Eats: Viva la salsa! Four area restaurants sauce it up for Cinco De Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo is Spanish for the “5th of May.” Originally meant to celebrate a Mexican war victory in 1862, the holiday has since evolved into a festive U.S. celebration of Mexican culture and heritage.

The most basic, and possibly the most important, food item in any good Cinco de Mayo celebration is the salsa. In Spanish, “salsa” means “sauce.” Most often uncooked, salsa can take on many forms and names. A common type is salsa fresco (or cruda) — a raw mixture, the key ingredients being chopped tomato, jalapenos (or other spicy pepper) and spices. These fresh sauces can be served as a condiment with Mexican meals or grilled meats, or used as chip dips. If desired, salsa can be pureed until smooth, left semi-chunky or diced uniformly as in pico de gallo, which is always fresh, never cooked.

In case you haven’t noticed, salsa is popular! In 1991, salsa sales surpassed ketchup as the top-selling condiment in the U.S. in total dollar sales. Compared to ketchup, salsa generally contains no added sugar. Low in calories, salsa contains little to no fat. Tomatoes, chiles and cilantro contain vitamins A and C; tomatoes also have potassium.

To help you with your celebration of Cinco De Mayo and salsa, I spent the last two weeks visiting a few Mexican restaurants in town. It was quite the challenging assignment, really, what with all those fabulous meals I “had” to order. And never mind all the fun and friendly people I met. (But please, it would be best to save the margarita discussion for another day).

Although most restaurants like to keep their mainstay salsa recipes under lock and key, the local ones I visited were more than happy to share some favorite variations.

Pedro O’Hara’s Pineapple Salsa:

Bill Welch, one of the owners of Pedro O’Hara’s on Main Street, Lewiston, said “Salsa needs to be fresh. We make it every day.” Their standard tomato salsa is called Pedro’s Perfect Salsa. “We get a lot of compliments on it.”

Welch shared a Pedro’s specialty salsa they typically serve with meal specials during the summer. “It’s a recipe that we have used during special events and it’s a real nice change of pace,” Welch said. Pineapple replaces the usual tomato. “It’s real fruity,” he said, “And tangy!” He said it can be used in place of a traditional chip-dipping salsa or as a side dish or condiment.

Welch pointed out successful chip-dipping is not just about the salsa, saying “you also need to have a good chip.” They prefer to serve their chips warm. For readers willing to try their hand at making their own tortilla chips, he suggested it’s rather easy: Take a few high-quality corn tortillas, cut them into triangles and cook until crispy and slightly golden in a deep fryer or fry pan of hot oil. They should only take a couple of minutes to cook if the oil is hot enough. Sprinkle with salt. He did share the Pedro’s chip secret: They also sprinkle their chips with a little black pepper and garlic salt. Chip perfection!

1 cup finely chopped pineapple

2 tablespoons finely chopped purple onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion

1 tablespoon finely chopped red bell pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon honey

Dash of ground red pepper and cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons of finely chopped jalapeno pepper

2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Combine all ingredients, refrigerate prior to serving for an hour or more to blend flavors.

Margarita’s Corn Salsa

Margarita’s sells its basic salsa by the pint at the restaurant on Center Street in Auburn and also in the deli department at Hannaford stores. All hand made at the restaurant every day. They make salsa casera, which is chunky and not too spicy, for almost half of their dishes. Manager Jamie Perrin said it is more like pico de gallo. To shake things up, cook Tina Bonowitz gave us the recipe for their corn salsa. “It’s a quick recipe to make,” she said. Watch her make a batch at www.sunjournal.com. Perrin said even that though it has jalapenos in it, “it isn’t super spicy, and it goes with everything.” They typically serve it with their black bean enchiladas, shrimp quesadillas and fish tacos. It can also be ordered as a side to compliment any meal.

6-1/2 cups frozen sweet roasted corn (1 package)

1 or 2 jalapenos

1 cup whole red pepper, diced

3 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed

1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder

1 teaspoon chili powder

Thaw corn under cold running water, drain well. Add to large mixing bowl. Blacken jalapenos on the grill. Remove stem. Chop pepper — blackened skin, seeds and all. Measure 4 tablespoons of minced, blackened jalapenos. Add to mixing bowl. Add remaining prepped items to bowl. Mix well with a spatula. Transfer into a two-quart container, cover and refrigerate. Best to use within two days.

South of the Border: Home-made tomato salsa

“This recipe is similar to the one I use at the restaurant, but not quite the same,” said Joanne Teacutter, owner of South of the Border on Sabattus Street in Lewiston. “I purchased the business in 2000 and created the current salsa recipe, which we sell by the pint and half-pint, in addition to serving it as an appetizer. We have been in business for 40 years now,” she said. “The recipes have been passed down through the owners and the locals have made it clear they did not want them to change.”

Teacutter buys her vegetables from local suppliers. She suggested if your tomatoes are not quite red enough, you could add a small amount of canned diced tomatoes to give the salsa a richer red color. 

2 cups chopped tomatoes

3/4 cup chopped onions

1/8 cup chopped jalapenos

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoon fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

Combine all ingredients. This basic recipe can be modified according to taste. To add more heat, add more jalapenos. Corn or black beans could be added if desired.

Two from Hacienda El Patron

Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, owner William Fuentes started off in the restaurant business when he was 14, working as a dishwasher at his parents’ restaurant. He later gravitated toward cooking, and has been making salsa ever since. He and chef Antonio Adam decided to share two salsas with us, because it was difficult to decide which one readers might like best. The first is raw, sweet and barely spicy, while the other is cooked and has a little more kick. For die-hard hot-sauce enthusiasts, I recommend you ask for a side order of their tomatilla sauce. Made with red chile peppers, it might knock your socks off. El Patron is located on Lisbon Street, near Sear’s, in Lewiston.

Mango/Tomato Salsa

1 cup fresh mango, cut into chunks

1 cup chopped tomato

Sprinkle of salt (to taste)

1 tablespoon Liquid Garlic

Sprinkle of black pepper

2 tablespoons minced onions (or more, according to your preference)

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons of liquid (juice) from canned jalapeno peppers (utilize the peppers in another dish or recipe)

Put in blender and mix very slightly, just enough to blend. Leave slightly chunky. Serve with chips or as a condiment.

Salsa Verde (also known as “green sauce”)

3 fresh jalapenos, coarsely chopped

1 bunch of fresh cilantro, divided in two

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 chicken bouillon cube

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup canned tomatillos, drained

2-3 tablespoons raw minced onion

Coarsely chop one half of the cilantro. Mix with jalapenos, garlic, bouillon and salt in a saucepan, and simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Put in a blender with the tomatillos, and blend well. Stir in the minced onion and the other half of the cilantro, diced. Can be served warm or cold. (Note: Fuentes said if you cannot find canned tomatillos or prefer to use fresh, they need to be added at the beginning and cooked with the other ingredients.)

— South of the Border will offer an enchilada special (two enchiladas with beans or rice for $5.45) and special pricing on Coronas. “Our enchiladas are our most popular dish. I make my own corn tortillas every morning!” said owner Joanne Teacutter.

— Margaritas will have fun activities, prices and collectible give-aways throughout the night.

— At Pedro O’Hara’s, all Mexican dishes will be on special along with special prices on Mexican beers, both on tap and bottles. They will also have pinatas, face painting, Mexican dancing and a coloring contest for children.

— Hacienda El Patron will offer beer and margarita specials, give-aways and plans to have live music.

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