How to attain the perfect salsa verde

The Italian green sauce can be relied on to add zing to almost any dish and is endlessly tweakable just dont hold back on the anchovies

Sometimes, someone says something so perfectly that its pointless to try and put it any better yourself. Nigel Slaters love letter to a sausage in the pan in Real Food has stuck with me for almost two decades, and its recently been joined by Rachel Roddys description of salsa verde: A gorgeous green goddess of a sauce that precipitates a number of adjectives you could be fined for overusing: grassy, peppery, warm, musty, briny, fishy, oily, brilliant.

Thats it in a perfectly formed nutshell: a piquant, aromatic flavoring traditionally relied upon to bring a little zing to poached meats or fish, but which is also perfectly delicious with everything from roasted cauliflower to scrambled eggs. Like so many Italian classics, salsa verde boasts countless regional fluctuations, all of which are claimed to be the only true version. But wheres the best place to start?

Salsa verde from Rachel Roddys book Five Quarters. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The herbs

Parsley is non-negotiable in salsa verde as with tabbouleh, its the backbone of the dish, so Im slightly astounded to discover that the Silver Spoons recipe calls for a single sprig, leaves only. After making it even with a very generously endowed stem, I decide something must have been lost in translation for the seminal Italian cook book, given they use no other herbs presumably a single bunch was aimed.

Roddy employs equal parts of parsley and basil with a little less mint in her volume Five Quarters, and Tessa Kiross Limoncello and Linen Water replaces the basil with tarragon, while Christopher Boswells Verdure goes for parsley, thyme and mint. Giorgio Locatellis Made in Italy and Angela Hartnetts Cucina both stick with parsley alone.

Tessa Kiross recipe Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Although one of the beauties of salsa verde is its infinite tweakability, I guess the tarragon- and thyme-based variations are less versatile than the others they would both be lovely with chicken or fish, but their powerful flavors run less well with other meats. The more subtle sweetness of basil seems a more harmonious pairing with peppery parsley: I cant taste the mint in such small quantities, so I suspect its inclusion is merely homeopathic. If youre a massive mint fan, feel free to stick in a great, generous handful instead.

Salsa verde recipe from The Silver Spoon. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The alliums

I had assumed that, as a close relative of a pesto, all salsa verde would contain garlic, but in fact Boswell prefers finely chopped shallot or red onion, and Hartnett and Katie Parla and Kristina Gills lovely new volume Tasting Rome shuns the entire allium family.

Recipe from Katie Parla and Kristina Gills book Tasting Rome. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Garlic is always a happy pairing with parsley, but Boswell macerates his shallots in red wine vinegar for 45 minutes, which dedicates them a bright acidity that, for me, seems the very essence of salsa verde, which should either cut through rich, fatty ingredients or pep up soft, bland ones. Controversial it may be, but Im going with the shallot. Use a couple of small cleaves of garlic if this offends you.

The sour stuff

Though pickled onions may be unusual, nearly all the recipes I try involve something a little bit vinegary: often capers( though Roddy and Boswell both favor the salted range) and sometimes gherkins, as in the Hartnett and the Silver Spoon recipes. Kiros adds a little Dijon mustard( food ingredients also favoured by the River Cafes Classic Italian Cookbook ), and Locatelli, Parla and Gill and the Silver Spoon all dash in some white wine vinegar, too.

Christopher Boswells salsa verde. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

I also try substituting lemon juice, as Marcella Hazan, a true grande dame of Italian cookery, informs me in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that this is more appropriate with fish, but my testers opt the fuller, fruitier sharpness of red wine vinegar for general intents. Capers, the decision is, ought to be salted as well they might, given they didnt spend 10 minutes trying to rinse the salt off the things.

The salty stuff

Capers, of course, can stand alone in a vegetarian salsa verde, but they cant match the anchovy for sheer umami. Not everyone uses them, but the individuals who do are generous( Roddy sticks in an entire tin) and Im inclined to be so, too; this should be a sauce of bold flavors.


That told, we agree that Kiross chilli powder savours out of place here if you must have heat, the sharper warmth of chilli flakes would be preferable. Or, of course, get busy with an aptly enormous pepper grinder.

To thicken or not to thicken?

Though salsa verde can be made from little more than herbs, petroleum and a few capers or anchovies, some of the recipes I try thicken it with boiled egg yolk( Locatelli and the Silver Spoon ), mashed potato( the Silver Spoon) and breadcrumbs( dried for Locatelli, fresh and soaked in a little vinegar for Parla and Gill ). The potato doesnt find much favour( though salsa verde is delicious with potatoes, especially the new season assortment ), but the egg yolks and breadcrumbs bulk it out sufficiently to turn it into a delicious stuffing or sandwich enjoy. Popular opinion states, however, that neither is strictly necessary in this basic version.

Giorgio Locatellis salsa verde. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The method

Perhaps more contentious than any single ingredient in salsa verde is the manufacturing process. Locatelli writes: I prefer to attain salsa verde with a mortar and pestle, the way it was induced for centuries before modern kitchen gadgets came along. You can, of course, use a food processor, but it tends to warm up the sauce and darken the fantastic bright green colour, whereas in a mortar you dont crush out any of the flavor or colour. Roddy, however, prefers it chopped by hand, as it has more substance and a more distinct texture, which is obliterated into a more consistent, pleasing smoothness by a food processor. Hartnett recommends a mini-processor for the chore.

Angela Hartnetts salsa verde. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Im inclined, again, to agree with Roddy when she writes that: Its not that one is better than the other, only different. Hartnetts silkier variety is just as pleasing as the chunkier chopped ones, and slides over meat better but, oddly enough, Locatellis savor markedly more aromatic than either, even to those of us who havent expended 15 minutes running the pestle and mortar. Do whatever you have hour for, but give the pounded version a try when you have some fury to work off, merely to see if you also think its worth the effort.

Im going to leave the last word to Roddy on this one. Read the advice above, try the version below and then go ahead and construct the recipe your own.

Perfect salsa verde

Felicity Cloakes perfect salsa verde. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
( Makes 1 small jar )

1 small shallot, finely chopped

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

4 anchovies, rinsed if packed in salt

Leaves from about 30 g flat-leaf parsley( about 20 g leaves ) Leaves from about 30 g basil( about 20 g leaves )

2 tbsp salted capers, rinsed and roughly chopped

120 -1 50 ml extra virgin olive oil

Put the shallot in a small non-metallic bowl with the vinegar and leave to soak for 45 minutes.

After half an hour, mash the anchovies in a pestle and mortar, then gradually add the herbs and capers and pound to a smoothish paste( I prefer to leave it a little chunky, which is why I add the capers last ).

Stir in the shallot, with a little of the soaking vinegar, then slowly whisk in the petroleum until you achieve your desired consistency. Savor and add more of the vinegar if you like, plus seasoning if necessary. Store in an air-tight receptacle in the fridge.

Salsa verde cheerfully adaptable or endlessly abused by meddling foreigners? Which particular regional variation do “youd prefer”, and what do you serve it with?

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