There's been a definite drop off in spray-tanned tandoori chicken wings and turgid pink tubes at the barbecues I've attended in the last couple of years. But it still seems that however carefully we blend chuck, short-rib and brisket for juicy and flavourful burgers, and no matter how attentively we hover over the grill, we're still serving everything up with the same old condiments. I'll happily slather ketchup on a common or garden "patty" like an overexcited three-year-old, but a tenderly seared piece of skirt, or a hand-crafted burger deserves better.
I'm not advocating making your own tomato ketchup; I've tried it, and, although it was objectively very tasty indeed, somehow it didn't quite hit the sugary, vinegary spot for a palate conditioned to Britain's leading brand. No, for something quick, easy and guaranteed to hit the spot with everything from what-do-you-mean-you-haven't-even-lit-it-yet? nibbles to grilled meat, seafood and vegetables, you need a salsa.
Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, the late Harrow-born, Jamaican-educated author of the masterful Complete Book of Mexican Cooking observes that, "though salsa is simply the Spanish for 'sauce' it early became attached to one particular Mexican sauce in the early days of US settlement in California" – a zingy jumble of tomato, onion, chilli, salt and acid in the form of vinegar or citrus juices. These flavours work just as well with a simply-grilled piece of meat as they do with a pulled pork taco. The origins may be Mexican, but, like ketchup, the appeal is universal.
Although there's a salsa for every occasion – smoky chipotle for strong, gamey flavours, zesty green tomatillo ones for pairing with fish or eggs – the sort to which Lambert Ortiz refers is probably the most versatile: she describes it, in the recipe that follows, as "a most useful sauce … it takes little time to make and has a fresh flavour [that] goes with eggs, steak, tortilla dishes, fish and shellfish." Which pretty much covers every base.
We say tomatoes
Rick Bayless, the Chicago chef – and Obama favourite – who's devoted his career to advancing the cause of authentic Mexican food north of the border, reckons tomatoes are "a critical ingredient in Mexican cuisine, second only to chillies" – so it makes sense that both play such a large part in this most basic of condiments. I try three different types. First up is Lambert Ortiz's salsa de jitomate, which simmers fresh tomatoes with onion and garlic until "well blended and thickened". Thanks to some seriously ripe tomatoes, and a pinch of sugar, the sauce has a richer flavour than I'd feared, but it's not the punchy, fruity condiment I'm after.
Next up is Thomasina Miers' roast tomato salsa, from Mexican Food Made Simple, which blackens the tomatoes, garlic and chillies in a searingly hot pan first. No prizes for guessing this one had a complex, slightly smoky flavour – a good one for the winter, perhaps, but with chargrilled food, something fresher is required.
Bayless' Salsa Mexicana Classica, from his book Mexican Kitchen, sounds like it might hit the spot – especially as he bills it as "Mexican cooking at its most beguiling". Finely diced tomatoes, mixed with garlic, onion, chillies and coriander, spritzed with lime juice and anointed with salt, give me just the acid hit I'm after here. He gives the option of using either plum or round tomatoes – I find the first gives a more watery, less intense flavour, so settle for the pillar-box red cherries I find treading a fine line between ripe and rotten at my nearby Turkish greengrocers.
Once I've established that this is to be a fresh tomato salsa, many of the multifarious Mexican chilli options are ruled out. It's essentially a choice between jalapeños, which Lambert Ortiz describes as "very flavourful as well as hot" and serrano, which Bayless praises for its "pure-and-simple" heat. The problem is that, although, having gingerly sampled both sorts au naturel, I prefer the more herbaceous character of the jalapeno, the ones available in this country are unpredictable in terms of heat – some are bland, some fiery.
Given that none of the ingredients in this recipe are shrinking violets, the most important thing is to find a chilli that can stand up for itself: preferably jalapeño, but if scotch bonnets or birds' eyes are all you can get hold of, they'll work just fine. (Pickled jalapeños, however, beloved in some parts of the United States, add a muddy flavour and colour to proceedings: save them for garnishing your enchiladas.)
Knowing your onions
Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz just calls for onion in her recipe, Rick Bayless for a white onion – and Delia gives a recipe using red onion, which I find too sweet. White onions are almost impossible to find in the UK, and the yellow sort is harsh when used raw: Bayless says that "despite the similarity of the two, they really are not interchangeable. Yellows have a more complex, herbal, sweeter flavour; whites are tangy and sharp with a crisp flavour and texture".
He suggests substituting salad onions when slicing onion raw over dishes as a garnish, so I give them a try in the salsa. Their fresh green tang is far better, although, as they're less hot than larger varieties, I have to add more chilli. Garlic, listed as optional by Bayless, seems to confuse the issue, but even without it, the salsa is very definitely not first date material. I experiment with his trick of "deflaming" the onion by rinsing it under cold water before using it, and then hit upon the idea of marinating it briefly in lime juice, which takes away some of its bite without diluting the flavour.
Vinegar v lime juice
Bayless gives the option of using vinegar to season the sauce, but I miss the clean, citrussy flavour of the more traditional lime juice. Wine vinegar is fine at a pinch, but malt vinegar, as suggested by Felicity Barnum Bobb in delicious. magazine, is very definitely out of place here.
Molcajete v Magimix
Thomasina Mier's recipe pounds together the ingredients with a pestle and mortar – an essential tool in the Mexican culinary armoury. Rick Bayless, although he concedes that "the juicy, elegantly textured" stuff you get from the molcajete is superior to the "pulp … from a blender or food processor that you've turned on and just let run", says that careful pulsing can yield a "decent salsa".
He's right: it's much easier to stick everything into the machine, but the result is sloppy, even when, as he suggests, I keep some of the tomatoes back to add at the end for texture. The flavours seem better mixed, somehow. However, for serving as a condiment, a simple chopped salsa is more practical than either.
This salsa is so very simple it stands or falls on the ripeness of its ingredients: sweet tomatoes, tangy spring onions, hot herbaceous chillies and aromatic coriander, all thrown into sharp relief by a zesty lime and a generous quantity of salt. The quantities of seasoning below are approximate: play around with them to suit your own taste.
3 salad onions
Juice of 1 lime
500g ripe cherry tomatoes
1-2 jalapeño or other green chillies, depending on taste
Small bunch of coriander
¼ tsp salt
Finely chop the salad onions and put them in a bowl along with the juice of ½ the lime. Chop the tomatoes into rough ½cm dice, and deseed and finely chop the chilli. Add to the bowl along with the roughly chopped coriander: you might want to add the chilli gradually, until you achieve the desired heat.
Season to taste with salt, leave to sit for half an hour, then serve – this sauce relies on freshness of flavour, so don't make it too far ahead.
Is salsa your summer sauce of choice, or is there something else that floats your barbecue boat? What do you put in yours, and what's your favourite way to serve it? (It's pretty unbeatable stirred into scrambled eggs.)