I don’t know about you, but I find that I almost always have small quantities of different kinds of nuts in my pantry, most leftover from topping salads, or even from snacking. And, like any good Mexican chef, I have a huge jar of assorted dried chiles. These, and garlic and good olive oil are all you need to make Salsa Macha, which has the power to turn any vegetable into a stellar plate. The trick is to use an array of nuts and an array of chiles. Each brings it’s own, unique flavor to the salsa. Make note of the quantities and combinations of nuts and chiles you use. When you make your favorite batch, you’ll be ready to repeat it the next time.
Salsa Macha works especially well with vegetables that have layers, like fennel or Brussels sprouts, that you can cut in half and place on a roasting pan with the layered side facing upwards; this way, when you drizzle or brush your veggies with the salsa it penetrates the layers for really great flavor. For an unexpected side with steak, half a Spanish white onion and brush with a thick layer of Salsa Macha, roast in a slow oven (300°) for 30-40 minutes, then drizzle with more Salsa Macha before serving. This salsa also pairs beautifully with chicken: simply brush skin before roasting, and if roasting whole bird, rub inside cavity with it as well.
Salsa Macha is originally from the state of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, a port city where spices and ingredients not indigenous to Mexico entered with the ships that docked there. Much of the cuisine coming out of Veracruz is atypical to that of the rest of the country, in that there is a strong Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean component to the ingredients and flavors. This, combined with indigenous Mexican and, of course, Spanish cooking comes together to inform Veracruzano cuisine.
(makes 2 about cups)
4-6 dried chiles (any combination of chiles will work: Anchos, Guajillos, Puyas, Chipotle Moritos or Mecos are especially good due to their smoky flavor; if using smaller and much hotter Chiles de Arbol, you will want to adjust the total # of chiles accordingly)
4 cloves garlic
1/3-1/2 cups assorted nuts (peanuts, pecans, almonds are all good. If using walnuts, blanch first to remove bitter skin. If using hazelnuts, roll them in a dish towel to remove skins)
2 tablespoons raw white sesame seeds
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
½ Star anise (optional)
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
2 tablespoons piloncillo
Salt to taste (adjust salt if any of the nuts you are using are salted)
Dry roast garlic on the comal, until it begins to blacken, turning so as to expose all sides of the garlic to the heat. Dry roast chiles until they puff up and/or begin to change color and just start to blacken. You will need to watch your chiles carefully so as not to burn them; every chile cooks differently—some, like Chiles de Arbol, cook very quickly; others, like the wrinkly Ancho chile, need a little encouragement. Weigh Ancho chiles down by placing a small pot of water on top of them (or, even better if you have a bacon press, use that) so that the surface of the chiles are touching the comal. Dry roast sesame seeds until they begin to “dance”; after this happens you will need to immediately remove them from the comal as they burn very easily. Remove stems and break or tear larger chiles into small pieces. You may include the seeds for a hotter salsa, or remove them, to your taste (the seeds and veins are the hottest parts of a chile). Now, put all the dry-roasted ingredients including the star anise (if using) into a strong blender with the remaining ingredients and mix until well blended but not pulverized. You are not going for a purée, but rather a sauce that has the texture of a pesto but with more olive oil than pesto. Let the mixture sit at least overnight before using, so as to infuse the olive oil with the flavors of the rest of the ingredients.Store in airtight jar in the refrigerator.
Note:I prefer dry roasting because it adds a smoky flavor to the salsa, but some chefs prefer to sautée the garlic and dry ingredients in the olive oil before blending. If you choose this method, be sure to allow the olive oil mixture to cool well before blending.