The kaleidoscope of tomatoes and peppers now in season offers an almost unlimited color palette for making salsa.
And on the flavor side, the huge range of heirloom and standard tomatoes lets you go from expected to subtle to sweeter, with all kinds of tart or acidic or fruity notes to be found. Peppers range from all fruit and no heat in simple bell peppers to the incendiary habanero, which enflames a salsa called Dog’s Nose — so named, some say, because yours will be wet, too, after a single tiny bite.
(There’s an even hotter pepper, the Bhut Jolokia, which is also known as a “ghost” because that sounds so much better than “this might kill you if you eat it.” Use it at your own risk.)
The four recipes provided here illustrate a variety of styles of uncooked salsas: simple Pico de Gallo; sweet fruitiness in Spicy Peach Salsa; unexpected peppery flavors from arugula and mustard greens in Pretty ‘n’ Peppery Salsa; and a daring level of fire in the Dog’s Nose Salsa, which is also known by the Mayan words for dog’s nose, Xni Pec (SHNEE-pec).
Use the recipes as is, or do a little experimenting by swapping out tomatoes, peppers or other ingredients to achieve different looks or flavors. And if you’re feeling really creative, use our brief list of suggestions for making your own salsa from the ground up.
Invent your own salsa recipe
When developing a salsa recipe, try to achieve balance among these elements:
Color: The huge variety of heirloom tomatoes and peppers now available provide a nearly unlimited palette.
Heat: Check the table to see where chiles rank on the Scoville scale, which measures heat. You can also add heat with hot sauces or ground spices. For chile flavor without much heat, use ground spice mixes.
Sweetness: Sweet flavors can moderate hot ingredients. Sweetness can come from expected sources, such as fruit, but also unexpected sources such as balsamic or other sweet vinegars, or even from the “fruity” flavors of the peppers themselves.
Acidity: In addition to its role in balancing the other elements, acidity — from vinegar, many fruit juices, slices of whole citrus fruits and other sources — can amplify the other ingredients’ flavors.
Aromatics: These will often be contributed by herbs, with cilantro a prime example. You can also use cumin, rosemary or another favorite herb, or an exotic element such as coffee.
Texture: Complementary or contrasting textures can add interest to a salsa. Corn, apples, pears and nuts are some examples of crunchy ingredients that can enhance smooth-textured salsas.
Hot, hotter and hottest
The heat of various chiles is measured in units on the Scoville scale, developed in 1912 by pharmacologist Wilbur L. Scoville. Here are estimates of how some common chiles measure up (ranges will vary based on growing regions and seasonal factors):
500,000-1,000,000+: Bhut Jolokia (ghost)
100,000 to 500,000: habanero, Scotch bonnet, African birdseye
50,000 to 100,000: Thai, chiltepin
30,000 to 50,000: aji Amarillo, piquin, cayenne
15,000 to 30,000: de arbol
5,000 to 15,000: hot wax, serrano
2,500 to 5,000: jalapeño, mirasol, chipotle
1,000 to 2,500: ancho, pasilla, Espanola, Anaheim, poblano
100 to 500: Mexi-bell, cherry, canned green chiles, Hungarian hot paprika
0 units:: bell peppers, pimiento, sweet banana, U.S. paprika
Pretty ‘n’ peppery salsa
Yield: About 1 ¾ cups
1 yellow tomato, seeded and diced
1 red tomato, seeded and diced
1 green tomato, seeded and diced
¼ cup finely sliced mustard greens
¼ cup baby arugula
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Thoroughly combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.
Per tablespoon: 8 calories; 0.5g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 1g carbohydrate; 0.5g sugar; no fiber; 25mg sodium; 5mg calcium.
Adapted from “The Great Salsa Book,” by Mark Miller (Ten Speed Press, 1994)
Spicy peach salsa
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
1 ½ cups peaches cut into small cubes
¼ medium red onion, cut into small cubes
¼ yellow, red or orange bell pepper, cut into small cubes
1 jalapeño or other similar-size hot chile, cored, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice or rice vinegar
½ teaspoon ground cumin or chili powder, optional
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.
2. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Per serving (based on 5): 25 calories; no fat; 1g protein; 6g carbohydrate; 4g sugar; 1g fiber; 20mg sodium; 7mg calcium.
Adapted from “Fine Cooking Fresh” (Taunton Press, 2009)
Pico de gallo
Yield: About 1 ½ cups
¼ cup coarsely chopped white onion
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
3 fresh serrano or 2 jalapeño chiles, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 ½ ripe medium tomatoes, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Put onion, cilantro and chiles in a food processor; pulse until very finely chopped.
2. Transfer mixture to a bowl and stir in tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Per tablespoon: 3 calories; no fat; no protein; 0.5g carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 10mg sodium; 2mg calcium.
Adapted from “Fine Cooking Fresh” (Taunton Press, 2009)
Dog’s nose salsa (Xni Pec)
Yield: About 2 ½ cups
1 to 4 habanero or Scotch bonnet chiles, stemmed and finely chopped (see note)
2 medium red tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch cubes, with juices
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Taste, adding more lime juice if needed.
Per serving (based on 6): 24 calories; no fat; 1g protein; 5g carbohydrate; 5mg sodium.
Note: This fiery salsa originated in the Yucatán. Xni Pec, a Mayan term, is pronounced “SHNEE-pek. For a slightly milder salsa, seed the chiles.
Adapted from “Bold&Healthy Flavors,” by Steven Raichlen (Black Dog&Leventhal, 2010)