The Little Black Dress of Mexican Cuisine: Pico de Gallo

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pico de gallo (pronounced "peeko-de-guy-o") is a condiment found throughout Mexican cuisine. It's technically not a salsa, for salsas are sauces and the whole point of the pico de gallo is to be chunkier in consistency with actually very little juice, but nonetheless is sometimes referred to as salsa fresca ("fresh sauce"). It is traditionally compromised of finely chopped tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers (most often used jalapeno or serrano) and often flavored with fresh cilantro, lime or lemon juice, and simple salt and pepper. Some pico de gallos even include cucumber, jicama, and mango, but the super traditional version that we're all most familiar with is the tomato-onion-chili version.

The name is of interest for trivia. It means "rooster's beak" but the reference is up for debate. Some say it's from the the way you eat it: picking up the chip and resting it on your thumb while pinching with your forefinger to grab the salsa. While others say it's in reference to the macho rooster, who in Mexican culture is the definition of masculine men. As the story goes, only the macho men can withstand the heat of the chilies so only "real men" can eat the pico de gallo. As a chick with an affinity for the ghost pepper myself, I think I'm going with Option A on this one. Because I guarantee I can "out-masculinize" any dude on the chile scale. So maybe they should rename it "Pico de Mishy." But I digress...

Pico de gallo is a wonderful condiment, adding instant bright flavors and a lightness to any dish. This is why it's often served as a side to heavier tacos, burritos, fajitas, and other meat-centric dishes. The cool and crisp tomatoes and onions work classicly with any protein (from meat to fish) and the heat from the chile can be subtle or powerful to add a punch to the dish.

But for me, I most prefer a freshly home-made pico with homemade, just-fried and still warm tortilla chips. It is heaven. Add a cold beer or glass of sangria and you can park yourself for hours enjoying total bliss as the world crumples down around you. For this reason, in addition to the necessity of the "salsa" to be prepared a few days in advance, it makes for the perfect Game Day food.

This is my own recipe I've developed over the years. The key is to make it days in advance -- preferably 2 -- to let the flavors really meld together and incorporate throughout. I also take careful attention with each ingredient I'm choosing to make sure everything is balanced out. I choose roma tomatoes for their juiciness and perfect meaty texture and gorgeous red color; I like a sweet onion like vidalia to balance out the spicy serrano, which is in my opinion subtly more aggressive than the jalapeno without being over-the-top; I always include cilantro for some bright flavor and color; and take the opportunity to use fresh limes for the acid. Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, some fresh garlic for a savory note round out the basic profile. But my secret ingredient (shhhh! don't tell anyone!) is a little bit of mint. What?! Mint?! In Mexican cooking?? Oh yes. The smallest amount will give the entire dish a pleasant coolness that works beautifully with the sweetness of the onion and the heat of the chiles. Add some freshly made tortilla chips still warm to the equation and I guarantee it will be gone by half-time!

This recipe makes about 3 cups worth which is more than enough to feed a crowd for a football party or other. If you have leftover, simply store in an air-tight container for up to 7 days.

Mishy's Party Pico de Gallo
2 cups roma tomatoes, chopped small
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped fine
1 serrano chile, chopped very fine (+ more to taste)
1 Tbsp garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro picked off of stems, then roughly chopped (you'll end up with about 2 Tbsp when chopped)
2 tsp fresh mint, finely chopped
2 limes, juiced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Combine the tomatoes, onion, serrano pepper, garlic, cilantro, and mint in a bowl. Add the lime juice and season with salt and pepper to taste (I personally use around 1/2 tsp - 3/4 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp pepper, depending on how salty my chips are). Toss gently with a spoon or spatula until incorporated well. Set in refrigerator at least 6 hours but preferably overnight to 2 days in advance. Serve.

Homemade Cumin-Scented Tortilla Chips
1 package white corn tortillas
4 cups vegetable oil
kosher salt
1 Tbsp cumin (the powder, not the seeds)

special equipment: deep fry or candy thermometer for oil; heavy saucepan for frying

Cut the tortillas into chip shapes. To do this, stack all the tortillas up in a pile. Cut them in half, creating two half-moons. Then cut each half into thirds, creating the classic triangle shape. Set aside.

Place the oil in a heavy saucepan. You want the saucepan or pot to be tall enough so there is 4 inchs of room from the layer of oil to the top (the oil when cooking will bubble up so you need room to allow for this). Attach your thermometer and heat the oil until the temperature reaches 360 degrees. Working in batches, add the tortilla triangles you cut and fry until golden brown, about 1-2 minutes, turning a few times to ensure even cooking. Remove with a slottes poon and onto a baking sheet lined with paper towels to help drain the oil. Season immediatly with salt and a sprinkle of the cumin when they just come out of the oil -- the seasonings will "stick" to the chip better when the oil is still hot and not dried yet on the chip. Repeat with remaining tortillas until all are fnished. Serve warm.

If making in advance, simply fry up the tortilal chips and heat them in a 300 degree oven for 3 minutes. But don't forget to take the paper towel off -- it'll burn in the oven! ;)

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