What makes good pico? I've been thinking about this periodically over the past month, and I've come to at least some preliminary conclusions. First, what makes bad pico. Bad pico tastes like bad salad – little pieces of vegetables jumbled together. Size is not considered – chunks of tomato and onion are long and thin, or still have tomato gunk attached. Onion is raw and harsh, and the ratio is about 1:1 with tomato. Each bit might lead to an astringent onion taste in the back of the throat. Lime juice is non-existent as a buffer, or is an attempt is made to cover it up with heat – jalapeno chunks, maybe even pickled, or even hot sauce! Cilantro might even be dried! At its best, pico is a simple complex dish. It's just salad, but like a good salad, the components blend together to make a whole, without needing some type of overwhelming sauce to bind the flavor components together. My pico recipe was first concocted to try and eliminate the things I hate about bad pico – either the 'pico' you get on the side at a Mexican restaurant, or the onion-dominated stuff you get from most folks, or the soupy, Pace inspired gunk that people pass off as 'the best pico ever'. No, my pico needed to be simplified but cohesive. Both a dip and a salad.
I started with the onion, probably the flavor component that drives me most mad about bad pico. In my opinion, good onion flavor never focuses on the onion itself. Rather, it mellows out the onion and infuses it into the rest of the dish. Onion flavor is like a foundation to a house, or a base color in a painting. You don't really notice it outright, but if it weren't there, the taste of the dish would fall apart. Onion is required, but it must be treated carefully. Like when building a house, the setting of the foundation either gets in the way of or enables future construction, the 'foundation' of a pico is the onion flavor.
I decided on a technique from Nigella Lawson's 'Forever Summer' book, in which she used red onions and steeped them in lime juice for an hour. This steeping in acid mellowed the onion flavor considerably. It almost sweetens the already mild red onions, and it also provides a uniformity of color – spreading the deep red of the skin throughout the meat and turning all into a vibrant pink. Additionally, the lime juice marinade becomes infused with 'onioness', and in her salad, where she mixes the mellowed onions, with of all things, olives and watermelon, this juice becomes the base of the dressing. This technique is perfect for pico, where both onion and lime juice are important flavor components. One, the onion, I've already described as the flavor foundation. Two, the lime juice, is the mortar – it takes the edge off all of the flavors and melds them together for the tongue. The lime juice makes the pico taste like pico, and not tomatoes and onions and cilantro and peppers.
Next, the ratio of tomato to onion. I took a look on recipezaar, and knew a 1:1 was not what I was after. Onions needed to be at a lower proportion then that. I settled on 6:1 tomatoes to onions to start with, and this seemed right to me. Tomato is the primary flavor component of pico, the first 'featured' flavor to really count in the recipe, and the primary contributor to color. Good tomatoes are even more important. Since the raw tomato is featured in this dish, those mealy cheap Romas are not what is needed. Nice, juicy vine ripe tomatoes with sweet and acidic meat are what we're after here.
Everything beyond tomato, onion and lime juice is a contributing ingredient. Important, but as long as they do not contradict the foundation flavors, colors and textures it's not that important. First, heat. Necessary, but not overwhelming. I settled on seeded fresh jalapenos – one of my favorites for heat that doesn't whap you over the head with each bite. Next, cilantro – I love it, but I wanted it just torn, to somewhat mimic the size of the tomato and onion dice. Lastly, I needed savoriness, just a little, but enough to reinforce the combination of flavors as a single entity. For that, I added anchos, both for sweetness as well as depth from the smoky flavors, and a clove of pressed garlic. I'm not a big fan of the garlic press, but that essence of garlic flavor is what I was after here – I did not want little pieces of garlic sticking in my mixture – even from a good mince. That would ruin the taste, not to mention change the texture – the pieces would be too small to really work with the onion and tomato uniform dice. A press of garlic would distribute in the lime juice and so hit each part of the pico without disturbing the dice.
Speaking of dice, uniformity in onion and tomato dice is absolutely critical. Different size pieces will ruin the melding of flavors. Anchos and jalapenos can be smaller, but need to be relatively so, to be almost like a second layer of dice that doesn't disturb the base structure of the pico. Distraction in mouthfeel and textures has the potential to ruin the tenuous cohesiveness of the flavors, held together only by lime juice! This simple relationship between flavors, so easily broken, is why pico is so intriguing to me, and also why it is so easily screwed up.
My pico recipe (02/01/04)
1/2 of a medium red onion (1/2 cup diced)
3 cups diced tomatoes
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
1 bunch cilantro, chopped (1/4 cup)
2 ancho chiles, roughly chopped
1clove garlic, pressed
juice of seven limes
Mellow the onion in the lime juice for about 1 hour, drain and shake, reserving the juice (do not rinse!)
Mix all ingredients and refrigerate for 1 hour or more
Do not add salt – it will mushify the mixture