I can't get enough of taco night. Neither can my wife Amy or my daughters. We love it, and especially me, because I can do everything — with the exception of chopping with a knife or the food processor — on the grill. It makes for easy clean-up, and who isn't for easy clean-up?
I cut my teeth on Tex-Mex in Austin, Texas, circa 1984 (does Instagram have a filter for that?). At this point in my life I hadn't eaten that much Mexican food. For the most part it didn't exist in Indiana outside of Chi Chi's and my inner punk rocker wouldn't allow me to set foot inside any place that colorful or where the waitstaff could happily sing Happy Birthday tableside.
But in Austin it was different. In 1984, Austin was different. There were lots of secessionists, lots. It was like a landlocked version of Key West. There were tons of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. Corona beer with limes in the bottle. Limes!
It felt like a college town that wanted to party. Or maybe it had that feeling because I turned 21 on Sixth Street.
Nevertheless, when I would slide into a booth at one of the many hole-in-the-wall eateries (many of them were Spanish-speaking only), I would order as many kinds of salsa as I could point to on the menu. I didn't know this many kinds of salsa existed, or for that matter soft shell tacos, or the food love of my life, tamales.
As I ate my way around both sides of Highway 35, little did I realize I was becoming an addict, to Texas country music, chili, and to Austin itself. It was hard to come home, and once I was back in Indiana it didn't take long before I began jonesing for Texas Hill Country, salsa included.
7 tips for making grilled salsa:
1. The grill is a great way to make an old salsa recipe feel new
I couldn't even guess how many varieties of salsa there are in the world, but I do know I haven't found one yet that can't be made on the grill. I like a fresh raw salsa as much as the next person, but sometimes I like to shift the flavor and it is an easy thing to do on the grill.
2. Chile oils on your hands are not your friend
Be careful with hot chile peppers. I used to go at them in the manly man way and just tough it out, but the night I rubbed my eyes after working with Thai birds I thought a different approach might be appropriate. If you choose to go with bare naked hands in handling them, just realize you will quickly find out just how many places on your body you actually touch and how many places are very sensitive to capsaicin oils.
3. Get in touch with your inner caveman or woman
I used to put my peppers and tomatoes on the grill grate and then one day I just decided to plop them right on the coals. It sears them very quickly while leaving the interior raw — the best of both worlds. You can roast whole heads of garlic too, but they need to be left to the side of the coals so they cook and soften slowly or you will burn the cloves, which makes them bitter.
4. Liquid-y or dry, it all depends on your tomato variety
A lot of fresh tomatoes have a high liquid content. If you use too many tomatoes, your salsa will be watery, which isn't always a bad thing. If you want a thicker salsa, it is a good idea to use plum or San Marzano tomatoes.
5. The finishing touches matter
To the finished salsa I always like to add a drizzle of olive oil for mouthfeel and a splash of acid, be it lime, red wine vinegar, or whatever. Make sure you season your salsa with salt and black pepper.
6. Corn tortillas or flour can be warmed on the grill, and should be
I prefer corn tortillas over flour and my preference for cooking corn tortillas is right on the grill. They puff up and blacken in spots and become yummo-licous. Just make sure after searing them to wrap them in foil so they stay soft and don't dry out.
7. Choose your toppings accordingly
Almost every person I have ever met who hails from Central America prefers green cabbage, sliced razor thin, to lettuce for their tacos. It gets even better when you dress the cabbage with a touch of red wine vinegar and olive oil. You probably won't find a lot of sour cream or cheese on the table either. I tend to go for authentic Mexican but I like Tex-Mex too. If you want to go for healthy, grill up a bunch of vegetables to use for toppings and forgo the dairy altogether.
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups
3 or 4 roma tomatoes
1 or 2 heirloom variety tomatoes (Box Car Willies, or Wisconsin 55s are good)
3 to 4 half-inch thick slices of red onion, left intact
1 small head of garlic
1 poblano pepper or 3 jalapeños or your choice
Handful of cilantro
Drizzle of olive oil
Splash of red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld
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