Christine Nielson, founder of the organic bedding company, Coyuchi, and mother of Permanent Collection co-founder, Mariah, tells us the story and recipe behind one of her favorite Mexican salsas.
"Dona Rosa’s kitchen was a place one entered with reverence and wonder. My first meal there was in 1987. I had been invited to do a workshop in floor loom weaving and natural dyeing for the members of the village's weaving cooperative. This was in San Andres Chicahuaxtla, a Triqui community in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca. The kitchen was made of aluminum siding. The roof hung with carbon stalactites. The floor was dirt but Dona Rosa, who did all her cooking sitting on the ground, had a petate, or straw mat, beneath her. The cooking utensils consisted of a collection of clay pots, an iron comal (the flat griddle-type pan used like a skillet) and a few assorted enamel pans.
As there was no plumbing, water was kept in a large clay pot with a round bottom so that when she needed it for boiling or rinsing, she just tipped the pot on its side and poured some out. Diners sat in little wooden chairs. As she cooked, Dona Rosa would talk, sometimes reminiscing about the past, sometimes making reference to what she was preparing. Meals were very simple, usually comprised of a vegetable, wild greens, beans, (homegrown and cooked in the pod), or squash (a variety called chilacayote), tortillas and salsa. Occasionally we had specialties including grilled wood grubs and, once, a squirrel stew.
Dona Rosa cooked directly over an open fire, hence the stalactites. There was no pit, per se, and no grill; there was just a log, sometimes two, upon which pots and a comal would be balanced. As the wood burned away, the unburnt parts would be pushed up under the utensils. Dona Rosa had six children. All grew up eating in this room, meals prepared by her alone. I imagine that when she was a girl, growing up in the 1920’s, very little was different. I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to have been invited into the Sandoval family and an honor to have dined in "la cocina de Dona Rosa." This salsa was the most common and the one we had almost daily with meals.
Salsa de Ajo
5 dried chiles de agua, wiped off with a damp cloth
7-8 cloves of garlic
3-4 roma tomatoes
On a comal or in cast iron skillet, toast the chilies, garlic and tomatoes over medium heat. The chilies will color up quickly so be careful not to burn them. When they are cool, take out most of the seeds and set them aside to soak in very hot water for at least 15 minutes. If you want your salsa extra spicy, leave in some seeds. But the veins in the chilies also have heat, so take it slow at first.
Roll the garlic and tomatoes around until they are browned all over. When they are cool, peel them.
Grind the soaked and drained chilies in a ceramic mortar with a wooden pestle until they are completely pulverized. Peel the blackened garlic and add salt and grind those too. Finally add the tomatoes and grind some more.
The salsa is obviously delicious on tacos or other Mexican fare but also good on meat, rice, potatoes, greens…..or eggs!
Salsa de Ajo ladled over fried eggs