The answer to the question may be a bit subjective, but let's give it whirl.
The obvious - if we're talking tomato salsa - is vine-ripe tomatoes. But I said "secret" ingredient, so let's not go for the obvious.
Some might say it's cilantro, and frankly that's not a bad guess. But you have this whole contingent of folks out there for whom cilantro is a real deal breaker. I personally am not one of those people. I love it... but I think given its "controversial" nature, it simply can't be the answer.
And how about lime juice? Very close there, too. Lime juice really does brighten up most any dish you add it to. But I'm not sure it takes salsa from good to great.
But these little guys
They do the trick. In case you don't know what they are, they're cumin seeds. And knowing that I'm stating the obvious here, they're what ground cumin is made from.
In my opinion, ground cumin is a good spice. Good, but not great - very useful in a variety of tex-mex dishes. But I discovered years ago that by using the whole seed, toasted, you get the most wonderful, smoky, fragrant flavor in your salsas. And we're not talking that overpowering smokiness of chipotle (which I also love)... it's more a subtle, rich smokiness that you think... hmmm... that was really good... I want more... what was that?
Most food experts will tell you, whole spices freshly ground are always better. But honestly, on busy weeknights, I'm not opposed to a bottle of ground spices to simplify prep and clean-up. That's the great thing, though, about cumin seeds...no grinding needing.
If you've never tried cumin seed in your salsa before, give my Summer Salsa (below) a try and let me know what you think.
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 (15 oz.) can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 cup fresh corn kernels
- 1 red bell pepper, minced
- 1 ripe tomato, diced
- 1/2 medium purple onion, minced
- 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
Toast cumin seeds in a skillet over medium heat 1-2 minutes or until brown and fragrant, stirring often.
Combine cumin seeds, black beans, and remaining ingredients; toss well. Cover and store in refrigerator up to 1 week. Serve with tortilla chips, over grilled chicken/fish or as a filling for quesadillas.