot -- red. Many Americans know instinctively to chop up serranos to add zing to a dish, yet few of us think of pickling them. We should, since just about anywhere jalapeño is appropriate, so is a serrano, especially if you like spiciness and bold flavors. And keep in mind that a serrano is more predictably hot than a jalapeño. It is certainly more beloved in Mexico, where most people call it simply chile verde, "green chile."

    The compact texture of a serrano's raw flesh is compact in flavor, too: green apples and raw green beans mixed with a sharp heat and what I think of as the perfect, bright-green, almost limey, green-chile flavor that lingers with hints of olive oil and cilantro.

    Stats: An average serrano is the color of a green bell pepper with some ripening to yellow or red. There are about 6 to an ounce, each 1 1/2 to 2 inches long by about 1/2 inch wide, having a bullet-shaped body, with rounded shoulders that tapers to a point near the end.

    Tomatoes

    Great tomatoes are a critical ingredient in Mexican cuisine, second only to chiles. So what do you do when it's winter, you want to make great Mexican food and you live in St. Louis? Well, the situation has improved. Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico, ships crates of plum tomatoes our way during the winter months. Though they're picked pretty green and gassed to ripen, they are certainly okay in cooked sauces. In fact, if you let the tomatoes ripen on the counter, and never refrigerate them unless they're so ripe they'll spoil, the sauce will be quite good.

    Plum tomatoes (called tomates guajes or jitomates guajes in much of Mexico) work well in cooked sauces because they have a pulpier, less juicy texture that cooks up rich and thick. For chopping raw or for roasting and crushing into a salsa, I prefer the juicy texture of round tomatoes (called tomate or jitomate with or without the adjective redondo). Cherry tomatoes taste riper than round tomatoes in off-peak months, but their skins are tough in salsas; the small round hothouse varieties (especially those imported on the vine) are a better, though expensive, option.

    Bottom line: Ripeness is more important than shape, and by "ripe" understand that I mean "very ripe, soft ripe, riper than you'd usually think of as ripe." For cooked sauces, canned tomatoes (preferably plums) may be substituted for fresh (a 28-ounce can is equivalent to 1 1/2 pounds fresh), though you're sacrificing some texture and all the flavor you'd get from roasting the tomatoes.

    At farmer's markets, look for a high-acid tomato if you want your dishes to really sing. I love an heirloom variety they sell in Chicago called costoluto. It's very similar to a deeply fluted tomato folks seem to like so much in Oaxaca -- medium pulpy and good both for cooking and eating raw. I highly recommend roasting and peeling tots of late-summer ripe tomatoes to freeze for the winter.

    Stats: An average plum tomato weighs 2 to 3 ounces, a medium-small round weighs 6 ounces, a medium-large weighs 8 ounces, and a large weighs 10 ounces.



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