Salsa and beans are often seen together in Mexican restaurants, accompanying nachos, tortillas, quesadillas - you name it, they are served with it. The salsa is always cold, the beans are refried or mixed with rice. They are the components on the sidelines, never the star. But without them, the dish would not taste as good. So why not make a dish revolving around them instead?
Recently, I did exactly that. I decided to make a dish based on salsa, guacamole, sour cream, beans, and rice, proving that their deliciousness can and should stand on its own. Recalling a weekly outing pre-quarantine for chips and salsa and guac, I wanted this dish to represent the specialness of these get togethers in its simplest form. Of course we are there for the company, but without the food, the experience would just not be the same.
With the sauces at the center of the plate, only embellished with some cauliflower rice tortillas, a handful of raw tomatoes, and raw shallots, their flavors shine. Each one has a very distinguishable and recognizable taste. However, something special happens when you mix and match them - together, they create a melody that just sings. But they do not get hidden by anything more substantial. The dish is straightforward, exposing the sauces for what they really are. Of course, you could add in braised chicken or sunny-side-up eggs or some vegetables, but those ingredients are only so delightful because of the amazing flavors represented here and thus should not be the main focus.
Typically, salsa is on the chunkier side, which provides nice texture, especially when the tomatoes or onions offer little pops of all the spices and herbs mixed in when you take a bite. For the purposes of the dish, I blended it so it was smooth. In a small food processor, I took heirloom and cherry tomatoes, pickled red onion juice, garlic, sherry vinegar, paprika, and salt and blended everything together until no lumps remained. If you wanted it chucky, you could dice everything by hand and switch out the pickle juice for pickled red onions themselves, or you could just process it more gently.
Wanting to play with the flavors of a margarita throughout this dish, I incorporated tequila into my refried beans. First, I sautéed some garlic scapes until they released their aroma and softened up, then I added a can of black beans, drained of their aquafaba (save it to help thin out the purée or for another use) and rinsed. After getting a little color on them, I added tequila to deglaze the pan, offer the margarita flair, and provide some liquid to help turn these beans into a pourable purée. I also seasoned with a little lime juice and salt to balance out the alcohol. All that is left is to blend the mixture in the robot coupe until smooth, adjusting with some aquafaba if needed.
If you've ever whipped cream or egg whites, you know how much fun it is to play with food that is light as air. Well, you can get a similar result with avocado, and it is even more exciting because it is green! With lots of lime, oregano, and salt, I whipped the avocado in my trusty robot coupe until it was light and fluffy. The only challenge here was making certain their was enough avocado to actually whip, but the less you can fill the bowl, the lighter it will become.
This component did not use the food processor. As I did not have sour cream at home, I used my healthy but just as tasty replacement option - yogurt. With a spoon and a bowl, I mixed in enough sherry vinegar until I could really taste it. You will need a good amount so the yogurt does not muddle it, but not too much that your yogurt becomes very liquidy. And if that does happen, just add more yogurt.
Cauliflower Rice Tortillas
If you are looking for a wholesome alternative to flour and corn tortillas, or just a different gluten-free version, than this concept is great. Cauliflower rice works splendidly in a thin-crust pizza dough or as a tortilla in this case, and it does in fact hold up well.
First, you need to cook the riced cauliflower. If you have it frozen, then just microwave it for about four minutes until it is cooked. If you have fresh, than should steam it until it becomes tender - since you want as little water as possible, you do not want to cook it in a liquid.
After the cauliflower is done, squeeze out as much liquid as possible in a towel or a cheesecloth.
Combine the cauliflower with egg (or egg white - this will act as the binding agent), some lime (or any citrus) juice, any herbs of choice - parsley, cilantro, tarragon, oregano, basil, chive, etc.), salt, black pepper/cayenne/ancho chili/chipotle, and some almond flour to further help everything bind together. You could even add some grated cheese if you want. Mix until everything is well blended and the dough holds together well.
