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June, 2012

Mesquite-Grilled Skirt Steak Tacos with Salsa Quemada (Burnt Salsa)

By Heidi Allison

You will remember the first time you put Salsa Quemada in your mouth – this smoky, moderately hot salsa haunts you – it’s that good. This deeply rich, complex, smoky vegetable/herb sauce has a subtle sweetness, imparted from caramelizing the sugars in the tomatoes, green onions and garlic, yet the secret ingredient is the smoked fresh cilantro
.

One of the best, “crave foods” that will come off your Weber grill this summer is authentic, Baja-Style Carne Asada (mesquite-grilled, skirt-steak) Tacos, which are topped with a complex, intensely smoky- tasting Salsa Quemada (also goes by the moniker , “Burnt Salsa”). Served throughout Cabo, you’ll find this iconic, regional dish on almost any lunch menu in town – from upscale, five-diamond beachfront resorts, as “pool food” , to family-style diners plating for locals, taxi drivers and starving students alike. This “cheap-eat” is Mexican food at its best – fresh, healthy food that tastes so good, it transforms you.

Chile Pepper

You will remember the first time you put Salsa Quemada in your mouth – this smoky, moderately hot salsa haunts you – it’s that good. This deeply rich, complex, smoky vegetable/herb sauce has a subtle sweetness, imparted from caramelizing the sugars in the tomatoes, green onions and garlic, yet the secret ingredient is the smoked fresh cilantro. Adding white pepper or Mexican oregano to the mix is a matter of debate. But using smoked chiles is not—this ingredient adds another layer of smoke-- but with a kick. You can add any dried red chile – dried smoked serranos, chipotles, arbols and pequins all work – it just depends on the heat level you want in the finished dish. Or, change out the dried, red chiles for fresh jalapeños or serranos for a slightly different flavor profile. Just place the fresh chiles on the grill at the same time as the other vegetables. Another reason you’ll make this a go-to recipe is because it’s so versatile – this salsa elevates any meat, chicken, egg, fish or humble boiled bean dish it touches, changing common, everyday comfort foods into guilty pleasures. So, make extra. Vegans, hard-core carnivores – even kids – love this salsa!

But the success of this dish really depends on using the right fuel – skip the mesquite smoking chips; you’ll get the best results if you use larger pieces of natural mesquite wood, which create the perfect grilling conditions of radiant heat combined with enough smoke to make a big flavor impact – in a relatively short period of time! I found the right type of wood at a company that sells firewood (ask vendor if its food grade), which outperformed any product I bought at national barbeque supply stores. The next crucial step that makes (or, without it – breaks) this dish is properly marinating the skirt steak in a rough chop of raw onion, chiles, lemon juice, garlic, salt and a hefty dose of black pepper, which acts to not only tenderize the meat (enzymes in the onion do this trick), but also flavors this inexpensive cut. A better choice than flank steak, skirt steak is easy-on-the budget but has a more intense “beefy” flavor and softer texture. Serve with a roasted corn and avocado salad, pinto beans and margaritas – this makes for great summer ‘que fare!

Mesquite-Grilled Skirt Steak Tacos with Salsa Quemada (Burnt Salsa)

Serves: 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer

Mesquite-Grilled Skirt Steak Tacos with Salsa Quemada (Burnt Salsa)

Ingredients:
Meat
:
1 pound Skirt Steak
1 teaspoon Kosher or Sea Salt
1 Tablespoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper (about 50 turns w/ hand grinder)
1 large White Onion, rough chop
2 large Garlic Cloves, peeled and chopped
1 Jalapeño, chopped (leave seeds in)
1 Lemon, halved and seeded

Preparation:

Meat Marinade
:
Place half of chopped onion on the bottom of a 9”x13” glass dish and top with meat. Sprinkle salt and black pepper. Sprinkle the remainder of chopped onion, jalapeño, lemon juice, garlic, black pepper and salt over the meat; then toss with your hands several times. Layer half onion mixture on top of the meat and half on bottom of meat. Cover with foil and place in the refrigerator for 45 minutes to 1 hour – do not marinate for more than 8 hours – the meat muscle fibers break down and the texture gets “mushy”.)

Preheating the Grill: While the meat is marinating, prepare 10-12 charcoal briquettes in a Weber chimney (it looks like a large coffee can with vent holes on the bottom and a handle on the side) until a red color with a small amount of white /grey ash appears. Place the hot charcoal in the bottom of the Weber grill; then put 3, (roughly 10” long x 2” thick) natural mesquite wood pieces in the bottom of the Weber grill, stacked in a low-tepee style, next to the charcoal. Tuck 4, 1”, wax fire-starter cubes around the perimeter of the wood pieces. Ignite the wax starter cubes and cover grill with metal grate. The wood will be ready to go in about 15-20 minutes – what you want to see is lots of smoke with a red-colored , hot smolder with some grey edges in center of wood – without any flames present.

Salsa Quemada
Makes
: 1 cup

5 Roma Tomatoes, cored
3 cloves Raw Garlic, skins left on
5-6 Greens Onions
½ large bunch Cilantro, stems intact
2 smoked Serrano Chiles (can substitute with 1 Chipotle or 2 Arbol Chiles), stems removed and chopped
1-2 Tablespoons Neutral-Flavored Vegetable Oil (sunflower oil works great)
½ cup Water Kosher Salt, to taste

Preparation for Salsa:
In a 9x13-inch baking pan, place green onions, garlic (skin left on) and Roma tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, drizzle with olive oil and toss. Place tomatoes over the wood – choose a spot near the center where there is a hot, glowing red color; then layer the green onions, topped with fresh cilantro, near the outside of the grill where it’s cooler. Put the garlic on the grate near the green onions.Replace grill cover, keeping all four vent holes on grill top open.

Allow to cook for at least 8 minutes; then turn the tomatoes with tongs – they should be getting soft with skins split and a light char marks appearing. Turn the garlic with tongs and replace grill cover. Cook about 10 minutes more. (Do not move the green onion/cilantro pile — let the radiated heat and smoke cook the veggie/herb mixture; should be done when the white part of the green onion is soft, with light char marks; the tomatoes are lightly charred and soft, and the garlic is soft to the touch. (The longer you smoke them, the more flavor they will have.)

Remove tomatoes, garlic and cilantro to a bowl. Cut off the roots from the green onions and remove the skin from the garlic; then place tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, water, lime juice, salt and smoked chiles in a food processor and pulse until a smooth consistency is achieved. Place salsa in a bowl and add salt, if needed. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the coldest part of the refrigerator to let the flavors “marry”.

Meat Grilling:
Shake off onion mixture from the meat; then lightly brush both sides with olive oil. Place meat near the center of the grill, where the temperature is hottest, and cover. Allow meat to cook for about 7 minutes – should be lightly caramelized but not charred; turn over and cover. Cook for 5 minutes more. Then remove meat to a cutting board and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Cut the meat against the grain into thin, ¼-inch strips. Place meat on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.

Taco assembly:
4 corn tortillas, fried or grilled
1 head Iceberg or Romaine Lettuce, shredded
4 ounces Crumbled Cotija Cheese, (can substitute with shredded, sharp cheddar)
1 Avocado, peeled and sliced into ¼ inch lengthwise slices

Plating Tacos:
Place tortilla on plate and add 3 ounces of chopped meat per taco, then layer with lettuce, salsa, cheese and avocado slices and serve.