¡Salsa Fresca!

This just in!

Hey Eben and Monica,

OK, the tomatoes are now coming in faster than anyone wants to eat sliced, fresh tomatoes, and the time of salsa and stewed tomatoes is upon us.

I have made salsa a few times, but never really settled on a recipe. It has been good, but not great, and I’d like to take it up a notch. I also would like to make at least one big batch of real “chipotle” salsa with roasted __________ (peppers? jalapenos? tomatoes? what do I roast?) And how do I roast? On a gas grill, or in a gas oven (my only two available options, unless I start a fire in the guitar shop.) I have 4 kinds of tomatoes: Sungold Cherry (good for a sweet salsa?), Italian Plum, Oregon Spring medium big, red, slicing tomato, and an heirloom called Pruden’s Purple. I have mucho Jalapenos, plus several varieties of sweet peppers (Ace, Lipstick, Carmen, Banana.) Our Cilantro is at the coriander stage, so that will need to be purchased. I’ll also buy onions, as ours are small and probably too mild for good salsa zing.

When talking salsa recipes, one has to put their cards on the table about just how hot is hot enough. For me personally, I have had some changes to my innards, where my tongue can handle a lot hotter than my stomach and intestines, so if you would be so kind, please offer a variation on salsa recipe(s) that are closer to commercial “medium” than “hot.” I know I lose macho points for that, but physiological reality is reality.

Thanks!

Dennis

Oh it will absolutely be our pleasure, D-Man!! Salsa runs like water at our house; we always have several varieties working, as any self-respecting Tejano should! We’ll divide the subject broadly into fresh and cooked salsas and go from there.

Basic considerations for salsas are very loose; use whatever variety of tomato floats your boat; sweet, savory, peppery, any and every note can and will do nicely. Sweet onions are better than hot or too peppery; there are plenty of other flavor notes to pick up other than hot onions. Fresh cilantro is a must; if you don’t have it, don’t add it.

Now, let us address heat right up front. When it comes to using chiles, do use your imagination, but as Dennis alluded to in his request, in general it’s best to make things cooler than you might like if you’re a real ChileHead: If you’re making something to feed others, you really should make the heat level lowest common denominator. I don’t mean don’t have any heat in a salsa,, because to me, that’s just tomato sauce; I do mean build something reasonable that most folks can handle, and then add a side dish of fresh chopped chiles for your fellow ChileHeads to add as they see fit. As some of you know, I dig heat big time; that said, when we do salsa for others, we use one cored and seeded mild jalapeño for the chile and that’s it…

OK, let’s do the fresh stuff first; literally translated, Pico de Gallo means ‘Roosters Beak’ and maybe for that reason is also sometimes called Salsa Fresca. Pico is our personal favorite manifestation of the art. The essence of it is simply tomato and onion, though for our minds, you must have cilantro and chile as well. Pico lends itself to many, many things, from simple munching with chips, to a scoop on soup or stew or damn near anything else from eggs to enchiladas. Here’s the basic recipe we work from:

Classic Pico de Gallo

4 tomatoes of your choice, cored, seeded and diced
1 sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced
1-3 chiles of your choice, cored, seeded and fine diced.
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

Note: You might look at the recipe above and ask, “Sugar? huh?!” Well, in pico especially, salt and/or sugar can and will bring out flavor balances, so experiment and use them as you see fit.

Options:
MANY, is the bottom line. Add FRESH lime, lemon, orange, or grapefruit juice to add a great citrus note to the flavor. Juice a tomato and add that. Garlic, dill, shallot, annatto, chipotle, smoked paprika, smoked cherries, smoked salt, smoked pepper seed – Get the picture? Experiment and see what floats your boat!

