I guess it’s Mexico week here at Memorie di Angelina and why not? If you think of it, some of the foods that most typify Italian cooking—tomato, zucchini, peppers, pepperoncino, corn for polenta, just to take a few examples—all come from the New World and more specifically from Mexico. (Potatoes, another New World import, are from Peru.) So it should come as no surprise that there are similar tastes in Mexican cooking and even some dishes that you might even mistake for Italian.
Pico de gallo, which means “rooster’s beak” in Spanish, and is often called ‘salsa’ in English, is a prime example. A simple relish of tomato and onion, seasoned with jalapeños, cilantro and lemon juice, it goes perfectly well with any number of Italian dishes, in particular with grilled meats and fish.
Take some best quality tomatoes, split them in half and remove the seeds. Then chop the flesh into small cubes. Chop an equal amount of white onion, a handful of finely chopped cilantro, a finely chopped jalapeño or other chile. Season generously with salt and sprinkle with a bit of freshly squeezed lemon or lime. Let the pico de gallo rest for a few minutes so the flavors meld before serving.
NOTES: Obviously, the results will depend on how ripe and delicious the tomatoes are. They should be nice and ripe but not at all mushy—despite its English name ‘salsa’, pico de gallo is more of a relish than a sauce. The very best choice would be locally grown, farm tomatoes. (See my recent post on spaghetti al pomodoro crudo for some tips on choosing tomatoes when these are not in season.) If you can’t find good tasting tomatoes, personally I would not bother making it. There are a few tips out there for adding flavor to less than ideal tomatoes; Jacques Pépin, for example, advocates adding a spoonful of ketchup. Well, Jacques is probably my favorite celebrity chef—one of the few I actually admire, in fact—but on this one we part company. For me, at least, pico de gallo is all about freshness.
Some recipes I’ve seen call for adding quite a bit of liquid—either lemon, lime or even orange juice—so the result really is sauce-like. Not my favorite way to make pico de gallo. I prefer the dry, relish-like variety, which is why I often will remove the seeds. But if you’re in a hurry or like a bit more liquid, there is no crime in leaving in the seeds. A few recipes I’ve seen call for a bit of oil, but personally I don’t see the need. And some recipes call for cucumber, radishes, avocado or even mango (!) Again, I like to keep it simple.
Apparently, there are various stories to explain the name of this dish, many of them relating the reference to the rooster—a symbol of machismo in Latin culture—with the hot chile. But not all variations of the dish contain hot chile. Others say that the name refers to the look of the dish—a combination of small diced ingredients that resemble bird feed. Another story is that the name is a double entendre: pico, which is beak, sounds like the verb picar, which means to chop or mince, and to ‘pick’ or ‘peck’ (like a bird) in the sense of eating lightly. Take your pick!
Pico de gallo is sometimes called salsa mexicana, but is should not be confused with salsa roja, which is a cooked sauce made with similar ingredients (but no lemon juice) and very popular in Tex-Mex cooking, featuring prominently in Mexican restaurants in the US, served before meals with tortilla chips. Personally, I much prefer the raw version.