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By Zarela Martinez, from the cookbook Zarela's Veracruz: Mexico's Simplest Cuisine
Photography by Stephen Klise
Food styling by Elle Simone Scott
Macho (“masculine”) takes the feminine ending when it goes with a feminine noun like salsa, so I guess the literal meaning would be something like “She-Man Sauce”. This fierce and fiery condiment is known throughout Veracruz, in widely different versions linked only by the use of small, hot dried chiles, garlic, and oil (usually olive oil, but some people prefer vegetable oil). The Orizaba-Córdoba area is an epicenter of excellent salsa macha, often featuring ground peanuts.
I’ve tasted both smooth and chunky salsa macha variants, ones swimming in oil or just gently touched by it, ones reflecting different local or seasonal chile preferences, and sauces either mellowed with sautéed or roasted garlic or galvanized with raw garlic. Perhaps it’s unfair to present only one version of anything so flexible and individual –- but I modestly think I’ve achieved a composite that’s the best of all salsa macha possibilities.
Once you’ve tried the recipe you can of course experiment –-gently fry the chiles and/or minced garlic in oil, process the sauce as smooth as peanut butter, increase or decrease the garlic, etc. However, I think you’ll end up preferring the sauce as I give it here. Note that in Veracruz they start with raw peanuts, frying or toasting them until rich and nutty. After much experimenting I can honestly report that commercial roasted peanuts give just as flavorful a result.
No kind of chile available in the United States exactly duplicates any of the varieties preferred on the home territory of salsa macha –- comapa, dried serrano, Veracruzan chipotles. Probably the best substitute is árbol chiles, which are a bit larger and tougher-skinned than the ones people use in Veracruz. They’re also somewhat hotter, which is why I suggest eliminating some of the seeds after toasting.
On a recent trip to Oaxaca, I found the salsa macha craze in full bloom, except that restaurants generally substitute fiery hot smoked pasilla chiles for the plain dried varieties preferred in Veracruz. Some chefs simply crush a few peanuts together with the chiles and add the combination to any table salsa.
- Yield:1 1/4 cups
2/3 cup comapa, dried serrano, árbol chiles or other small dried chiles
1 – 2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/4 – 1/3 cup olive oil (I use extra-virgin)
Place a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over the lowest possible heat.
Add the chiles and let them toast very gently, shaking the pan frequently and listening for the sound they make. At first they will rustle like dry leaves; when ready in 15 – 20 minutes they will make a slightly higher-pitched, hollow noise and have a glistening look. The skins should be slightly darkened and brittle but not scorched.
Pour the chiles into a colander cool slightly, and shake out and discard the seeds, not trying to get them all.
Puree the garlic and salt in a food processor.
Add the toasted chiles and grind fairly coarse.
Add the peanuts and process with an on-off pulse to crush them into bits the size of broken rice grains.
With the motor running, start adding the oil in a thin stream. It should be not quite completely absorbed, with just a light film on the surface; the exact amount will vary with the starchiness of the peanuts.
Taste for salt and add another pinch or two if desired.
Serve at once or transfer to a small container and store in the refrigerator, tightly sealed, for up to a month.