3 Simple Yucatán-Style Condiments to Spice Up Taco Night

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J. Kenji López-Alt

We all know that Mexican food can be hot, but you don't know what hot is until you've tasted the fiery salsas that grace the tables of the Yucatán. Fortunately, these condiments are among the easiest recipes I've ever come across. With very few ingredients and minimal prep time, you won't believe how they reward with massive flavor.

Open up my fridge and you'll see a vast array of jars, squeeze bottles, and plastic containers housing condiments from all corners of the globe. Techniques and ingredients may be what set different regional cuisines apart, but it's the condiments that give them unique personality. A cochinita pibil from the Yucatán just isn't the same without the intense heat of an habanero salsa and the brightness of citrus-pickled red onions to spoon on top of it.

All three of these condiments are made with juice from Seville oranges, a juicy citrus that has a uniquely bitter, astringent flavor, with bracing acidity and very little sweetness. It's one of the most distinctive flavors of Yucatecan cuisine. I used to be able to find them in Latin markets when I lived in Harlem, but I haven't found a source anywhere out here in the Bay Area. So, for these recipes, I instead rely on blending other citrus juices to approximate their flavor and aroma. Some books and recipes suggest a mixture of navel orange and lime juice. I like the trick David Sterling uses in his book, Yucatán: a combination of lime, orange, and grapefruit juice. The last ingredient adds that unique bitterness and extra floral aroma.

Once you have the bitter-orange substitute (P.S. if you have any left over, it's delicious combined with an equal part water and sweetened to taste), the condiments themselves are straightforward.

Extra-Spicy Habanero Salsa (Chile Tamulado)

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This is full-on, pedal-to-the-metal, high-octane stuff. Though it's got plenty of flavor, lent by deeply charred habanero* chilies and garlic, it's not a salsa for anyone who doesn't enjoy melt-your-face-off heat. For all but the most extreme chiliheads, a little dab'll do you.

Let's get a quick pet peeve of mine out of the way: It's pronounced ah-bah-neh-roh, not ha-bah-nyeh-row.

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To make it, I start by threading whole, unpeeled garlic cloves onto a skewer and roasting them over an open gas flame. (You can toast them in a dry skillet over high heat if you don't have gas.) I cook them until they're completely blackened on all surfaces before letting them cool and peeling them. During this process, they pick up a smoky sweetness on their exteriors, while the interiors soften and lose their raw garlic bite.

Not all recipes for chile tamulado contain garlic, and absolute purists might object, but my recipe does, and, if my circular reasoning is correct, then that's a good enough reason for me to use it.

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Next, I roast habaneros in a dry skillet (you can use Scotch bonnets if you can't find habaneros) until they're charred and blistered on most sides. After that, I pick out the stems. If I were smart about it, I'd do it wearing plastic gloves. Unfortunately, I almost always end up saying ah, screw it and just going in bare-fingered, leading to all kinds of problems down the line. (Note to self: Do NOT attempt to change my contacts within 24 hours of handling habaneros ever again.)

Then it's just a matter of blending it all together with some bitter-orange juice and a pinch of salt. Make sure to keep your face away from the blender when you open it up—habanero vapor will cripple you if you don't.

Like I said, this salsa is seriously hot. You have been warned.

Get the recipe for Extra-Hot Yucatán-Style Roasted-Habanero Salsa (Chile Tamulado) »

Hot and Smoky Dried-Chili Salsa (K'uut Bi Ik)

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This is the simplest salsa recipe I know. My version is based on the one that my wife and I learned in David Sterling's class at Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán, but with a couple of tweaks. First, I use a combination of árbol and pasilla chilies, as the specific type of hot chili we used in Mérida is not available up here. More importantly, I take the time to toast the chilies a bit before blending them with bitter-orange juice.

Toasting chilies in a toaster oven or a skillet is just tedious enough to make some people skip it. Instead, use the microwave. It's by far the best chili-toasting apparatus in the kitchen. Just place the chilies on a plate, set it in the microwave, and zap it for about 20 seconds or so. As soon as you open up the microwave, you'll smell the complex, rich aroma of well-toasted chilies.

The rest of the recipe is identical to the one for the previous salsa: Blend it all together with juice, and season it with salt. This salsa should rest for at least 15 minutes before you serve it to allow the chilies to fully rehydrate. It'll get better in both flavor and texture overnight in the fridge.

Get the recipe for Yucatán-Style Hot Dried-Chili Salsa (K'uut Bi Ik) »

Seville Orange-Pickled Red Onions

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I love my basic pickled red onion recipe, and when Adri and I first started seeing these pink diced onions served alongside meals in the Yucatán, we assumed that they were the same thing. But they're not. Yucatán-style pickled onions are actually pickled in Seville orange juice, giving them an altogether different flavor.

The vinegar-style onions popular in other parts of Mexico are made by pouring hot vinegar over sliced red onions. In this case, heating up the citrus juice will cause it to lose its fresh flavor, so, instead, the onions are first softened in boiling water flavored with black peppercorn, bay, and allspice. They're then drained, covered with the citrus juice, and seasoned with salt. When you first make them, they'll have a very pale pink color, but that color deepens as the onions rest in the fridge.

Make a lot—you're going to want to pile these on everything.

Get the recipe for Yucatán-Style Pickled Red Onions in Sour-Orange Juice »

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