On Your Plate: Spicy Summer Salsas

Salsa simply translates to “sauce” in English. The sauces we Americans categorize as salsa are typically tomato-based concoctions spiced with a mixture of garlic, onions, chiles, cilantro and salt. Some versions have more ingredients. Mostly they are spicy and eaten with chips.

Salsa has become an industry. Tasty, spicy varieties line the grocery shelves. You can find the kind that will blow your top off as well as mild, sweet varieties. Anything from green, black bean and corn, pineapple or fresh chopped pico di gallo.

In a pinch, buying the jarred versions can fill a bowl for a party snack. However, making a batch from scratch will always blow the store-bought varieties out of the water.

Salsa, generally speaking, is easy to concoct. About an hour of your time, a bit of patience and a little bit of spice will bring your bowl of salsa from a thought in your mind to a snack in your bowl.

I had the opportunity to get schooled by Door County’s own salsa-making expert, Wence Martinez.

Salsa is in Wence’s blood. A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, Wence — an award-winning weaver — learned his salsa prowess in the kitchen with his mother, who ground her ingredients for salsa with mortar and pestle.

When Wence was a child, his mother would whip up a batch of salsa and handmade tortillas for a snack. Salsa was always available as a condiment in their home and they put it on everything.

Fast forward to today:  mortar and pestle have been replaced with a blender or food processor and wood fire replaced with a gas barbecue or indoor stove. The fresh flavors of Wence’s childhood are at your fingertips, and they are delicious. Don’t be afraid to get your spice on!

Wence Martinez mixes up a batch of salsa at his home in Jacksonport. Photos by Len Villano.

Fresh Tomato Salsa

6 – 8 red tomatoes

6 jalapeños or, for a spicier option, serranos (you may use a combination of both)

2 – 3 cloves of garlic

cilantro, chopped with big stems removed

½ white onion, diced

salt to taste

The most complex flavor is gained by grilling the tomatoes and chiles. If weather or time are not on your side, you can boil the tomatoes and chiles, and the salsa is still flavorful. Make the salsa in advance to give time for flavors to meld. The finished salsa keeps in the refrigerator for up to five days.

If grilling, place the raw tomatoes and peppers on a preheated hot grill. Cook until charred on the outside. The skin on both will begin to blacken and crack. Remove from heat.

If boiling, fill a pot with enough water to cover the tomatoes and chiles, and bring to a boil. Add the tomatoes and chiles. Boil until the skin cracks, about three to five minutes, and remove from water.

The next step is to make chile paste. (It’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to one month and can be used in new batches of salsa or a rub for meat or vegetables, as a dollop in a soup or chili, or with other marinades.) In a blender mix two whole garlic cloves, roasted or boiled chiles (charred skins removed), and a splash of water. Blend to a fine consistency. Add more water if the paste is too thick and set aside.

Pulse tomatoes, skin on, in a blender to a chunky consistency.

In a bowl mix the tomatoes with a handful of diced onions, chopped cilantro, two tablespoons (or more) of chile paste (the more you add, the spicier your salsa will be) and salt.

Tomatillo Salsa

8 tomatillos, husks removed (if small, use a few more)

20 dried Morita peppers (smoked, red-ripe jalapeños found at traditional Mexican grocers and online)

2 cloves garlic

Grill or boil the tomatillos. If grilling, place on a preheated hot grill. Cook until skin is charred and cracked. If boiling, add to water long enough to blanch and crack the skins, about three to five minutes. Remove from water.

Using either a comal (see below) or hot, dry cast iron skillet, roast dried peppers until the skin starts to blister. Watch closely — the skin is paper-thin and there is a fine line between toasted and burnt.

Add the toasted Morita peppers to a saucepan, cover in cold water and bring to a boil. Peppers should be covered in water throughout; add more water if necessary. Boil for five minutes.

To make the chile paste, add reconstituted Morita peppers, two garlic cloves and a half-cup of the liquid pepper to the blender. Blend to a fine consistency. Add more water if necessary. This paste is very spicy and smoky.

Blend the roasted or boiled tomatillos and a tablespoon of chile paste (the more you add, the spicier it’ll be). Salt to taste. Keeps for two weeks in the refrigerator.

Grab your favorite chips. ¡Provecho! Enjoy!


A traditional griddle or iron used in Mexican cooking. Traditionally made of clay, you can also find them constructed from cast iron. They are used in roasting and toasting peppers and making tortillas. They are sized to fit over one burner on your stove. The comal is traditionally handed down generation to generation and is a must-have kitchen utensil in Mexican and Central American cooking.

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