Shape into round circles of the desired size. You can either make them freeform or roll the dough flat and punch them out with a ring cutter. I prefer to punch them out as you then know that each tortilla will be the same size and thickness and will therefore cook evenly. Plus, you can reroll and repress the dough without affecting the texture of the end result. Lay them out on a sheet tray with parchment.
Bake at 375°F for 10 minutes, then flip and bake again. If you like soft tortillas, then you will move onto the next step. If you like harder tortillas, more like chips or taco shells, then you should continue baking them for 5 minutes at a time and flipping until they become nice and crisp. You could also fry them in oil, which would speed up the process, but you run the risk of ending up with a greasy and definitely more fattening final product.
In a hot, dry pan, sear the tortillas until they have a golden brown color on both sides, about one to two minutes.
With so many variations on acidity, fat, and spice in all of these sauces, you need a drink that can match these flavors and their punch while still only acting as a supporting platform. A fruity margarita will do just the trick. The one think that this plate does not have is sweetness; with the natural, subtle sweetness of a tropical fruit, such as golden kiwi or passionfruit, masking the intensity of the tequila but still drawing on its earthy tones, you will have the perfect beverage to refresh your palate for this dish and keep you ever indulging.
If you desire to highlight these ingredients in even more substantial ways, I have two more ideas! The first is so, so easy. And as always, there are so many variations.
Black Bean Salad
A cold black bean salad is a wonderful way to get your fix of protein without feeling like you are weighing yourself down. And there is no cooking or hard cutting involved. Take any beans you like and put them in a bowl. Then, find at least five different fresh herbs and rough chop them. If you don't that many, do not worry, but the more you can include, the more treasures of green vibrancy you will savor when eating. For this version, I utilized black beans, parsley, cilantro, oregano, dill, and spinach (I know, not an herb, but it still works!). For some salty, briny goodness, I include some crumbled feta and capers too. They blend in well with the herbs, so they make for a fun surprise when you find one! I seasoned the salad with some caper liquid, red wine vinegar (but champagne or sherry would work too), and black pepper. And for the finishing touch, I added finely diced shallots. Their mild onion flavor adds a raw earthiness, and they also provide just enough crunch. You do not wand to add them too early or they could lose their fresh crispness, but if you don't mind the texture and flavor difference, they taste great pickled in the red wine vinegar as well. Eat this salad right away; otherwise, the herbs will dull out in color and flavor as everything sits in the dressing, and they will no longer enhance the creamy, slightly nutty beans in the way you hoped.
If you need some more substitutions, these are just a few of the options:
Black Beans: Garbanzo Beans, Kidney Beans, Cannellini Beans
Feta: Goat Cheese, Manchego, Parmesan
Capers: Castelvetrano Olives, Kalamata Olives
Shallots: Red Onion White Onion, Fresh/Roasted Garlic
For a special addition, you can also add some infused oils such as garlic, herb, or spiced! While I do not think you need any oil to make this salad amazing, if you were to do so, I would make certain it has a distinct flavor, such as those listed above, so that they definitely bring something worthwhile to the dish.
Ground turkey does not have a lot of fat in it, so how do you make certain that it is moist and flavorful? Instead of serving the salsa on the side, add it directly to the turkey as it is cooking. Those divine juices held inside tomatoes will release into the turkey, providing it with some sweetness and umami to fill the void of the fat. With some paprika for heat and smokiness and the onion and herbs from the salsa, you have suddenly transformed your boring ground turkey into something so spectacular. Think of it as a less heavy version of a chili and you will understand how magnificent this is. With all of these flavors simmering together and adding value to what the turkey really is in my opinion - a vessel for other, more enthralling and layered ingredients, the salsa no longer is an afterthought, but the key ingredient to the dish's success.
I served this turkey with a simple coriander-spiced black bean and lime salad as well as an avocado yogurt crema thinned out with almond milk. But it would also be a sublime garnish to the sauce-forward dish from above.
So what is the takeaway here? In regards to food and life in general, if something is currently on the side or in the background, this does not mean that it does not have leading role potential. You just need to give it the chance to be center stage, and then you will realize what it is truly all about.