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An important essay on salsas. Very useful for entertaining
on June 25, 2005
`Salsas that Cook' by renowned Chicagoan and Mexican cuisine expert, Rick Bayless is not your mama's ordinary salsa cookbook. If that is all you want, go to Mark Miller's very good `The Great Salsa Book' in the noisome Ten Speed Press tall and skinny format. Bayless' book is much more than that, and, in a sense, much less.
Bayless' agenda is very much like Ming Tsai's programme in Tsai's book, `Simply Ming' in that Bayless gives us recipes for six (6) classic Mexican salsas and then shows us how to use each of these salsas as an ingredient in several other classic Mexican dishes. While Tsai's objective was to simplify cooking by making it modular by doing intermediate preparations in advance. Each intermediate can then be used in several different dishes. While Bayless' technique is very similar, his object is rather to make authentic Mexican dishes more accessible to the average American cook.
Since this book was published in 1998, I suspect many of the Mexican ingredients Bayless says may be difficult to find have become much more common throughout the United States. In these brief seven years, I have seen a great growth of Latin American ingredients in even the most provincial of supermarkets. And, Bayless himself has contributed to this change with his own line of salsas under the `Frontera' trademark. In fact, this book may in some small way be considered a promotion for that product line, except that the book is so good in its own right that this does not concern me. Bayless, in a very gentlemanly voice, says his brand of salsas may serve in these recipes, but encourages us all to make them ourselves.
The recipes in this book are presented with a very novel and genuinely useful feature in that the quantities of ingredients are given for three different amounts of final product. I simply have never seen this outside professional baking recipes. At the very least, this is a useful feature when you just want to try out a recipe and may wish to make no more than a cup or two. If it pleases your palate, you can make the eight-cup amount for your next party.
A second major `surprise' is that none of these recipes follow the familiar chunky `pico de gallo' style. This is the first of three salsa archetypes Bayless identifies. The second is the vinegary, hot, and spicy cousin to our Louisiana hot sauces. The third is based on cooked tomatoes and tomatillos and fresh or dried chiles. All six recipes in this book belong to the third class, which Bayless considers the most versatile and is based on the widest range of flavors.
Bayless also gives some thumbnail advice on preserving and canning the salsas, but I suggest you get some expert advice on the subject before plopping this goodness into your hardware store Ball jars. Even the `Good Eats' episode on preserving and canning is scary enough about bacterial diseases to make you want to be especially careful. I would be especially careful as Bayless specifically states that he uses less than the usual amount of vinegar, which makes the recipes a bit less bug resistant. While Bayless speaks often of the now famous molcajeta, the heavy mortar of Mexican cooking, he is quite happy to see you use a blender or food processor to make these recipes.
The six salsa recipes are:
Roasted Jalapeno-Tomato Salsa with Fresh Cilantro used in seven recipes.
Roasted Poblano-Tomato Salsa with Fresh Thyme used in six recipes.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa with serranos, roasted onions and cilantro used in eight recipes.
Mellow Red Chile Salsa with sweet garlic and roasted tomatoes used in ten recipes.
Roasty Red Guajillo Salsa with tangy tomatillos and sweet garlic used in six recipes.
Chipotle-Cascabel Salsa with roasted tomatoes and tomatillos used in nine recipes.
Each recipe is enhanced with alternatives for the main chile ingredients (although I suggest you be very careful in subbing an habanero for any other chile species.) In addition to the three different columns of ingredient amounts, the procedures for all these recipes are fairly long as Bayless writes them, as his descriptions are very detailed with lots of little hints for scraping down, spreading out, and checking the taste. Even so, the procedures are pretty long even without Bayless' frequent hints. One thing I do notice is that I am certain it is Bayless who is writing these recipes, as I recognize his `chunky', slightly ungrammatical use of adjectives and adverbs I have seen in his other books.
The forty-six `used in' recipes cover Starters; Soups, Salads and Side Dishes; Egg, Vegetable and Tortilla Main Courses; and Poultry, Meat and Fish Main Courses. I certainly can't judge how authentic these recipes are, as Bayless himself is, hands down, the best expert we have for what is authentic and what is not. I also believe that if you follow Senor Bayless' instructions closely, you will be happy with the results, assuming you don't have the anti-cilantro gene or an aversion to mild to high levels of capsicum.
Almost as if there is a cookbook writer's union regulation that every cookbook must have dessert recipes; Bayless includes four desserts and two drink recipes in the last chapter. This is not quite as gratuitous as it may seem, as the recipes are specifically oriented and sized for entertaining a crowd large enough to fill your house. This fits the central point of the book that includes both small and large numbers of servings.
When I opened this book, I had the suspicion that it may have been extracted from one of Mr. Bayless' other books, but I was wrong. It does compliment his `Mexico One Plate at a Time' book in that salsas play only a very small part of that book.
This may be Bayless' most useful volume. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys cooking. Only warning is that if you want easy recipes, see Miller's book cited above.