FOOD & DRINK / How to add Mexican sauce: Pungent yet sweetly acidic, salsa fresca works well with many simple summer dishes. A guide by Geraldene Holt

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The Independent Culture
THE TERM salsa is used in both Italian and Spanish cooking to mean a sauce, which might be smooth or coarse, served raw or cooked and either hot or cold. However, the style of Mexican salsa fresca that is winning friends everywhere is a mixture of finely chopped, well flavoured raw ingredients (which typically include chilli peppers, onions and herbs - particularly coriander) seasoned and blended with fruit juice or olive oil, and served cold.

True to its name, the best salsa fresca is freshly made and served within the hour. It should be immediately tempting; its appetising aroma and zingy flavour can, I'm afraid, create impatient gluttons - many times I've prepared a dish of the sauce to accompany the main course only to find that it has all been eaten by everyone on hunks of bread while I'm preparing the rest of the meal.

Fresh salsa is splendidly versatile in making the most of a wide range of ingredients - 'they just depend, very often, on what is available,' writes Diana Kennedy in The Cuisines of Mexico. Furthermore, the sauce goes well with many different foods and dishes - the melon and coriander salsa given below is excellent with dressed crab - and not just with those from central America. Simple, unpretentious English summer food such as grilled salmon, chicken or lamb tastes marvellous partnered with an interesting herb-rich fresh salsa.

Unlike the classic sauces of French cooking, fresh salsas are quick and easy to make and one of their great attractions is their appropriateness to low-tech high-pleasure home cooking.

After years of food-processor sauce-making, what a comfort it is to return to the simple, satisfying kitchen equipment of just a sharp knife and teak chopping board (recent American research has shown that wooden chopping boards are more hygienic than plastic - and they're certainly nicer to use).

The knife must be a good one - not only is it one of the cook's most important investments but it is essential for the best results when making a salsa. I use a Sabatier steel knife with a curved 8-inch blade. A very sharp, well-balanced knife is vital for safe, effective cutting, slicing and chopping because it works well with the minimum pressure, and the blade is less likely to slip - even on an unpeeled tomato. Until recently I sharpened my knives either on a steel or on the unglazed foot of a porcelain plate, but now - on Len Deighton's advice - I've acquired a ceramic knife sharpener. I'm a convert.

The most pleasing fresh salsas depend upon a counterpoint of flavours and textures which tastes pungent yet sweetly acidic. The basic recipe for Diana Kennedy's Salsa Mexicana cruda, which I adapt to circumstances each time I make it, calls for one large, ripe, peeled beefsteak tomato, one small white onion or a couple of spring onions, up to 3 (depending on your chilli tolerance) small green seeded jalapeno chilli peppers and at least 6 sprigs of coriander leaves with salt to season and tomato juice or water to mix.

Chop each ingredient separately. The idea is to cut them into dice whose size is suited to the nature of each ingredient; a strongly flavoured chilli pepper, for instance (which incidentally, should be handled with care due to the burning effect of the chemical capsaicin on sensitive skin), is finely chopped - no larger than an eighth of an inch across - while a milder-tasting tomato or courgette is cut into bigger dice - more like a quarter-inch square. Use a very sharp knife, and even without a chef's blade-flashing pyrotechnics you should be able to cut the ingredients really neatly - their exact size is a matter of personal taste: do what seems right to you. And in order to retain their full flavour and crispness try to chop the vegetables with the minimum of bruising - the juices should remain as far as possible in the chopped vegetables and herbs and not spread all over the chopping board. But don't worry if your early salsas look a bit crude - they will still taste terrific.

Now combine the chopped ingredients in a small bowl or dish, add salt to taste and just sufficient tomato juice to make the mixture spoonable. Don't overstir or the sauce will oxidise and taste tired. Sample a spoonful; it should be just pungent enough to whet your appetite and provide a good foil to the food

it accompanies. You can add a squeeze of lime or lemon juice or a dash of sherry vinegar to sharpen the flavour if you think fit. Sometimes I like to mix in some grated fresh ginger or

a little olive oil. One of the delights of the sauce is its adaptability. Once mastered, a basic recipe for salsa fresca is capable of a hundred variations - or at least enough to last the rest of your cooking life.

ROASTED CHILLI, AVOCADO AND CUCUMBER SALSA

Serves 4-6

1-2 small green jalapeno chilli peppers

1 clove garlic, peeled

1/2 cucumber, peeled and seeded

1 ripe but firm avocado pear

1 tablespoon coriander leaves, chopped

1/4 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (optional)

3-4 tablespoons tomato juice

salt to taste

Place the chilli peppers under a hot grill or hold over a flame, turning them now and again until the skin is black and blistered. Remove from the heat and leave on a plate covered with an upturned bowl for 10 minutes. Peel the chillies, cut in half and discard the stalk, seeds and membranes, then dice finely. Chop the garlic and dice the cucumber. Peel the avocado pear and dice, cutting it a little bigger than the cucumber. Mix the vegetables with the coriander and ginger, add tomato juice to make a spoonable sauce. Season to taste with salt. Set aside for up to one hour before serving.

MELON AND CORIANDER SALSA

Serves 2-3

1/4 ripe Calla melon, peeled and seeded

2 shallots or a small onion

3 sprigs of herb fennel

2 tablespoons coriander leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

few drops of Orleanais red wine vinegar

salt to taste

Cut the melon into small dice. Finely chop the shallots and herb fennel. Cut the coriander leaves into slightly bigger pieces. Mix together with the olive oil and vinegar and season to taste with salt.

MANGO AND LIME SALSA WITH MINT

Serves 4

1 large ripe mango

1 small spring onion

1 lime

24 mint leaves

salt to taste

Stand the mango on its stalk end and cut off each fleshy cheek either side of the large flat seed. Peel all three pieces and cut the flesh into 1/4 in thick slices, then cut across into dice. Transfer the chopped mango to a shallow bowl or dish. Slice or chop the onion finely and add to the mango with the finely grated zest of half the lime and sufficient lime juice to make the mixture spoonable. Finely chop the mint and mix into the salsa with salt to season. Serve straight away or within one hour.

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