As a teenager, I was fortunate to attend one of the few high schools that still had an open-campus lunch. When the bell sounded to announce the beginning of the break, we would pile into someone’s hand-me-down vehicle and dash off to Golden Spoon for a pile of gummy bear-studded, fro yo heaven, or roll on down to the beach for amazing, cheap Mexican fare at Cessy’s. And I’ll be honest: sometimes we didn’t return to campus after that. Needless to say, it wasn’t much of a surprise when, during senior year, there was talk of closing the campus during lunch, perhaps because even the honors students weren’t inclined to head back to class after lunchtime burrito-beach trips.
It was during those trips to Cessy’s that I really fell for pico de gallo. So fresh and flavorful, it was the perfect condiment to brighten up my then-favorite bean, cheese, and rice burrito. While Cessy’s version wasn’t the freshest ever, as it used canned tomatoes, they were on to something by skipping bad tomatoes and going straight for the canned, flavor-packed ones; and at least they were being realistic.
Pico de gallo really needs to be made with good quality, flavorful, fresh tomatoes in order to be all that it can – and should – be. And often, that kind of fresh tomato is hard to find. If you look closer at the pico de gallo served at taquerias and sold at grocery stores, it almost always features bland, pinkish-white tomatoes and relies on vinegar, instead of incredible tomatoes and juicy limes, to contribute the necessary acidity to the salsa. But when you make it yourself and pick out fantastic tomatoes to start, you’re guaranteed a much better result than the pre-made stuff.
Making pico de gallo is not just rewarding to your taste buds, but is also relatively easy to do, as it just involves some chopping. And actually, if you’re not as obsessed as I am with having square chunks of tomatoes or if you prefer a more liquid salsa or you’re just short on time, you can toss all the ingredients in a food processor, pulse several times, and bypass the chopping. As for me, after years of preferring pico de gallo on the mushier, liquefied side, I came to appreciate the chunky stuff, so I don’t mind undergoing 5 or 10 minutes of chopping prep work. The chopping is especially worth it if pico de gallo is going to be the centerpiece of your dish (tortilla chips and salsa, anyone?) or a main ingredient (stir it into some mashed avocado for instant guacamole).
But even when it’s acting as more of a garnish, perhaps spooned atop a tortilla filled with sauteed peppers, onions, and meat for a fajita, making pico de gallo at home ensures it will be fresh, tomatoey, tangy, and perfectly seasoned to your taste every time.
Pico de Gallo
Makes approximately 2 cups
1 1/2 c. fresh tomatoes, chopped (dry-farmed tomatoes are especially good in this)
1/4 c. white onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeño or Serrano chile, minced (remove seeds for a less spicy version)
handful of cilantro leaves (about 1/2 c.), chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 to 2 limes, juiced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt (optional; I might have used a pinch, but not more)
In medium bowl, mix together all ingredients except salt until combined. Allow to marinate for 15 minutes before serving. Taste, and add salt if needed. Keeps in refrigerated, airtight container for 3 to 5 days. Before serving, stir well and, if it’s been sitting around for a couple days, drain excess liquid as needed.