There was a long stretch during my time in Amherst when I ate almost entirely at La Veracruzana. With my friends Mike and Mark, I went out to lunch three or four times a week each time ending up at Vera for Mexican cuisine. I've had every dish on the menu (no hyperbole intended) and can't speak a bad word about any of it. But mainly, there was this hyper-addictive sauce at their salsa bar - and I consumed disturbing amounts of it. Unfortunately, you can't buy it anywhere. It's not a chunky salsa or a thin and concentrated hot sauce. It's a thick, spicy, tomato-and-pepper based sauce - smoky, spicy, and a little bit pungent. I would give my left arm for a vat of it (enter hyperbole). When I left Amherst, I had no choice but to start experimenting with my own versions, and I've ended up with something close enough to crave but far enough away to keep me returning to Vera whenever I'm back in the Pioneer Valley.
The sauce is versatile. It makes for a thick and smoky enchilada sauce, and will add a Mexicana flair to a vinaigrette, a piece of grilled chicken, or any taco night. We recently made it an integral player in some black bean and squash tacos. Skin the squash and sauté it with some onions and garlic, then mix in some black beans and Mexican pepper sauce and you have a hearty dish that tastes like those hard-to-nail-down weeks between mid-August and mid-September.
Mexican Pepper Sauce
- 3-4 large tomatoes, diced
- 6-8 mild & flavorful peppers (poblano, anahiem, etc.), chopped
- 5-7 medium/hot peppers (serrano, jalepeno, etc.), chopped
- 1-3 hot peppers (habanero, etc.), chopped
- 5-7 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2-4 dried chiles (optional)
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tsp cayenne
- salt & pepper to taste
The first thing you'll notice about the sauce is that none of the ingredients have a hard and fast quantity attached to them. This hot sauce seems to take the shape of whatever excess ingredients I have in my fridge and pantry. It's a great sauce to make in late August when you have more tomatoes and hot peppers from the garden or CSA than you could possibly eat before they spoil.
Sauté the onion in olive oil until it's translucent, then add the garlic and sauté for another three minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and peppers and sauté for another five minutes. Pour in the vinegar, water, and salt and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the dried chiles, cumin, and ground pepper and simmer for an hour, until the sauce reduces to about half its volume. While simmering, continually test the sauce for its spice level. If its too spicy, add more tomatoes and/or mild peppers; too tame, add hot peppers liberally. Once the sauce is thick, puree in a food processor, blender, or (preferably) immersion blender. Use it immediately, or jar it and store it in your freezer for months or fridge for weeks.
Black Beans & Acorn Squash Tacos
- 1 can black beans (or 1 cup of hydrated black beans)
- 1 acorn squash, peeled and chopped
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 2 tsp cumin
- salt to taste
- queso fresco
- flour tortillas
Sauté the onion and squash until the squash is soft enough to fork, about 15 minutes. Add the black beans, cumin, and salt and continue to heat the mixture for another 7 minutes. Plate over flour tortillas with Mexican pepper sauce and then garnish with shredded cheese.