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The secret is in the salsa

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A salsa competition can tingle a lot of taste buds and stir up long-simmering debates about which style is best. Hot and fiery versus mildly spicy. Chunky versus smooth. Cooked versus uncooked.

Well, salsa lovers can try the whole enchilada at the Cinco de Mayo celebration this weekend at the Salt Palace. Restaurants have been invited to enter their salsa so festivalgoers can sample them and vote for their favorite. The grand prize is $1,600 worth of advertising in the Mundo Hispano newspaper. While tasting salsa, people can watch the salsa dancing contest and vote for their favorite dancers.

The competitions were the idea of Mundo Hispano and Univision TV, who are sponsoring the Cinco de Mayo celebration. "When we're talking about restaurants here, there are so many different kinds of salsa, and so many kinds by the different countries in South America. The two contests will be combined to attract a big crowd of salsa fans," said Sandra Gonzales, marketing director of Mundo Hispano newspaper.

As of press time, several restaurants had thrown their sombrero in the ring. Tacos Daniel was one of the first to enter, "Because I think we have the best salsa," said Eloy Avelar, whose family owns the restaurant at 1000 North and 900 West.

Even the $500 entry fee didn't scare him off. "It's good advertisement," he said.

His restaurant serves several kinds of salsa: salsa taquera (a thin, dark sauce to put on tacos); avocado salsa (green and chunky, and hotter than guacamole); and Italiana salsa (tomatoes, onions, cilantro, laced with a bottled hot sauce called "Insanity" that's sold in the adjoining market). One salsa that's really spicy goes on the restaurant's Devilish Shrimp.

His brother, Danny Avelar, is cooking up something special for the competition, called salsa borracha, "which means drunk," said Danny. (No, there's no tequila, he said — just fresh tomatoes, onion, cilantro and jalapeno.)

Many people think of salsa as the tomato-y condiment for tortilla chips. Actually, salsa is the Mexican word for "sauce," and can apply to any number of sauces. Chile peppers are the defining ingredient, but what kind of chiles, how many and how hot the chiles are makes a big difference in the final product.

"Every state in Mexico has its own type of salsa," Eloy Avelar said.

Salsa cruda is uncooked salsa; salsa verde is green salsa, and is usually based on tomatillos, green chiles and cilantro. You can also find salsas made with black beans, corn, peaches, mangoes, avocados, lime juice and more.

In 1996, U.S. salsa sales surpassed that of ketchup. In 1998, salsa's popularity and versatility was underscored when a recipe for Salsa Couscous Chicken won the million-dollar grand prize in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. The recipe was a Moroccan-style dish that paired salsa with cinnamon, raisins and almonds.

Good cooks know that a well-prepared salsa can enhance fish, meat, poultry, eggs, beans and just about anything — not just chips.

"To me, a food without salsa is not a food, because there has to be some type of a companion with a spicy ingredient," said Eloy Avelar.

Tacos Daniel is named for Eloy's father, Daniel, who started the business in 1994. Before that, the family ran a cafeteria in the San Fernando Valley.

"My dad's brother had lived here, and he told us this might be a good area for Mexican food and market," Eloy Avelar said. "Back then there weren't that many Hispanic restaurants in Utah. That was one of my father's dreams, to own a restaurant all by himself, because in California we were always paying rent," Eloy said. "We are in the Hispanic area of town, so we get a lot of Hispanic people down here. We don't have money to advertise, but word of mouth travels."

Most of the salsa recipes came from Danny and Eloy's mother, Estela, and they're made in such big quantities that Danny declined to share exact amounts in the newspaper. But the Avelars gave some tips for making your own at home: use fresh vegetables for the best flavor, and don't rub your nose or eyes when working with chile peppers to avoid burning them. (In fact, it's a good idea to use rubber gloves; be sure to wash down all surfaces that the chiles have touched.)


If you go

What: Cinco de Mayo Celebration

Where: Salt Palace, 100 S. West Temple

When: Saturday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

How much: $2; coupons for free admission can be found in Mundo Hispano newspaper


ROASTED JALAPENO-TOMATO SALSA WITH FRESH CILANTRO

1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, preferably plum

2 to 3 fresh jalapeno chiles, stemmed

1/2 small white onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick

4 peeled garlic cloves

About 1/4 cup water

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, loosely packed

1 generous teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar

Heat the broiler. Lay the tomatoes and jalapenos on a broiler pan and broil in the oven about 6 minutes, until roasted, even blackened in spots on one side. With tongs, flip them over and roast the other side for another 6 minutes. Set aside to cool. Turn oven down to 425 degrees. Separate the onions into rings. Place onions and garlic on broiler pan and roast in the oven, stirring every couple of minutes, until onions are browned and wilted, about 15 minutes total. Cool to room temperature. Pull off the peels from the cooled tomatoes and cut out the cores where the stems were attached, working over the pan so as not to waste any juices. In a food processor, pulse the jalapenos with the onion and garlic until finely chopped. Scoop into a big bowl. Then coarsely puree the tomatoes — with all the juice that has accumulated around them — and add to the bowl. Stir in enough water to give a spoon-able consistency. Stir in cilantro. Taste and season with salt and vinegar. — "Salsas That Cook," by Rick Bayless.


ROASTED-CORN SALSA

3 cups fresh corn, about 3 ears (or frozen corn, thawed and drained)

4 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced separately

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 plum tomatoes, finely diced

1 to 2 fresh jalapeno chiles, finely diced (including seeds)

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

Heat a dry large cast-iron skillet over moderately high heat until hot, then pan-roast corn, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Cook white part of scallions in butter with garlic, salt, cumin, chili powder and pepper in skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until scallions are tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in corn, tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro. Adapted from Gourmet, September 2000.


CINCO DE MAYO AVOCADO SALSA

2 ripe medium California avocados, peeled, pitted and diced

1 large ripe tomato, diced

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Juice of 1 large lime

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

In medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Toss well and maintain chunky consistency. — California Avocado Commission.


PEACH PEPPER SALSA

3 fresh California peaches

1 red bell pepper

1 green bell pepper

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1/2 cup canned 100 percent pear juice or nectar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Ground black pepper, to taste

Pit and slice peaches. Trim and seed bell peppers; dice. Combine sliced fruit, peppers, cilantro, nectar and mustard. Add black pepper to taste. Serve with barbecued fish steaks or fillets. Serves 4. — California Tree Fruit Agreement


SALSA COUSCOUS CHICKEN

3 cups hot cooked couscous or rice (cooked as directed on package)

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

1/4 cup coarsely chopped almonds

2 garlic cloves, minced

8 chicken thighs, skin removed

1 cup thick and chunky salsa

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons dried currants or raisins

1 tablespoon honey

3/4 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

While couscous cooks, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add almonds, cook 1 to 2 minutes or until golden brown. Remove almonds from skillet with slotted spoon; set aside. Add garlic to skillet, cook and stir 30 seconds. Add chicken, cook 4 to 5 minutes or until browned, turning once. In medium bowl, combine salsa and all remaining ingredients; mix well. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook 20 minutes or until chicken is fork-tender and juices run clear, stirring occasionally. Serve chicken mixture with couscous. Serves 4.

Nutritional information per serving: 490 calories, 34 grams protein, 45 grams carb. 19 gm fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 4 mg saturated fat, 540 mg. sodium. — Pillsbury Bake-Off Grand Prize winner, 1998


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com