Salsa is just one solution to the late-summer fix tomatoes put us in
When harvest season arrives, I hit the farmers market like a sailor hits a strip club: with a fistful of dollars I never want to see again. It’s fun being a farmers market operative, and the fun doesn’t end for months. Because when certain things are in season I hit the market strategically, stocking up on my favorite items to store for year-round consumption. And when the tomatoes are ripe, I gear up to make a year’s worth of salsa.
By “year’s worth of salsa,” I mean about 20 quarts. I’m just a quasi-normal guy who takes his salsa in hearty but reasonable doses, most often on corn chips in the afternoon and eggs in the morning. Some people, like my sweetheart Shorty, can sit down with a jar of salsa and a spoon and those 20 quarts will be gone before you can say “buenos nachos.” Because of Shorty, to end up with a year’s worth of salsa I have to put up several years’ worth each fall.
The two primary ingredients in salsa are tomatoes and peppers, both of which hail from a family of crops called nightshades, which also include eggplants and potatoes. Nightshades often cook well together, and they store well together. A stash of potatoes and homemade ketchup, for example, can make for a nice December snack, while an abundance of eggplants and tomatoes, from garden or market, is a wintertime ratatouille waiting to happen—frozen or canned.
For a year’s supply of nightshade sauce I usually fork over the equivalent of a fancy night on a small town —about $100. You’ll get the most for your money at the peak of harvest when supply is high and prices can dip.
The ratio of tomato to pepper should be about one-to-one in volume, or three parts tomato to one part pepper by weight. For 40 pounds of tomatoes, that is, a box or two, you’ll want 13 to 15 pounds of peppers, 10 large onions, 3 pounds of carrots and six heads of garlic.
I learned the ways of nightshade sauce from Roy, a friend, used-car dealer and Willie Nelson look-alike. Over the years I’ve strayed from Roy’s path, as most grasshoppers do when they leave the monastery, nixing cumin and tomatillos from the recipe, for example. Nonetheless, Roy’s process lives on in my powerpacked red jars.
Unlike fresh salsa, which is supposed to taste good more or less immediately, canned salsa needs to taste good after lots of cooking and waiting. I like to keep the recipe simple, without spices like cumin that can take over the jar between now and February. Like Roy, I like my salsa hot. It adds to the flavor experience, and triggers the release of the same endorphins behind runner’s high and heroin’s kick, without the hassle, side effects or illegalities. And most importantly, the capsicum heat slows down Shorty, who would otherwise mainline my stash before the jars even seal.
Any tomato will do, but juicy, high-acid canning tomatoes are ideal. Your choice of peppers should be tailored to your heat tolerance and should embrace diversity, representing as many shapes, colors, sizes and flavors as possible.
Ye of little heat tolerance should assemble a posse of mild, sweet and medium varieties. Roy, of great heat tolerance (he once used extreme doses of chile pepper to kick a nasty drug habit), uses jalapenos, bells, Anaheims, wax, big chiles, little chiles, cups of crushed dried chile peppers, crumbled handfuls of dried whole chile peppers, including a few habaneros and, for good measure, a can of Mexicanstyle pickled carrots and peppers, all run through the processor. When you make salsa with Roy, you need to wear rubber gloves, and wash your hands both before and after using the bathroom.
“Ahh done really now hwhat aam doin,” Roy claims humbly in a Georgia twang thick enough to get your truck stuck in. “Ahh jus throw sum she-it in jawrs.” Indeed, Roy’s recipe is not to be confused with your county extension agent’s. You should know the basics of canning before attempting to follow this recipe.
Roy’s unit of measurement is the food processor load. As in: “five loads a tomatoes, five loads a peppers, two loads a onions, one load a carrots, half a load a garlic.” Then, keep adding loads of peppers and tomatoes until the pot is nearly full.
Mix the contents, turn on the heat, and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping often to prevent scalding. While heating, add a cup of minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. As soon as it’s boiling uncontrollably, turn off the heat, ladle the salsa into hot sterilized jars, and screw on sterilized rings and lids. The jars will seal as they cool.
As you gaze upon your new stash of salsa and listen to a symphony of pings from the sealing jars, you might realize for the first time how tired you are. Processing food is tiring, hot, and messy. But the same is true of many of the finer things in life. Award-winning food writer Ari LeVaux pens Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s graced more than 50 newspapers in 20 states. Email Ari at firstname.lastname@example.org.