Picante:
A lot of folks have asked about the difference between a pico style salsa and a picante style salsa; it’s a great question, not a dumb one! To us down here, pico is the raw, mixed veggie salsa with a minimal juice or sauce component, while picante is a salsa that is predominantly sauce-based. If you think of restaurant salsa, it is much more often picante style than pico. That said, there’s a broad assumption that picante style salsas are always cooked, and I’m here to say that it ain’t necessarily so; to me, the freshest and best picantes are NOT cooked, but that’s just me – You do what floats your boat, right? Right! One general note, the components of picante should be a finer dice/mince than pico; it’s just a bit more blended/refined…

Fresh Salsa Picante

4 tomatoes of your choice
1 onion, skinned and minced
¼ cup minced cilantro
2-3 chiles of your choice, seeded, cored and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, and cumin to taste.

Blanche your tomatoes; peel them all after blanching.
Take 3 of your ‘maters and put ‘em in a blender, processor, or have at ‘em with a boat motor until they are thoroughly liquefied. Add salt, pepper, garlic and cumin to taste to this liquid and set aside.

Dice your remaining tomatoes, and combine with onion, cilantro, and chiles. Add your liquid component and blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust spicing as needed. Refrigerate and allow to chill and blend for at least an hour prior to serving.

Cooked Salsas:
The primary delights of cooked salsa are twofold; one, you get a blending and sophistication of flavor that is not always found in a fresh salsa, and two, you get longevity, which is very good when winter days grow shorter, eh? That said, cooking a salsa also allows you to add subtlety of flavor that may not always fly in a fresh product, so feel free to think outside the box in this regard!

For recipe considerations, I offer the following:

Classic Red Salsa

10 -12 tomatoes of your choice
1-2 med onion, diced.
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 chiles, your choice, blanched, stemmed, veined and seeded.
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Blanch half your tomatoes, then peel and blend, puree or motorboat to a nice, even consistency. Put that mix into a sauce pan over medium heat.
Add oil to a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add onion and chiles and sauté for a couple minutes. Remove from heat and garlic and allow to sauté for another minute or two.
Combine sauted veggies, the rest of your tomatoes, Cored, seeded and diced), the cilantro, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer on low heat for about an hour. Remove from heat and place into a non-reactive container to cool. Will last several days refrigerated, also can be canned, of course!

Salsa Verde

10-12 tomatillos, husks removed, of course…
1-2 small sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 green chiles of your choice, (Anaheim or Hatch are nice), diced
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste.

Employ the exact same process as for the red salsa above and you’re good to go!

Smokin!
First and foremost is Dennis’ question above; how about chipotle? Yeah, buddy! Like I said above, we love jalapeños and eat ‘em like candy; we love chipotle just as much, you see, ‘cause they ain’t nothin’ more than a
dried and/or smoked jalapeño, and that’s a fact! Smoking or roasting your own chiles will get just the right note you want.

I take my chiles and roast them on the grill as my go-to method; just layer chiles on the grates and let ‘em have it until the skins are black and blistered. Remove them and allow to cool. You can skin, stem and seed then and further process for freezing or canning, or simply bag ‘em up, suck the air out and freeze ‘em right like that; all those options will work great and give a very nice flavor.

If you have a smoker, put a nice even layer of whole chiles under moderately low heat smoke, (Under 200 degrees for me) for 20 to 60 minutes depending on the level of smoky you want. I’ve smoked already roasted chiles and fresh ones; they all come out nicely. If I’m going to use the dehydrator and completely dry the peppers after smoking, I use fresh; if I’m gonna can or freeze, I usually roast lightly first, then smoke.

Fully dried, smoked jalapeños processed in your spice blender, (AKA a second, cheap coffee bean grinder), makes chipotle flake and powder, with which you can do SO much! For salsa, add your smoked peppers in lieu or in combination with fresh chiles to get the level of smokiness and flavor you like; that usually means making several batches to find just the right blend – Darn…

As for canning, while many have hot water processed salsa and done OK, I have to say that I prefer and advise pressure canning for all salsas; because of that, cooked salsas lend themselves much better to the process than fresh do, so keep that in mind as you haul out the canning gear this fall.

So there ya go, D-Man, did I cover everything?

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