Salsas are great ingredients, going far beyond the simple chip-dip application that most of them see most of the time. Besides being an excellent condiment, most salsas are a flavor-packed base for delicious Tex-Mex-(or Mexican)-style stews. Here are four great options in one recipe, and they work quite interchangeably because of the operative ingredient in all cases being the salsa base.
Of course, choosing to use salsa as a braising base requires that you pick an absolutely fantastic salsa to begin with, like SilverStar salsas, available in the Mexican and specialty foods section in Knoxville-area Kroger stores. Another important point is that most really good salsas don’t have a high enough liquids-to-solids ratio to make a braising liquid on their own. A bit of stock, beer, wine, or water can help ease that and keep your liquids from drying out too quickly.
Since the following recipe calls for two choices in salsa, be sure to pick coordinating ingredients appropriately. While staple ingredients like onion, garlic, oregano, black pepper, and cumin play well with everything, the basic idea for other seasonings should be “red-with-red and green-with-green.” Primarily, this translates to using green fire-roasted jalapenos in green sauce and chipotle or dried New Mexican red peppers in red (substitute or add the appropriate gourmet pepper flakes or use green or red hot sauces as well). Also, to preserve the wonderful color of the salsa, light-colored stocks are preferred to dark brown stocks for this recipe if they are used.
The format for the recipes below is designed around making green Mexican stew, chile verde, as in the picture, and in square brackets are the substitutions to make it red instead, often called chile colorado – which usually signifies another delicious sauce – or less frequently chile rojo, although since the recommended salsa is a ranchero salsa, the red sauce is for chile ranchero (rancher’s chili-pepper stew). For clarity, it will be redundantly labeled where necessary. The option to include or not include egg works particularly well with these stews made with beef, but not as well with pork (though it’s still good that way).
Recipes: Braised beef or pork in chile verde (or chile ranchero), optionally with egg (con huevos).
- 1 1/2 – 2 pounds of beef or pork roast, cut into two-inch chunks;
- 1 16 oz. jar SilverStar (or comparable quality) green salsa [use ranchero salsa for chile ranchero];
- 1/2 jar (8 oz.) stock (beef, pork, chicken, of vegetable), light Mexican beer, herb-forward white wine like sauvingnon blanc, or water;
- 1 medium sweet onion, chopped (rec: halved and sliced thinly, large dice, or maintain large pieces for more interesting texture by simply cutting the onion into eighths through the center);
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped;
- 1 tsp. whole cumin seeds (substitute ground cumin seeds);
- 1 14.5 oz. can (or equivalent) prepared black beans, rinsed well;
- 1-3 (by taste, these are very hot) fire-roasted (see below) jalapeno or serrano chiles, peeled, seeded, and chopped (retain seeds for even more heat and texture) [use 1-3 chipotle peppers canned in adobo sauce – with some of the sauce – or 1-3 New Mexican red chiles (or a blend thereof) for chile ranchero];
- 2-3 bay leaves;
- 1 tbsp. dried oregano or two long sprigs fresh oregano, chopped;
- 1-2 tbsp. apple cider or white wine vinegar [use red wine vinegar for chile ranchero];
- Salt, pepper, chile flakes, and hot sauce (appropriately colored) to taste;
- Oil for cooking.
- Optional, with beef: 2 eggs, scrambled with salt and black pepper.
- Prepare the onion, garlic, and meat.
- In a heavy pot (with a lid) or dutch oven, heat a little oil over medium-high heat and lightly season the chunks of meat with salt, pepper, and a bit of ground cumin. Sear the meat in the pan, getting at least two sides of each piece browned well. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.
- Add the onion and a touch more oil to the pan, and try to scrub up as many of the gramines (cooked-on meat bits) as possible. When the onions are just getting soft, add the garlic, cumin, and bay leaves and try to keep everything moving for 1-2 minutes.
- Add the salsa, additional liquid of choice (beer, wine, stock, water), chiles, salt, pepper, and vinegar to the pan and take a moment to scrub the bottom of the pan with a spoon or spatula to get up even more flavorful gramines. Soon after, add the meat, wiggling it down into the liquid. The liquid should come about halfway up the meat or a bit more. If it doesn’t, consider adding more liquid (either more salsa, more additional liquid, or both).
- Once the liquid comes up to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pot entirely. Check on it and stir a little every 15-20 minutes as it cooks for about an hour and a half to two hours. Add more liquid of any kind if it appears very dry (making more of a sizzling sound than a bubbling one).
- Remove the bay leaves and meat from the pan after it finishes cooking to the point of being very tender. Add the oregano, black beans, and, if desired, hot sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning if necessary. When the meat has cooled just enough to handle it, tear or cut it into bite-sized chunks and add it back into the pan (as well as the eggs, if included, which you can scramble quickly while the meat cools). Mix everything well and let it simmer until the black beans have warmed through and the oregano has infused (approximately 5 more minutes).
- Serve hot with tortillas, over rice (shown), over jalapeno or chipotle cornbread. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream, some freshly chopped cilantro or cilantro leaves, finely diced onion, or your favorite other Mexican-style garnishes.
How to flame-roast fresh chiles for peeling: You will need an open flame for this, so if you don’t have a gas stove or grill, building a little fire (in a grill or fire pit) is just about the best option. This can also be done under the broiler in your oven. The process (over a fire) is simply to skewer the pepper (forks work well) near the stem and then hold it in the flame. It will pop and crackle and eventually, the waxy exterior skin will turn black. Slowly turn the pepper around until as much of the outer surface of the pepper is charred as can be managed (do one side up and then the other in the broiler, though results aren’t as thorough as with an open flame). Once the entire exterior is blackened, place the pepper carefully (it can be very hot) inside a paper bag or under a bowl or glass so that it can cook a little further in its own steam (inside the pepper). After 5 minutes or so, the black, charred skin wipes away easily, particularly under cold running water. Note: a small culinary propane or butane torch (e.g. for making creme brulee) can work for this process, but it takes exceptionally long and isn’t very efficient.
Buy it locally! As regular readers will know, the SilverStar salsas are available (at the least) in many Knoxville-area Kroger stores (in addition to online) — see the link for details. All of the other ingredients are widely available in Knoxville, but it is advisable to try to get your seasonings (like bay leaves and cumin seeds) in bulk at stores like The Fresh Market in order to save some money. For top-quality local meats, consider getting meat from Laurel Creek Farms in Sunbright, TN (available in Knoxville, Maryville, and Oak Ridge), or consider getting it from Earth Fare or The Fresh Market, both of which carry good quality meat.
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