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Salsa cookbook presents mix of flavors


A year ago it was juice and bread. This year it's salsa. The rise of each fashionable food spawns a busy cottage industry of appliances, provisions, cookbooks.

Often, the books are quickie little notions that try to exploit the current food obsession with shallow research, fetching graphics and simple recipes, many of them minor variations on a basic formula.

At first glance, Reed Hearon's "Salsa" (Chronicle Books, $12.95) seems to fall into that class. But while slim, bright and simple, "Salsa" has more going for it than a good many cookbooks 10 times its size. Mr. Hearon knows Mexican and Southwestern cooking. That comes through in the authoritative anecdotes with which he introduces each of the 35 recipes, as well as his confident grasp of techniques, ingredients and equipment.

(For further validation of Mr. Hearon's ability to write knowingly of salsa, consider that he developed the Southwestern menu at Denver's famed Rattlesnake Club, had a hand in opening Santa Fe's celebrated Coyote Cafe, and now oversees two hot San Francisco restaurants, LuLu and Cafe Marimba.)

Anyone who thinks salsa is just a watery if piquant mix of chopped tomatoes, onions and garlic will be surprised by the variety in "Salsa." What's more, they are almost as easy to get to the table as the store-bought stuff with those tight lids.

I found myself trying one recipe in this book, then another, and then another, each rewarding in the depth and range of its flavors and textures: the robust "salsa el topil" from Oaxaca, the tangy and smoky "chipotle tomatillo salsa" that went as well with grilled fish as poached chicken, the buttery guacamole, the rich and nutty pumpkin-seed salsa.

A cautionary note: Once you eat one of Mr. Hearon's salsas you likely won't appreciate commercial salsas ever again.

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