Jacqueline Higuera Mcmahan Writes the Book on Salsas—Mild, Medium and (*#$!#*) Holy Smoke!

updated 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jacqueline Higuera McMahan won't dare you to try her salsas, those chilefueled, south-of-the-border sauces most Americans associate with fire. No, she'll start you out easy, as she once did for a group of gringos who pleaded they couldn't stomach spicy-hot food. By meal's end, says McMahan, "the hot salsa was gone and the bowls of mild were still there. This happens every time. Salsa creeps up on you."

If more Americans knew how healthy it is, explains the 44-year-old author of The Salsa Book (The Olive Press, $12.95), homemade salsa would add more than zing to otherwise bland meals. "It's not only delicious, it's also high in fiber and vitamins and contains no sugar or fats," says McMahan, as she prepares two batches of cooked salsa in the small kitchen of her rustic Lake Hughes, Calif. home. Also, unlike most bottled versions, do-it-yourself salsas need no salt, since the tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, chiles and vinegar provide enough bite for even the most salt-hungry palates.

An eighth-generation Californian whose family always had "sarsa"—the colloquial term for salsa—on the table, McMahan expects her book to ride the crest of the Mexican food craze currently sweeping the U.S. Last year, she recalls, "When I lifted my head up from writing the book, I found the whole world had discovered salsa and chiles. New York was eating Mexican food, and they had discovered Tex-Mex food in Paris." Chocolate expert Maida Heatter, a typical salsa enthusiast, exclaims, "It's become one of my favorite foods. If I'm busy all day making desserts, I don't want to cook dinner at night. So I make scrambled eggs with salsa, and we're satisfied. It's yummy. And Jacquie's book I love."

Containing several dozen recipes for cooked and uncooked salsas, plus how-to's on handling chiles and making hand-rolled flour tortillas, The Salsa Book is an outgrowth of McMahan's first literary effort, 1983's California Rancho Cooking. McMahan and her husband, Bob, 50, a sculptor, designed and laid out the latest book on their home computer and acted as their own publishers.

McMahan inherited her passion for salsas from her grandmother, who taught Jacquie how to make them at the family ranch near Mission San Jose. McMahan remembers the grown-ups—descendants of Ygnacio Higuera, a soldier who came up to Monterey from Mexico in 1775—discussing the quality of various salsas as if they were judging fine wines. "Spanish and Mexican people use it as a condiment," says McMahan. "You slather it on everything. Chiles were a staple on the rancho. Because I did not recoil at hot tamales and red enchiladas when I was young, my grandfather proudly assumed the genes were intact." Years later, the energetic mother of twin boys, now 13, cooked her way through Julia Child, studied briefly with Simone Beck, Paul Prudhomme and James Beard and then began to write about what she knew best. For her book she scoured much of Mexico and the American Southwest, testing salsas, collecting recipes and learning the ancient uses of chile peppers.

"I began buying chiles and experimenting," says McMahan, who wears a gold jalapeño pendant made by her husband. "I reworked old recipes and then invented things like chile chutney. I'd try 12 versions of the same salsa—cooked or raw, with different types of chiles. Bob and the boys would test everything. Now I have to give my husband a straw so he can get at the salsa faster. I've created an addict. He eats it with breakfast, lunch and dinner. And my boys love it too. Give me three days and I'll turn anyone into a salsa fanatic."

For those about to enter the world of salsamania, McMahan has some pointers:

—When selecting chile peppers, remember that the smaller the chile and the more pointed the tip, the hotter it will be. The bigger, blunt-tipped chile will be milder. Jalapeños, for example, are short, fat and hot; serranos are small and skinny and hit the tongue like a flash. California chiles are generally milder than their New Mexico cousins, which can be downright fiery.

—Hand-chop ingredients when possible; a food processor can turn them into mush.

—Whenever cutting chiles to remove the seeds and the veins containing the volatile capsaicin oil, coat your hands lightly with shortening to protect them from the oil. McMahan once forgot to do this. "I had so much capsaicin on my hands," she says, "I thought I'd have to go to the emergency burn unit. Instead, I sat with a plastic bag of ice in each hand for four hours."

If you happen to sample a throat-searing salsa, McMahan recommends eating bread or placing a little salt on the tongue—not water or beer—to douse the flame. And remember, keep eating. Salsas have a way of creeping up on you.

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