More than 50,000 people are expected to descend on the agricultural city of Oxnard, California this weekend. And no, the attraction isn’t a movie star at a press junket appearance or a pop icon concert; instead, the draw for these crowds is salsa. That’s right – humble salsa, the Mexican sauce that has revolutionized the way that Americanos eat their eggs and top their tacos. And salsa – from bright, fruity blends to spicy, secret recipe sauces – is truly the star at the 2012 Oxnard Salsa Festival, an event that’s been going strong for 19 years.
The award-winning blowout festival event celebrates everything salsa – the food, music and dance – with salsa bands, a Salsa Tasting Tent, salsa dance performances, children’s activities, a recipe contest, a chef’s cooking demonstration, a 5K walk and even a shopping marketplace jam-packed with salsa imaginable. It’s a free event that was conceived nearly 20 years ago by a handful of merchants in downtown Oxnard hoping to celebrate the city’s migrant workers, agricultural roots and burgeoning economy. Since then, says festival chairman Pablo Ortiz, the event has economically renewed the city, with its commitment to celebrating Mexican salsa with the Caribbean element of la musica salsa.
“We’ve grown from hosting a salsa tent with 5,000 people to expecting nearly 60,000 foodies from the area and around the country over the course of this weekend,” explains Ortiz, who will host this year’s festival as a Master of Ceremonies. “We’ve transformed Oxnard from being known simply as a place with the most fertile land in the country to a destination that’s recognized as a melting pot of Latin culture.”
The highlight of the weekend’s events, says Ortiz, is definitely the “Great Oxnard Salsa Challenge Recipe Contest.” Dozens of area chefs and restaurants enter their prized salsa recipes in categories including best red, green, best mild, best medium and best hot. Judging takes place two weeks preceding the festival, and category winners earn bragging rights for the entire year regarding their original creations.
“We all take the challenge seriously,” says Ross Ruiz, a private chef whose habanero fruit salsa earned him this year’s “People’s Choice” and “Best Hot Salsa.” “It’s considered something like a badge of honor.”
Ruiz, a Los Angeles-based Le Cordon Bleu graduate who works as a private chef for actor Will Smith, explains that it’s a point of pride that he can keep his Mexican culture alive through something as simple and delicious as salsa.
“To me, being part of the salsa festival is an important part of taking pride of where you’re from,” says Ruiz, who has won multiple salsa awards with his cousin Tom Garcia since first entering the salsa challenge in 2007.
Salsa is officially the best-selling condiment in the United States, first overtaking ketchup in dollar amount of salsas in 1991. Mexican salsa – traditionally made from tomatoes, onions, chiles – was traditionally made as a savory condiment by indigenous Mayans, who mixed up the sauce with a mortar and pestle. And now, centuries later, salsa has inspired home cooks, chefs and mass-scale producers alike to create a dazzling array of savory variations.
“Salsa doesn’t discriminate,” says Peter Spink, owner of Cabo Seafood Grill in Oxnard, whose red salsa has earned him the distinction of “Best Red Salsa – 2012.” “For me, the appeal is that you can take a handful of simple ingredients and can come up with a variety of different salsas depending on the technique you use to cook them.”
Spink loves to roast the aromatics for his award-winning red salsa, charring the ingredients until smoky. The result is a fragrant, earthy salsa that his restaurant patrons can’t get enough of, as his kitchen goes through several gallons each day. It’s proof, says Spink, that even a simple sauce can make or break a restaurant in Southern California.
After all, says Ruiz, salsa is something that’s kept people at the dinner table for centuries.
“There’s no agenda when it comes to salsa at the festival,” remarks Ruiz. “And the evidence is with the thousands of people walking around with smiles on their faces.”
Below are two award-winning salsa recipes from this year’s event, perfect for recreating the festival’s sunny, salsa-soaked spirit in your home.
Cabo Seafood Grill’s Red Salsa – 2012 Winner, “Best Red Salsa”
3 large red tomatoes
1 manzano chile
8 serrano chiles
4-5 large cloves garlic
Salt to taste
1.Roast the tomatoes, chiles and garlic on an outdoor barbeque until charred and slightly soft.
2.Pulse all the ingredients in a food processor until chunky. Season with salt. To modify the heat, add another tomato, use a few less serrano peppers and/or remove the some of the chiles’ seeds.
Tomas’s Café’s Flaming Mango Habanero Salsa by Chef Ross Ruiz – 2012 Winner, “Best Hot Salsa” and “People’s Choice”
Yield: I pint
5 to 6 red tomatoes
4 ripe mangos
12 habanero peppers(the hottest you can find)
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 bell peppers: 1 red, 1 orange, 1 green
1 bunch cilantro
1 medium red onion
Salt and pepper to taste
1.Take tomatoes and habanero peppers and toss them in a very light amount of olive oil.
2. Roast tomatoes, habaneros, garlic cloves and half of the red onion until charred, either by using an outdoor barbeque grill or stovetop on a grill pan. Take finished items off the grill and place into a wide bowl to cool.
3. While items are cooling, peel and debone mangos. Take half of the mangos and chop them up fine. Take the other half of the mango and put them in a blender with a little water and a teaspoon of white wine vinegar. Puree till smooth. When roasted item have cooled, add roasted items to the blender and puree until chunky.
4. Pour the puree that’s been created from the roasted items and mango puree into a wide bowl. Chop the cilantro, bell peppers and remaining mangos and combine with the puree. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with tortilla chips or alongside any fresh fish.