(Nov. 10) It doesn’t matter how frequently (or infrequently) you change your menu or how far you stray from your entree basics, there’s always a way to infuse new life and present your patrons with unexpected flavor.
You can do it quietly and with color and texture by spooning on a salsa, relish, chutney or some other tasty condiment.
We all grew up with salsa next to our tacos and chips.
It always was tomato based, soupy and had a little kick, says Dan Tesin, executive chef for Victors Restaurant, Ann Arbor, Mich. But in the past five years, salsas and relishes have evolved into any combination of fruits or vegetables made spicy or sweet.
For example, Victors features flash-fried hazelnut-crusted brie served with strawberry coulis and pineapple relish. Caramel onion relish accents the restaurant’s sirloin steak. Tomato relish garnishes the Dijon mustard and peppercorn crusted tenderloin.
Tesin is a connoisseur of fine condiments. Combine pineapple, fresh ginger, rice wine vinegar and green onion and you have a sweet and tart salsa that complements mild-flavored crab or red snapper quesadillas.
Take a red bell pepper, add tomato, cilantro and chili pepper and you have a bright red, sweet and spicy condiment that looks great on the plate, he says.
VARIETY OF FLAVOR PROFILES
Salsas and relishes are a creative, cost-effective way to build a plate with different flavor profiles, textures and colors. You can increase the price of the menu item by at least 50 cents at little cost to you, he says.
Papaya mango salsa goes miles for the three Ortanique restaurants with headquarters in Coral Gables, Fla. The tropical Jamaican cuisine calls for the two popular fruits.
A popular menu item features West Indian curried crab cake with papaya-mango salsa and sorrel flower aioli. The salsa combines the two fruits with fresh-squeezed lime juice, cilantro and demerara sugar, says owner/chef Cindy Hutson.
While papaya acts as a natural meat tenderizer, she doesn’t use it in this dish for that reason. Rather, the sweetness balances out the spiciness of the curried crab cake and makes it palatable to anyone, she says.
“I also have it for the brightness and color. I don’t want (the dish) to just taste good. It has to do more than that. It has to be pleasing to the eye,” she says.
The mildness of crab cakes makes them perfect condiment magnets. Todd Fisher, owner/chef of Billy Quon’s restaurant in Monterey, Calif., and Hullaballoo Restaurant in Salinas, Calif., features tomato cucumber relish with crab cakes. He dices cucumbers and vine-ripe or heirloom tomatoes and adds minced shallots, garlic, cilantro, rice wine vinegar and honey. The flavor is very refreshing and palate cleansing, he says.
His favorite salsa is rojo diablo or red devil salsa. He combines and cooks habanero peppers, roasted onions and roasted peppers. It turns a deep crimson, which he serves with quesadillas.
MAKE IT BETTER
Whatever fruits and vegetables you combine for color and flavor, keep these tips in mind.
- Don’t muddle the flavor so that it tastes like everything else on the plate, Fisher says. “It should stand out and be a completely different component. If you have smoked duck breast on lentil salad, the relish needs to be opposite of the dark colors. It should be bright and refreshing.
- Along the same line, provide contrasting flavors, Fisher says. At Hullaballoo, he serves swordfish fricassee with bacon and black-eyed peas. He tops the fish with red onion marmalade. “It’s like a candied red onion in a relish or chutney. It’s a sweet oniony richness as a contrast,” he says.
- Don’t let the color and texture break down. If you overmarinate the fruits and vegetables, the acids will break the produce down and turn it mushy, Fisher says. To prevent this, he dices the produce and keeps them separate until he’s ready to use them. Then he tosses them with lime juice or whatever other item he’s using for the acid so the colors don’t bleed together.
- Consider the possibilities of green (unripe) fruit in chutney. It provides a little crispness, which comes in handy after you’ve cooked the chutney. Hutson with Ortanique uses green mangoes and papaya for chutney. She cooks the fruit down with a little sugar and adds tamarind. “You can add onions and cilantro or parsley and cinnamon sticks,” she says. “It’s nicely served with hearty meat dishes like lamb as well as fish.”
- Develop a sense of balanced flavor. If you use a tart acid like citrus in your condiment, balance the tartness with sugar. The same goes for the heat of chili peppers. Use sugar to cut the heat, Hutson says.
- Lengthen the shelf life of your condiment by avoiding overripe fruit. Chutney can last a week if you avoid mushy fruit and keep it covered in the refrigerator, Hutson says.
- Focus on cutting techniques to increase the visual appeal of the salsa. Use a sharp knife and cut the produce into well-defined pieces of equal size and lightly toss the pieces with the other ingredients to maintain the integrity of the produce, says Tesin with Victors.
- Make a variety of salsas to get more mileage out of a single batch of cut fruit or vegetables. For example, separate cut pineapple into three piles. Add ginger to one pile, kiwi to another and liquid smoke to another for three different salsas, which would be good on three separate dishes, Tesin says.
If you add herbs to your condiment, gain a sense of the matching flavors. For example, when Hutson serves chutney with lamb, she adds mint, which goes well with it. Cinnamon or thyme goes well with yellow curry chicken, she adds.
He also suggests including more than one salsa on a plate. He’s done a black bean cake appetizer with three salsas: pineapple, red pepper and plum/nectarine, he says.