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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Making salsa from the garden

By Wes Eaton

I just made three quarts of scrumptious fresh salsa and before I even begin cleaning up the kitchen, I want to share my recipes, reasonings and experience with you all. What made it so good? There’s many ways to answer that question, but of course a reasonable explanation would take into account the ingredients.

Enter the tomato. Few vegetables equally capture the passion and obsession of gardeners. Just awhile earlier, before the sun set, I was harvesting from my backyard raised-beds and holding up a fat Brandywine, irregularly lobed, deep fissures with an animated belly-button on the blossom end, hefting its girth with surprise and satisfaction, recognizing the absolute handiness of its being, and looking around, half expecting someone to holler, “Hey! That’s a handsome tomato!” I put this in my basket and added a couple dozen Rome and Roma, a handful of jalapenos, habanero and wax peppers and some cilantro, went to the garage to clip some garlic from the drying rack, and then to the cellar for white onions, apple and red wine vinegar. Add a little salt and lime from the kitchen and I had all the makings for a fresh salsa.

As I didn’t have a particular recipe in mind I went to my essential sources. First I looked up Tomatoes in Harold McGee’s indelible On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. McGee lets us know tomatoes are actually fruits we use as vegetables. He links their popularity to their unique flavor, due to their unusually large amount of glutamic acid and sulfur compounds--food components more often found in meat, and thereby highly complementary to hearty dishes such as rich salsa.

Next I looked to Madison CSA coalition’s From Asparagus to Zucchini, the guidebook on storing and using fresh vegetables to find that tomatoes, originally from the warm climates of South America but later domesticated in Mexico, are best stored warm as opposed to in the fridge. Additionally, tomatoes continue to ripen once picked, advisably done out of the sun.

Finally I dug out Bollin’s Salsa Lovers Cookbook, a Southwest-published, spiral-bound treasure with hundreds of recipes as well as techniques for blanching tomatoes as well as preparing and storing chiles. Bollin tells us chile (not chili) is the common name for hot peppers, such as Anaheim, jalapeno and serrano commonly used in Southwestern and Mexican cooking. Additionally I noticed two trends and therefore decided on two different recipes, one using tomatoes and chiles with skins removed through blanching and roasting, respectively, and the other with untampered ingredients.

According to Bollin as well as Madison CSA’s volume, blanching is simple: dunk whole tomatoes in boiling water for 15-30 seconds, lift out with slotted spoon, and remove skins. Before doing so, I shallowly cored my Romes, cut a slight “X” on the blossom end and finished the fruits in a bowl of ice water. The skins actually fell off by themselves. Roasting chile peppers, however, was a bit more challenging. The goal is to heat “the chile to enable the tough transparent skin to separate from the pod so that the skin can be removed”. So while I grasped the chiles with tongs and roasted them over fire until blistered, and rested them in a plastic bag for ten minutes, I still needed finally to scrape the skin from the pod with a butchers knife. Eventually preparations were done and it was time to put things together. After consulting these and other sources, including a friend well known for his cutting edge salsa, I settled on these two recipes I’m calling Traditional and Garden Salsa. They represent inspiration from all three sources above.

Wes’ Traditional Salsa (for one quart) 

    • 8 large, ripe Rome, Roma or other ‘paste’ variety tomatoes that have been blanched
    • 6 roasted, skinned and seeded chiles (I used two each of Anaheim, jalapeno and cayennes)
    • 1/4 bunch of cilantro
    • 1 medium white onion
    • Juice from 1/2 lime
    • Splash of both red wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar
    • Salt to taste 
Wes’ Garden Salsa (for two quarts) 

    • 12 large, ripe Rome, Roma or other ‘paste’ variety tomatoes
    • 4 large wax peppers
    • 1 habanero
    • 5 cloves garlic (preferably hard-neck)
    • 1/2 bunch of cilantro
    • 1 medium white onion
    • 1 medium red onion
    • 2 splashes of both red wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar
    • Salt to taste 
Actually making the salsa is a simple affair. Add all ingredients minus the tomatoes to the blender and quickly blend. Once things have begun to chop up, add the juicy tomatoes and blend just a moment longer. While tomatoes are naturally high in acid (low pH), the vinegars and salt help further preserve the salsa you don’t finish tonight for days in jars in your fridge.

Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dogs in Grand Rapids, MI, where tomato, or not tomato--that is the question.  

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