These days I find myself dreaming of Puerto Vallarta and the magical four days I spent there this past February at the blissful homes of El Banco on the Punta Minta peninsula. My Espagnol may not have moved much beyond "hola" and "gracias" during that time- ordering chilaquiles from the cook was never more difficult- but my salsa making vastly improved. After my boyfriend, John, and I convinced the staff that in spite of our gringo looks our taste for spicy food was more in line with the locals, the chili factor of our meals was taken up several notches. Most delicious of all was the salsa picante courtesy of our cook, Olinka- a smoky blend of chilies de arbol, onion, garlic, tomato, powdered chicken stock, and water. This simple concoction became our go-to condiment for everything from eggs over-easy to John’s steak fajitas.
Returning back to the States the first stop was my parent’s kitchen in Hemet, California. I talked my brother Andrew through whipping up a batch of our own salsa de arbol, substituting low sodium chicken broth for the powdered version to cut down on the salt and eliminate the MSG that comes in most bullion. After her attempts at talking me through the recipe failed miserably (why again did I take French in high school?), Olinka demonstrated that the key to the salsa is blackening the dried chilies, onion, and garlic in a bit of oil over a high heat first, before blending with a cooked tomato, and the chicken stock. Andrew and I made an admirable variation, although we agreed we were too timid in the frying and will take the blackening a step further next time.
My Spanish may still be no bueno but my salsa at least no longer betrays my gringa self. And for that, Olinka, muchos gracias.
Olinka’s Salsa Picante de Arbol
Time: 30 minutes
¼ medium white onion
½ large clove garlic
5-9 chilies de arbol, whole, depending on desired level of heat
1 plum tomato
3 T. vegetable oil
2 cups low sodium chicken stock
Cut onion into two or three large pieces. No need to chop fine as it will be blended later. Peel garlic and set aside. Remove stems from chilies and discard, leaving chilies whole. Heat a small pan over high heat with enough water to come half way up the sides of the tomato. Cook the tomato in the boiling water for about five minutes until soft when squeezed with tongues. Meanwhile, heat vegetable oil in a medium sauté pan over medium high heat. Add onion, garlic and chilies to the oil. Cook for 3-5 minutes until chilies are blackened and garlic and onion are deeply browned but not burnt. Transfer chilies, onion, and garlic to a blender along with chicken stock and cooked tomato. Blend until smooth. The mixture will be runny. Return blended salsa to the frying pan used to brown the chilies and bring to simmer over medium high heat. Cook for about 10 minutes until thickened to a desired consistency for salsa. Taste and season with additional salt if desired.