Any time I leave Austin, even for just a few days, I miss the salsa. You can find tacos just about anywhere, and some are certainly better than others, but it’s the salsa I always look to first to judge a place. If I’m served a bland salsa that tastes more like a jar than like fresh, hot chiles, I know the meal isn’t going to matter much. Here at home, I sometimes choose a restaurant based on which type of salsa sounds good that day. I might be in the mood for a bright, tomato-forward sauce. Other days, a smoky puree of dried chiles could be what I want. There are tangy tomatillo salsas, extra-hot chipotle ones, chunky salsas, thin and smooth versions, and on and on. And, I’m not above begging for recipes for salsas. On one occasion, I asked a server at a restaurant if I could have the recipe for the deep, dark, smoky, and very spicy salsa they offered. After checking with the chef, she told me, no, she wasn’t allowed to give it to me, but then she quietly explained to me what she observed each day as the salsa was made. Serrano chiles were roasted until well-charred, and then they were pureed with onion and a little garlic. That’s still one of my favorites, but I always enjoy trying new ones. So, I was thrilled to see an entire article about various salsas in the August/September issue of Saveur, and I recently made two of them. The tomatillo and chipotle salsa with roasted garlic was simple and delicious and perfect for dipping chips. The one I want to tell you about today, though, is the peanut and chile de arbol salsa because it’s a little different from all the others I usually encounter. This is a thick puree, a little like a satay sauce, and it’s very well-suited to top a shrimp taco.
For this salsa, everything is cooked in a skillet on top of the stove. Peanuts, thyme, dried arbol chiles, black peppercorns, allspice berries, minced garlic, and chopped onion are sauteed until the onions are softened. The entire mixture is transferred to a blender, a little apple cider vinegar, salt, and some water are added, and it’s pureed until very smooth. Mine seemed very thick, so I added a bit more water and another dribble of vinegar and pureed again.
The finished sauce is a nice, light, beige color which might fool you about the level of heat you’re about to experience. The arbol chiles are not a subtle variety. However, once the salsa is spooned into a toasted tortilla filled with shrimp, shredded cabbage, and cilantro, its spiciness is just right. This is a keeper for my ever-expanding list of salsa favorites.