I visited Chef Tim Spinner at La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount to talk chilies, and more specifically, salsa. For the September issue of Grid he made a summery salsa, pairing the heat of jalapeño with sweet, seasonal melon, and marrying the two with pineapple. It was but one of the dozens of salsas – sauces – that he and his team of cooks had or would prepare that day.
Though a guest might encounter the ancho salsa on nachos, the smoky and rich tomato and dried pasilla chilies house salsa to begin their meal, or a bright orange habanero salsa if they’re brave, these are but the first chapters in Spinner’s salsa story. Just as a French restaurant relies on its mother sauces, Spinner’s cooking employs countless other salsas, and by extension, chili peppers, backstage as marinades for meat and to otherwise build background flavors of fruit, smoke, heat, and acidity in his cooking. The beautiful thing about these salsas is that there’s no roasting of veal bones, as with a proper demi glace, to create this foundation of flavor. Dried chilies require a bit of a toast in a dry frying pan, a steep in some hot water, and a ride in the blender with herbs, onions, or other vegetables to become something punchy, distinctive and complex.
Chef Spinner and business partner Brian Sirhal, who also own Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, have shared two more of their recipes with Grid readers. One is a classic salsa verde, which pulls acidity from tomatillos instead of citrus, and the other simply adds avocado for a velvety, herbaceous twist on guacamole.
- 2 tablespoons white onion, roughly chopped
- 14 tomatillos (about one pound), papery husk removed and washed
- 1 jalapeño pepper
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Halve chop jalapeño, removing seeds if you prefer less heat.
- Slice or grate garlic.
- Quarter tomatillos.
- In the jar of a blender combine tomatillos, onion, garlic, jalapeño, and salt. Pulse and then puree until very smooth.
- Add cilantro and puree until smooth and vibrant green.
- Refrigerate for up to two days.
- 1 recipe salsa verde
- 1 avocado, skin and pit removed
In the jar of a blender, combine salsa verde and avocado and puree until smooth and velvety. Alternately, chop avocado into a medium-sized dice and fold in salsa verde.