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Make sensational variations of salsa

Charred Corn and Avocado Salsa
Charred Corn and Avocado Salsa Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

When it comes to favorite summer condiments, salsa is giving traditional hot dog toppers ketchup and mustard a serious run for the money.

For many Americans, salsa is almost considered a basic food group, and not just as a nutritious dipper for corn tortilla chips. Packed with garden-fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables that are easy to get your hands on, it’s as terrific a topping for chicken, beef or seafood as it is a colorful mix-in for pasta, rice and salad. Plus, it requires virtually no cooking, making it the perfect dish to throw together when summer heat and humidity make you feel like melting.

The Italian and Spanish word for sauce, salsa has a rich and delicious history. Long before Spanish priest Alonso de Molina dubbed the classic combination of tomatoes and chili peppers “salsa” in 1571, it was a culinary staple with the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. Thousands of years ago, they mixed chilies with tomatillos, tomatoes and squash seeds and ate it with lobster, fish, turkey and venison. It’s been a cornerstone of Mexican kitchens ever since.

Once served solely in Hispanic communities in the U.S., salsa made its way onto other tables in the 1940s, first in the American Southwest and later in larger cities such as New York. It’s grown in popularity as Americans have become more adventurous eaters in search of ever-spicier foods. In 1992, salsa famously outsold ketchup as America’s favorite condiment.

The most popular salsa is salsa rojo, a fresh sauce made with tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onions; substitute tomatillos for the red tomatoes, and add a little lime juice and cilantro, and you’ve got a classic salsa verde. But there’s so many more flavor combinations the home cook can explore.

Its versatility and adaptability is salsa’s biggest selling point. Chunky or finely diced, spicy or mild, crafted with fruit or vegetables, and sometimes both, salsa is rife with possibility. The only limit is what happens to be for sale this week at your farmers market or grocer, or ready to pick in your garden, and your imagination.

For example: Grapes (yes, grapes!) can bring a crostini slathered with goat cheese to life with the addition of a little onion, cherry tomato, lime juice and chopped herbs. This fruity twist on traditional salsa takes almost no time to prepare. Serve on crostini spread with goat cheese.

Briny green olives mixed with toasted slivered almonds, lemon juice, orange zest and chipotle pepper are an unexpected, but oh-so-delicious, topper for watery, light-flavored vegetables such as eggplant and zucchini. This crunchy, salty salsa is a perfect topping for grilled vegetables, such as zucchini and eggplant.

Grilled pineapple and sweet, juicy peaches, when mixed with chili, lime, red onion and spices, brighten not just fish and pork but also give chicken a lively kick. The sweetness of grilled pineapple is a perfect foil for the tang of lime juice and the earthy taste of cumin in this easy salsa recipe. I was too lazy to fire up the grill so charred the pineapple on a cast-iron grill pan on my stove. The salsa’s perfect for fish tacos.

And who says your corn needs to remain on the cob this summer? Why not elevate one of the season’s most pedestrian vegetables by tossing grilled kernels with another summer favorite, avocado? It’s great for chicken or fish, or as a topping for tacos.

With new takes on salsa, you can spice up your summer.

GRAPE SALSA

Adapted from Sproutedkitchen.com

2 cups seedless grapes, quartered or halved

1/2 red onion, diced

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 tablespoons lime (or lemon) juice

1 teaspoon chopped oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Dash of ground cayenne pepper (optional)

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered or halved

Gently toss grapes, onion, parsley, lime juice and oregano together in a medium bowl. Add salt, pepper, vinegar and cayenne pepper; make adjustments as needed. Add tomatoes just before serving.

CHARRED CORN AND AVOCADO SALSA

The Daily Meal

2 ears corn

2 cups diced avocado

Juice from 1 lime

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

2 green onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon olive oil

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Over a high flame on outdoor grill, char the ears of corn until lightly blackened, about 4 minutes per side.

Cut corn away from the cob using a sharp knife and plenty of caution.

In a medium bowl, combine corn, avocado, lime juice, cilantro, green onion and olive oil.

Add sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste. Set aside until ready to serve.

OLIVE-ALMOND SALSA

“Around the Fire” by Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton (Ten Speed Press; March 2016; $32.50)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted Castelvetrano olives or any mild green olives

1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted slivered almonds

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon crushed chipotle chili flakes or chipotle powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

In small bowl, combine oil, olives, almonds, lemon juice, orange zest, oregano, chipotle and salt. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Let sit at room temperature for up to 1 hour before serving.

Salsa can be made up to 1 day ahead, but leave out chopped almonds until just before serving to retain their crunch.

Serve with grilled vegetables.

SPICY PEACH SALSA

“The Love & Lemons Cookbook: An Apple-to-Zucchini Celebration of Impromptu Cooking” by Jeanine Donofrio (Avery, March 2016, $35)

4 ripe peaches, diced

1/2 teaspoon minced ginger

2 Thai chilies, diced

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, or more to taste, plus a little zest

1/2 to 1/3 cup chopped cilantro

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1 clove garlic, minced

Generous pinches of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In small bowl, combine peaches, ginger, chilies, lime juice, cilantro, red onion and garlic. Mix well.

Add salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Let sit at room temperature for up to 1 hour before serving.

GRILLED PINEAPPLE SALSA

“Weber’s New American Barbecue: A Modern Spin on the Classics” by Jamie Purviance (Houghton Mifflin Harcout; May 3, 2016; $24.99)

1 medium pineapple, peel removed

1 tablespoon oil

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Prepare grill for direct cooking over medium-high heat.

Cut pineapple crosswise into six, 1/2-inch-thick slices (don’t cut out the core.) Brush pineapple slices on both sides with oil.

Grill pineapple slices over direct medium-high heat, with lid closed, until lightly charred and softened, 5 to 8 minutes, turning once. Remove from grill, cut out the core and discard.

Coarsely chop pineapple, and place in a medium bowl. Add onion, lime juice, cilantro, salt and cumin to pineapple and stir until evenly combined.

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