There is a particular bottled salsa on every table in Costa Rica. It's called Lizano and the first time you taste it you have to stop and think a minute. Do I like it or not? Sure, it tastes like a mass-produced bottled sauce but somehow it's also really pleasant in a sweet, smoky, tangy way — like A1 meets tamarind paste — and then you're addicted and you look at the label, and if you understand Spanish, as I do, you find that it's loaded with fun stuff like like sodium benzoate and MSG.
You're already hooked, so you continue eating it on your vacation knowing that soon you'll be home and can swear off the stuff, conveniently no longer within arms' reach of a bottle. You eat it because it's perpetually in front of you and is a perfect match for the day-in-day-out Gallo Pinto, literally "spotted rooster" or rice and beans in Costa Rica.
You hate Lizano and love it all at once, and when you get back home you can think of little else. I'd be fibbing if I said I didn't return from Costa Rica every year with dreams of making a homemade version to have stateside. It would be the perfect thing to stash away for leftovers, egg sandwiches, and of course, rice and beans.
Though I haven't been to Costa Rica in a few years, I recently felt a wave of nostalgia and set out to create my version of Lizano. Of course it has no preservatives and isn't as salty as the original. I first took a trip deep into Williamsburg Brooklyn to the local Food Bazaar a chain of markets that serves mostly Latin American and Caribbean communities with "the flavors that they love and recall from back home." It was the only place in the New York area that I called that had even heard of Lizano.
Then it was into the kitchen lab with the ingredients listed on the label plus a few others I thought would make up for the loss of the flavor enhancers and preservatives. I even tried putting a spoonful of powdered vegetable broth base. It made a difference, though I'm listing it as optional. Getting the lip-smacking umami experience and also improving the flavor of the sauce to make it taste less fakey-fakey was difficult. I'll admit that the final recipe isn't an exact replica of Lizano, but if comes close enough.
Ladies and gentlemen, here is your new go-to sauce for making those rice and beans, egg sandwiches, and all manner of leftovers more exciting.
Lizano-Style Costa Rican Salsa
makes about 2 cups
1-2 dried chiles, such as guajillo
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 small yellow onion
1 4-inch piece thick carrot, chopped
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon unflavored vinegar
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons fine salt
2 teaspoons molasses
2 teaspoons all-natural powdered vegetable broth base, optional
Remove the stems of the chiles and then slice the chiles in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and fibrous connective material attaching the seeds to the chiles. Pre-heat a 6-8-inch cast iron or stainless steel skillet over medium heat. Lay the chile pieces in the pan and toast, turning after about 2 minutes. Add the water and lower the heat to bring the water to a simmer. Simmer for about five minutes. Remove the chile pieces from the pan and place in blender. Measure out 1 cup of the chile-infused water and add this to the blender with the chiles.
Add the onion, carrot, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, salt, molasses, bouillon if using. Blend until smooth. Taste for seasoning.
Sauce will keep in refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Related: Good Eats: Gallo Pinto
(images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)