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Lynda Balslev: A salsa dance in your mouth


Salsa is much more than a spicy red or green sauce for swiping a chip through. Take a cue from the Latin dance that shares the same name. Salsa dancing is dazzling, spirited and vibrant — a precise metaphor for the juicy, chunky salsa concoctions served up in a bowl. Edible salsas are a dance of ingredients that collide and crunch in your mouth, exuding sweet, tangy flavors that brighten up anything they accompany, including meats and fish, vegetables and, of course, chips.

Each ingredient plays a role in creating a salsa. Fruit, vegetables, fresh herbs, even beans are all fair game. The key is to gather a tasty team that provides a fiesta of color and texture. The variations are endless, but like certain dance steps, there are a few rules of thumb to follow in creating the perfect bite.

Cut and dice the ingredients in uniform size. For instance, finely dice onions and peppers to match the size of beans or corn in the sauce so that every ingredient is in each bite.

Aim for a variety of textures, including juicy, crunchy, soft and leafy, to keep each bite exciting.

Embrace the color — after all, we eat with our eyes, too. Choose ingredients that not only explode in your mouth, but also pop visually on the plate.

Most important, check all the flavor boxes with a combination of sweet, tart, acid and heat. Sweetness can be in the form of vegetables or fruit, such as corn, red bell peppers, carrots, pineapple, stone fruit or mangoes. Tart is best achieved with acidic ingredients, such as a squeeze of citrus or a splash of vinegar. Heat is delivered by chiles, hot sauce, red chili flakes or simply an embarrassing amount of freshly ground black pepper. And remember to taste, taste, taste as you build the salsa.

Spicy Shrimp With Sweet Corn Salsa

Active time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Serves 4 as a main course or 6 to 8 as an appetizer


Corn kernels from 2 ears of corn (or 2 cups defrosted frozen corn)

2 scallions, white and green parts divided, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, seeded, finely diced

1 orange bell pepper, seeded, finely diced

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves, chopped

1/4 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh lime and/or orange juice

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Spice blend:

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

16 to 20 extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails intact

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Lime wedges for serving

Combine the salsa ingredients in a bowl. Stir to combine and taste for seasoning.

In a small bowl, mix the spices. Place the shrimp in a large bowl. Add the oil and the spices and toss to coat.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Arrange the shrimp in one layer in the pan without overcrowding. Cook until bright in color and just cooked through the centers, about 4 minutes, turning once.

Spoon the salsa on serving plates. Arrange the shrimp over and around the salsa. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve with lime wedges.

Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area

Edible salsas are a dance of ingredients that collide and crunch in your mouth, exuding sweet, tangy flavors that brighten up anything they accompany, including meats and fish, vegetables and, of course, chips.
Photo by Lynda Balslev

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