Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was, arguably, the greatest classical composer, if not of his time then of all time.
There is also one undeniable fact about much of Mozart’s music: Just about every piece contained variations on a theme. If you are unfamiliar with this term, it means simply that there are repetitions of notes and tonal patterns throughout each composition. It gives a sense of unity to the overall piece. Other composers, notably Beethoven, are known as well for their variations on themes.
So what does that have to do with salsa?
To answer my own question, it’s that there can be more to salsa than tomatoes. But most have a number of ingredients in common. A basic tomato-based salsa contains a heat source (usually jalapeño peppers), cilantro, onion (I prefer red), salt and pepper and that’s it. Some versions have garlic, some have olive oil. (FYI: salsa is Spanish for sauce.)
Remove the tomatoes and substitute mangoes, for instance, and you’ve got a salsa that oozes tropical sweetness. Mango salsa was all the rage in many high end restaurants a few years ago.
Fresh berries can bring about the same thing – (here comes another Mozart reference) a symphony of sensation in the mouth when sweet and spicy combine. I think the only fruit that doesn’t work as a base for salsa is banana. And sometimes it pays to eliminate the cilantro.
While it’s true that salsa is most frequently eaten with tortilla chips, it is a fantastic accompaniment to almost any kind of meat you can think of. In fact, salsa now outsells ketchup and has become America’s best-selling condiment.
In a previous column, I advocated that you try curry sauce as the dip for French fries instead of ketchup. As a gourmand and omnivore, I like my fries with curry sauce, ketchup or salsa. I’ve also discovered that I am equally satisfied putting salsa on a burger instead of ketchup.
I use blueberry salsa as an accompaniment to grilled pork chops. I use tomatillo salsa to accompany pecan-crusted pork tenderloin. I use apple salsa with cornmeal pancakes. You get the idea.
Become a Mozart in your kitchen and experiment with salsas. Be experimental. Get creative and go with variations on a theme. To get you started, here’s one of my favorite meat and salsa combinations, the aforementioned Pecan-crusted Pork Tenderloin with Tomatillo Salsa.
For the pork:
2 1-lb. pork tenderloins
½ cup finely chopped pecans
½ cup dry breadcrumbs
2 tsp. dried thyme
4 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
For the Tomatillo Salsa:
¾ lb. tomatillos*, husks removed, rinsed and quartered
½ cup coarsely chopped Granny Smith
apple (skin on)
1 small jalapeño, seeded and diced
2 Tbsp. fresh basil, torn
2 Tbsp. fresh mint, torn
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Salt and pepper the tenderloins. Combine pecans, breadcrumbs, and thyme in a shallow dish. Spread mustard over pork tenderloins and roll in pecan mixture, pressing it into the pork.
Place tenderloins in a shallow roasting pan and bake for about 20 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads 140 degrees. Pork should be slightly pink. Let stand at least five minutes before slicing and the carryover cooking time will increase the internal temperature to 145 degrees.
To make the salsa, chop tomatillos, apple, jalapeño, basil and mint in a food processor and season to taste with salt and pepper. Top the pork with the salsa.
*A tomatillo is not a “Mexican tomato.” It is actually a member of the gooseberry family.
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