I probably serve salsa twice a week, particularly in warmer weather. I make mango salsa for chicken and roasted salmon, avocado salsa for all kinds of grilled fish, strawberry salsa for beets and mozzarella, and bell pepper-celery salsa for just about everything. Those are all what I think of as pick-up dishes: I pick up whatever’s in the refrigerator or ripening on the counter; cut it into small dice; add onion, tomatoes, seasonings, herbs if I’ve got them, a little oil and a lot of citrus juice or vinegar. I never measure. I always taste as I go. And I never make the same thing exactly the same way twice.
I also have never made salsa’s fresh and less-juicy cousin, pico de gallo, which is Spanish for “rooster’s beak.” Or if I did, I didn’t know I was doing it. In fact, I hadn’t thought about the fresh relish since forever, and then I had it three days in a row and wanted to have it every day thereafter.
My pico de gallo moment came at Lake Austin Spa Resort, where I’d gone to teach French cooking. (Yes, some jobs are a lot better than others.) Although all the spa’s food from chef Stephane Beauchamp was thoughtful, beautiful and luscious, I loved the mix-and-match lunch. It was my favorite choice on the midday menu, which was divided into sections — protein, grains, vegetables and sauces — and on Day 1, I had: shrimp, freekeh, kale, bok choy (because it came from the spa’s garden) and pico de gallo. And although there were other things that called to me, I kept going back to that quintet. I loved the freekeh, kale and bok choy, but the shrimp and pico de gallo were what I craved when I got home.
The accompanying recipe is not the one from Lake Austin Spa Resort, but it has what I loved about that medley: vegetables both crunchy and soft, a light bite from the red onion, some heft from the garlic, heat from peppers, additional heat from hot sauce if you want it, and more lime juice than you might normally think to use. That it has pineapple in it is a just-because, as in, I put it in just because I love fruit and spice, because pineapple and jalapeño are a perfect match and because pineapple has the same kind of sweet-and-acidic flavors the spa chef used. Plus, the fruit looks pretty in the mix and is a sweetheart match with shrimp.
At home, I put my latest salsa over freekeh, of course, and also over quinoa and brown rice. All good. But my favorite combo was grilled corn tortilla, shredded cabbage or lettuce, avocado mash, shrimp sauteed with Old Bay Seasoning and lime, with the pineapple salsa.
■ Make sure the tomatoes are sweet and ripe. They’re the spine of the salsa. Grape or cherry tomatoes are often your best bet if you can’t find sweet roma or regular tomatoes. Seed them if you’d like; it’s a nice but not necessary touch.
■ Rinse the red onion in cold water to wash away any bitterness — a cool trick no matter what you’re making (and it works for shallots, too).
■ If you’re making the salsa ahead of time, add the lime juice right before serving. Lime “cooks” the tomatoes, so your salsa will be brighter-colored
and brighter-flavored when you wait.
■ Salsa gets juicy; the riper the tomatoes, the juicier the salsa. If there’s more liquid than you’d like, just serve the salsa with a slotted spoon.
■ Toast corn tortillas before serving — you can warm them on a grill, in a grill pan or in a dry skillet — and you’ll bring out their corn-y flavor.
■ If you want to make the dish more spa-like, swap lettuce for the tortillas and make wraps.
Whatever you do, do it casually. You could make up the tortillas or wraps in the kitchen, but I wouldn’t. Put out all the colorful ingredients on the table and get messy. It’s part of what makes this dish so appealing.
Photograph by Goran Kosanovic. This story and recipe originally appeared in my Everyday Dorie column for The Washington Post.
Shrimp and Tomato-Pineapple Salsa Tacos
Makes 4 servings
If you opt to serve the tacos using corn tortillas, it’s nice to heat them over a gas fire or in a dry skillet before serving.
MAKE AHEAD: The salsa can be made and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance. The avocado mash can be refrigerated for up to 4 hours in advance.
For the salsa
12 ounces grape tomatoes or ripe Roma tomatoes
1/2 to 2/3 cup diced or chopped red onion (from 1/2 medium onion), rinsed in cold water and patted dry (see headnote)
1/2 cup seeded, diced or chopped red bell pepper (from 1/2 pepper)
1/3 cup chopped fresh pineapple
2 cloves garlic (germ removed), minced
1/4 seeded jalapeño pepper, minced, or more as needed
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 1 to 2 limes), or more as needed
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed
Hot sauce (optional)
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
For the avocado mash
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime, or more as needed
Fine sea salt
1/4-inch slice seeded jalapeño pepper, minced
Flesh of 2 ripe avocados
For the shrimp
1 pound medium or large raw shrimp (defrosted if frozen), peeled, deveined and patted dry
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch Old Bay Seasoning or chili powder, or more as needed
Pinch fine sea salt, or more as needed
Squirt fresh lime juice, or more as needed
Corn tortillas (see headnote) or romaine lettuce leaves (for wraps)
Shredded lettuce (romaine or iceberg; may substitute shredded cabbage)
For the salsa: If you’re using grape tomatoes, cut each one into quarters. For larger tomatoes, hull them, cut them in half, scoop out the seeds if you like (I usually skip this step), then cut them into large dice.
Toss the tomatoes and whatever juices are on the cutting board into a mixing bowl. Add the red onion (to taste), red bell pepper, pineapple, garlic, jalapeño, lime juice and the salt; toss to incorporate; taste and add more jalapeño, lime juice, salt and hot sauce, if using. (You’ll add the cilantro just before serving.) The yield is about 3 cups.
Let it sit at room temperature while you assemble the dish, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. (As the salsa rests it will become juicier; the closer to serving time that you can make this, the better.)
For the avocado mash: Combine the lime zest and juice in a medium bowl, then stir in a pinch of salt and the jalapeño. Add the avocado and press with a fork to form a chunky mash, making sure the juice is well distributed. Taste, and add lime juice and/or salt as needed. Let it sit while you finish the dish, or cover and refrigerate for up to 4 hours.
For the shrimp: Toss together the shrimp, oil, Old Bay Seasoning or chili powder, salt and lime juice in a medium bowl.
Heat a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp mixture; cook, turning the shrimp once, just until they are pink, opaque and cooked through, 3 to 6 minutes (depending on how cold they were). Turn off the heat.
Wash and dry the bowl the raw shrimp were in; return the cooked shrimp to that bowl and squeeze a little lime juice over them. Taste, and season with more juice, salt and/or Old Bay or chili powder, as needed.
When ready to serve, put separate bowls of the salsa, avocado mash, shrimp, tortillas or romaine leaves, shredded lettuce and hot sauce on the table. (Just before serving, stir the cilantro into the salsa; taste, and add lime juice, jalapeño or seasonings, as needed. Serve with a slotted spoon, in case the salsa has gotten juicy.)
Let everyone build their own dinner, mixing up the components any which way they want.