Salsa Roja — Salsas de Chile Ancho y Chile Guajillo, and a Question of Color

Salsa Roja is a classic Mexican salsa. Spooned over enchiladas, eggs, tacos — over anything where you want to see a blaze of color, and it adds a rich, complex flavor of chile. The upper left salsa is made with chile ancho, the lower right with chile guajillo, both dried chiles. In Mexico, the smallest mom and pop grocery stores to the largest supermercados carry these two common chiles, as well as many others. North of the border, you can find them on the Mexican aisle in grocery stores. If they are unavailable, look for dried New Mexico red chiles. They make a wonderful salsa.

Once you taste these salsas, and if you have an imaginative palate, maybe you will taste the flavors described in Mark Miller’s The Great Chile Book (Ten Speed Press), which describes ancho, the dried form of the fresh, green poblano chile, as having qualities of “a mild fruit flavor with tones of coffee, licorice, tobacco, dried plum and raisin, with a little woodsiness.” Guajillo is described as tasting of “green tea and stemmy flavor with berry tones. A little piney and tannic …”.

I can’t say I taste each of these flavors. I can say their unique complexity of flavors makes anything they accompany much better and richer.

Salsas made from dried chiles are so easy, I can see why Mexican housewives whip these together in a matter of minutes, sometimes for every meal. I have read that salsa in Mexico is compared to the use of ketchup north of the border. If I were Mexican, I would take umbrage at this comparison. There is no comparison.

Upper right, ancho chiles; lower left, guajillo chiles

When we visited our friends Capi and Cuka in the mountains near Mascota in the state of Jalisco (that most Mexican of Mexico’s states), I watched Cuka make salsa for a lunch of Gringa Tacos. I took notes, but I knew better than to ask her for measurements. She would have looked incredulous and shrugged her shoulders. These two salsas are made as she made them. The measurements are mine, but feel free to vary the amounts to suit your own taste.

About the question of color. Those of you with wide screens will see a band of reddish color on either side of this page. What color to select, if any, has caused me no end of angst. I’m lousy at selecting paint colors for our house. Selecting this color for Cooking in Mexico was no easier for me. I settled on a color that came close to the color of dried chiles and the color of our handmade terracotta floor tiles. But you, the reader, have never before read why I picked this color, and by itself, without that association, some of you may wonder if I was out of my mind by selecting what I call “Terracotta.” Was I? What do you think? Please tell me. Please tell me if your screen is even wide enough to see a color on the side. I may be getting worked up over nothing. If you can see it, is it OK? Does it compliment the food photos or detract? Is it enticing, or would a new reader take one look at it and be chased away? Would you rather see another color? Or no color? I await your comments and answers.*

Meantime, here is this easy, classic, wonderful chile salsa recipe that I like to call Terracotta Salsa. Use whichever dried chile you find. Other dried chiles will make great salsas, as well. Avoid dried chipotle unless you like true fire.

Salsa de Chile Ancho or de Chile Guajillo

  • 4-8 dried chiles (depending on size of chiles), ancho or guajillo (or New Mexico red)
  • large pinch of salt
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
  • about 1/4 small onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 small tomato or a few tomatillos, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml.) to 1 cup (240 ml.) hot water

Wipe chiles clean. Briefly toast in an un-oiled, heavy skillet over medium-low heat about 30 seconds per side, being careful not to scorch. If they scorch, throw them out and start again, as they will take on an unpleasant, bitter flavor. When cool enough to handle, remove stem, stringy veins and some or most of the seeds. If you like your salsa on the hot side, leave seeds in.

Put chiles and other ingredients, except water, in a blender and process until everything is roughly chopped. Don’t worry if there are still large pieces of chile. Add 1/2 cup of hot water and process until smooth, adding more water if necessary for a spoonable consistency. The salsa should not be so smooth that there are no pieces of chile. This salsa benefits from texture.

Heat skillet with about a tablespoon of mild vegetable oil — I used avocado oil. Add salsa to skillet when oil is hot. It should spit and bubble. Stand back and stir to calm the salsa. Simmer for about three minutes. Adjust salt to taste. May be refrigerated for a few days.

Russ took one look at the salsas and added both to his Cuban Longaniza sausage on a bolillo. More on this wonderful sausage from Carnes del Mundo in the near future.

The salsa colors are brilliant. I’m not so sure about the page color on the sides. I look forward to your verdict.

*Postscript: In September I changed to a different layout, one that does not offer background colors, so this question of color became a moot point. Thank you to everyone who offered their opinion. I hope you enjoy the new blog design.

Notes:

When selecting dried chiles, look for those that have a bright color, are still somewhat flexible and have a good aroma. Discard any with insect damage.

Chile ancho is also known as chile tener in the Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco. This name was given to me when I participated in making tamales in Nayarit.

In From My Mexican Kitchen, Diana Kennedy includes a recipe for salsa de chile costeño, the ingredients of which are only chiles, garlic, salt and water. She describes this salsa as having an acquired taste, but being a favorite of hers. Her recipe shows how simple it is to make any salsa with dried chiles: a slight toasting, then processed in a blender, adding enough water for consistency, and salt to taste. Onion, tomatoes, tomatillos, and oregano are optional.

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