August 5, 2009 7:00 AM
A True Mexican Collectible: Versatile Summertime Salsas...

When asked recently whether I was a collector of some sort, I thought of my grandmother's cabinet that holds hundreds of elephant figurines -- more than 60 years' worth, from many places. And she's still adding to the lot. So my response was no.

Then a few days later I realized that I am a collector: of foods tasted throughout my life, or at least the memories of them. This is especially true of salsas. I have countless papers scattered on my desk with notes about the names of them, the places I ate them, their ingredients, the cooks who made them and, when generously given, directions on how to re-create them.

When the mood strikes, I search to find that precise note (which may be in a coat pocket, bag or drawer). Or I sit down with eyes closed and try to remember the feel of the sauce.

When all else fails, I make one up.

If you look in my refrigerator, you will find a salsa. That is mainly because my husband is always asking for one but also because salsas can pump up the beauty and richness of any meal. To me, salsas are one of the exceptional elements of Mexican cooking: delicious, accommodating and versatile. Among the many possibilities, we eat salsas on top of rice, beans, potatoes; alongside meats, chicken, seafood and vegetables; spooned inside or outside all sorts of dishes such as tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas; scooped with a piece of toast and spooned straight from the container.

I wouldn't dare guess how many salsas there are in Mexican cooking as I am sure to be wrong, and the cuisine keeps evolving. But I can safely say that if I were to give you a different salsa to taste each month, my lifetime, however long, wouldn't give us enough time to cover the choices.

Salsas can be eaten from morning till night, and are known to be especially savored after midnight when the food stands on Mexican streets -- and some in Los Angeles, as well -- serve their secret-recipe salsas with antojos and quick dishes. The late-night crowds crave them.

Some are made with dozens of ingredients, prepared in laborious ways. Others use a few easy-to-find ingredients and can be assembled in minutes. For me, the latter sound like the perfect salsas for summer.

Three of my no-cook favorites, from my ever-growing and scattered collection, are a raw tomatillo and chipotle salsa, made lush with the addition of avocado and fresh cheese; a luxurious mango salsa with slivers of red onion, jalapeño and chopped cilantro; and a versatile, ancho chili pickled salsa, which keeps in the fridge for months.

If you are so inclined, please leave comments online about the accompanying recipes (or share with me whatever food-related things you tend to gather). I will collect them all.

This article was written for and published by The Washington Post on August 5, 2009 The Washington Post

Makes 2 cups

1 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed and cut into quarters
1 medium clove garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped white onion
Leaves and thin stems from 4 or 5 stems of cilantro, coarsely chopped (1/3 cup)
2 tablespoons sauce from canned chipotle peppers en adobo; plus 1 canned chipotle pepper (optional)
3/4 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt, or more to taste
Flesh from 1 large or 2 small avocados, cut into large dice (optional)
8 ounces queso fresco, cotija or farmers cheese, cut into large dice (optional)

Combine the tomatillo quarters, garlic, onion, cilantro, sauce from the canned chipotle chili peppers, the canned chipotle chili pepper, if desired, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Puree until smooth, then transfer to a 2-cup container with a tight-fitting lid.

At this point, the salsa can be covered and refrigerated for a day.

When ready to serve, transfer to a serving bowl; add the avocado and cheese, if desired. Toss gently to combine. Taste and adjust salt as needed.

Makes 4 1/2 cups

1/2 medium red onion, cut into very thin slivers (1/3 cup)
Juice from 2 limes (4 tablespoons)
2 1/2 pounds ripe mangoes (about 4), peeled and cut into large dice
1 large jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons, or more to taste)
Leaves from 4 stems cilantro, finely chopped (3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt, or more to taste

Combine the onion and lime juice in a mixing bowl; toss to coat and let sit for 10 minutes.

Combine the mango, jalapeno, cilantro, oil and salt in a separate mixing bowl. Add the onion-lime juice mixture when it's ready and toss to mix well. Taste and add salt or jalapeno as needed.

Makes 2 cups

3 ounces dried ancho chile peppers, preferably Orale brand
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup white distilled vinegar
1/2 cup safflower or vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt, or more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar, or more to taste

Make a slit in each dried ancho chili pepper, then remove and discard the stems, seeds and veins. Rinse the remaining peppers lightly with cold water. Use kitchen scissors to cut the peppers crosswise into thin strips and place them in a mixing bowl.

Add the onion, garlic, vinegars, oil, salt and sugar; toss to mix well. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to several months. Serve chilled or at room temperature.