They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s certainly true for this little recipe. Not because of pandemic and quarantine — though, to be sure, we’ve made more frequent batches of this as the weeks have worn on, what with the glut of canned tomatoes stockpiled in the pantry.
But actually, this Tex-Mex salsa recipe has been a stalwart in our household for many years now, conceived one weekend when I wanted to make migas for brunch (another Tex-Mex staple you must try!), and we found ourselves without any store bought salsa.
“I could just make us a quick salsa,” I said to Joe.
“We have canned tomatoes, seasonings, onion, cilantro. It should be pretty good.”
“Ugh,” he replied, familiar only with the fresh, chunkier salsas I’d made in the past, like pico de gallo, “Won’t it taste like ketchup?”
“KETCHUP?!” I looked at him, half insulted, “No! All the salsas I ate at Tex-Mex restaurants growing up used canned tomatoes and they were delicious.”
And were they ever. The long-gone local spot my mom and I would frequent, Las Colinas, was home to a spicy pureed salsa, rooted in a heavy dose of fresh black pepper and laced with jalapeños. Though California has shown me some seriously good salsas (and Mexican food in general), in the past two decades, I’ve still never found anywhere that makes the tomato-forward, peppery salsas I remember from my childhood. And when I talk to other transplants, they agree—these types of Tex-Mex salsas are a lot harder to find here.
You can come close—San Francisco’s Tacolicious makes a version that has the texture right, but adds mint. It works, but is not what you need for say, breakfast tacos. And it’s certainly non-traditional. Add mint to a salsa like this in Texas and there’d probably be a mutiny.
So flashback to that Migas-inspired weekend, and a few pulses of the food processor later, I asked Joe to taste the salsa. One bite, and he looked at me like I’d committed the deepest, darkest betrayal of our relationship.
“You know chips and salsa are my absolute favorite thing in the world,” he said, taking another big scoop with a chip, “How could you not have told me you can make salsa this good? This is better than the store bought stuff.”
It remains among my proudest culinary achievements (haha!).
Since then, I’ve further tweaked the recipe, playing with the balance of acid and heat, experimenting with different types of onions, and I can say after a lot of testing, for us, this is IT. This salsa is awesome with tortilla chips, but equally at home spooned over scrambled eggs, or into a Tex-Mex style breakfast taco (egg/potato/cheese for the win!). It plays especially well with anything in a flour tortilla—something about the round sweetness of the flour works really well with the tomatoes and the piquant, raw onion and garlic.
I hope you like it. And if you’re from Texas, and have similar memories of this style of salsa…I beg of you, be kind. I know as well as any Texas-raised girl that salsa is an extremely personal, very important thing, with belief systems running deep. I only hope this one can do your memories justice!
Joe’s Favorite Salsa
Makes 2.5 cups
As with most of my recipes, this one is very flexible. Like it spicier? Add more Tabasco and jalapeño. Like it more piquant and garlicky? Add more onion and garlic. The main thing to look out for is ensuring your tomatoes are properly drained, so the salsa is not watery. You also do not want to over-process the salsa, lest you end up with gazpacho.
I have tried this recipe with both red and yellow onion, and find white onion produces a flavor most similar to what I remember as a child. I also strongly recommend the use of white wine vinegar, versus red wine or any other acid, as its mild flavor lets the rest of the ingredients shine through. Do not substitute with lime!
And when prepping, don’t worry so much about perfectly dicing the vegetables. The food processor will do the work for you. Roughly chopping them just ensures a more even distribution more quickly, since we don’t fully puree this salsa.
- 1-28oz can diced tomatoes (I often buy the Muir Glen, no salt added variety)
- 3 medium-large cloves of garlic, peeled, tough root end trimmed, and rough chopped (yields about 2 tbsp garlic)
- 1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves (If you are iffy on cilantro, start with less, and you can add more. Avoid using too many stems, as this will make the salsa bitter.)
- 1 small white onion, peeled, root trimmed, and rough chopped (yields about 1 cup rough chopped onion)
- 1 large jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and rough chopped (if you are sensitive to spice, use a smaller jalapeño, and be sure all white parts are removed)
- 1/4 tsp dried chipotle powder (I use the one from Simply Organic)
- 3/4 tsp Tabasco sauce, more to taste
- 1 tsp Kosher salt, more to taste
- 1 tsp, or about 20 grinds of freshly ground black pepper, more to taste
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar, more to taste (depending on the sweetness of your tomatoes)
1. Set a fine mesh strainer over a bowl or measuring cup. Empty the canned tomatoes and their liquid into the strainer, and allow the liquid to drain while you prep the other ingredients, about 5-10 minutes. Reserve the liquid, and set aside.
2. In a food processor, add the garlic, cilantro, onion, and jalapeño. Add in the drained tomatoes, then add the Tabasco, salt, pepper, vinegar, and chipotle powder. Pulse the mixture several times to chop and combine the ingredients, but do not fully blend (i.e., leave the machine on and running), as this will create too smooth of a puree.
3. Remove the lid, and scrape the sides of the processor to re-incorporate any larger chunks of vegetable. Pulse again a few times, until the mixture has the consistency of salsa. If needed, add some of the reserved tomato liquid — depending on how long I have drained the tomatoes, I may add anywhere from 1 to 2 tbsp. Pulse a couple more times, then taste for seasoning based on your preferences. Depending on the sweetness of the tomatoes, you may need to add more salt, Tabasco, vinegar, or herbs, to balance the flavor with acidity and seasoning.
4. This salsa can be eaten immediately, but the flavors will develop and get better over the course of a few hours. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Serve with chips, eggs, migas, tacos, fajitas, queso, anything you’d like!