There is often a tea towel slung over Felipe Penaloza’s shoulder when he roams between the kitchen counter and the hot stove, his brow furrowed in thought and concentration.
Cumbia music vibrates through the shared wall of my bedroom and the kitchen on weekend mornings, accompanied by my dad’s offkey singing, the buzzing of the blender, and the steady chopping of his coveted ceramic knife against the cutting board.
“I think [you were] like three years old. I used to get you to wash the vegetables, and pass me the stuff…I’d tell you to stir or put salt in [the food] just to get you involved in it and make it look like you were helping too, because that’s the way you’re going to learn,” he laughs.
Despite feeling like I was born with the recipe programmed into my head, I sat and interviewed my dad as he made his famous salsa roja, or red salsa.
You’ll need six Roma tomatoes, a quarter of a white onion, one clove of garlic, cilantro, half an avocado, and some salt. These measurements are adjustable depending on what kind of flavours you’re going for.
Give your produce a quick wash under the tap and bob your head to the joyful whanging of the accordions and trumpets in the “100% Cumbia” playlist on Spotify to get in the right frame of mind.
Plop your tomatoes into a saucepan filled with enough water to cover them and crank the heat to get them to a boil. While waiting, peel and chop off a quarter of the onion, smash and peel the garlic cloves, and finely chop some of the stems from your bunch of cilantro.
“This way, the leaves [of the cilantro] don’t stick to your teeth … Lots of people cut the leaves instead, but I like the stems better because when you bite them, then you can feel [how] crunchy [they are],” he explains.
Boil the tomatoes until their skin starts to wrinkle and peel off, and they feel soft when poked with a fork. Drain, and then dump them with their skins into the blender, along with the onion and garlic. Confidently add four pinches of salt.
Blend the steaming concoction, or if you’re feeling fancy and have a lot of time on your hands, use a molcajete.
“A molcajete is like the Mexican blender – it’s a very old way of blending stuff,” he jokes.
It is essentially a mortar and pestle made out of volcanic rock, and it requires a lot of elbow grease and determination to grind the ingredients together.
After that, pour the blended mixture into a bowl and sweep the cilantro stems into it.
My dad cubed half of the avocado in his hand and pressed the knife gently into his palm, but I would suggest using a cutting board.
Add the chunks of avocado and then mix together. Try the salsa with a tortilla chip.
Still warm, it should taste sweet and acidic from the tomatoes and pack a bit of a bite from the raw garlic and onion. Slather it on anything and everything to your heart’s desire.
“You can impress lots of people with cooking,” he says with a grin.
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