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Sunday, May 19

Gapers Block

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When it's hot out, I crave cold foods. I also often crave spicy foods. Not sure why I get the desire to eat something that is going to make me sweat when the temperature and the humidity level go up, but I do.

Over the years I've come to pride myself on how to chop a few ingredients and throw them together to create a tasty fresh salsa. My desire to not follow recipes means I just open the refrigerator or wander the grocery store saying, "I wonder how this would taste with that?"

So imagine my surprise when a reader sent me a family recipe from Dallas, Texas for making cooked tomato salsa. I was amazed that I'd never thought of cooking food to put in salsa, and I was stunned that I'd never thought of cooking the onions, at least, before putting them in salsa since I'm allergic to raw onions.

But reading the recipe inspired me to go looking for more recipes that called for cooking ingredients before combining, chilling for an hour, and then eating while sitting somewhere with friends and wiping the sweat from my brow. Thankfully it wasn't hard to find recipes, which inspired other combinations and some experimentation. All of which was acceptable, most of which was durned tasty and taken home by friends.

Which makes me wonder why its become so hard to get good salsa at a restaraunt. Maybe I'm just choosier now than I was a few years ago. I know that the tomato crop has had problems the last few years, which has affected salsas. But heavens to Betsy, it's been a long time since I sat down in front of a plastic molcajete with a basket of chips and had to think twice about ordering dinner and not just another bowl of salsa.

So I've decided that I don't need those crappy salsas. I can make my own. And I can make it better. And so can you. If you've been unsure of your cooking abilities, this is a wonderful way to try things out. Even if you don't know how you like your risotto, or your marinades, you know how you like salsa. If there is a jarred salsa you really like, read the ingredients list and try to duplicate it. As long as the ingredients aren't chemicals, you might come pretty close. You can taste salsa and know if it needs more salt, or if it's too sweet, or if it needs something smoky, or if it needs more spice. And despite what those restaraunts lead you to believe, when you start with fresh ingredients, it's hard to make bad salsa.

Bill's Salsa from Dallas, Texas
4 large tomatoes
5 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of fresh cumin seed or 1 1/2 tablespoons of powder
peanut oil
5 jalapenos
1 large white or yellow onion
1 cup of fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon of powdered chicken bouillon
salt to taste

Over high heat, bring a medium saucepan full of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes in and let them cook for about 2-3 minutes. Spoon them out, being careful not to burn yourself. Place them under cool running water and rub lightly with your hands. The skins should come off. Cut them in half and scoop out the seeds and juice. Chop them up finely. Chop the onion and cilantro finely also. Mince or finely chop the garlic. Place it into a molcajete or use a mortar and pestle to crush the cumin seeds or powder and combine it with the garlic. Pour 1-2 tablespoons of peanut oil in a skillet and heat until the oil just starts to smoke. Use a pair of tongs and place the jalapenos in the skillet. Let them cook until the skin in blistery and cracking and brown or black. Run the peppers under cool running water to remove most of the skin. Chop the peppers and set them to the side. In the same skillet, turn the heat down to medium and add the onions, garlic and cilantro and cook until the onions turn clear and start to brown. Add the peppers and the cilantro and sauté until the cilantro wilts. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the bouillon and then add salt to taste. Pour into a bowl that is sitting in a shallow ice bath to stop the cooking and chill the salsa. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for an hour or two before serving. This will keep in your refrigerator (or your friend's) for about a week.

If you're not fond of having to chop lots of things very finely, or if you prefer a smoother salsa, you can throw everything into your blender or food processor till it has the consistency you want. Since this will make it thinner, I suggest dumping it back in the skillet and cooking it on high until more of the liquid has evaporated.

Pineapple Papaya Salsa
1 pineapple cut in 1/2-inch thick slices
1 tablespoon of peanut oil
3 jalapenos
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 small can of pineapple juice
1/2 of a papaya with the seeds removed and cut into chunks
1/2 cup of chopped cilantro
1/2 of a jicama that has been peeled and chopped into 1/4-inch cubes
juice from 1 lime
salt to taste

Add the oil and pineapple slices to a skillet placed over medium-high heat. Cook on each side for about 3-4 minutes, or until the pineapple slices just start to brown. Once they've been cooked on both sides and are soft, remove them from the skillet, cut them into chunks and put them in a blender or food processor. Once you remove the pineapple from the skillet, place the jalapeno peppers in the skillet and cook for a minute or two on each side. Use a pair of tongs to turn the peppers. Once the skin of the peppers has turned brown, remove them from the skillet and add the onion to the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium and let the onions cook until they start to turn brown. Cut the stems off the jalapenos and cut them into a few pieces and place them in the food processor. Once the onions are cooked through, add them to the food processor as well. Pulse a few times and add the pineapple juice. Pulse several times until you get a thick but chunky mix. Now add the papaya chunks to the food processor all at once — if you're using a blender, add them in handfuls. Puree the contents until it is thick but not too smooth. Pour this into a serving bowl. Add the cilantro, jicama and lime juice and stir the salsa until it is thoroughly mixed. Taste and add salt as needed.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa
1 1/2 pounds of fresh tomatillos
3 serrano peppers
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup of cilantro leaves
1 large onion
juice from one lime
salt to taste

Look for tomatillos where the papery skin is tight and hasn't turned brown or yellow. Pull off the papery husks, cut out the stems, and then rinse the tomatillos under very warm water to remove any sticky sap from them. Turn your broiler to low. Cut them in half and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. If you want a mild salsa, cut the serranos in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. If you prefer a spicier salsa, leave them whole. Peel the cloves of garlic and place them on the baking sheet. Cut the onion into quarters and place it on the baking sheet as well. Place the sheet about 4 inches from the burner in your oven and let it cook for about 5 minutes. By the time the skins of the tomatillos start turning brown, the garlic should be brown and so should the onions and peppers. Use a pair of tongs to flip everything and let it broil for another 4-5 minutes. Cut the stems off the peppers and throw everything into the blender or food processor and puree it. The stickiness of the tomatillos will make the salsa thick. Now chop up the cilantro very finely and sprinkle that and the lime juice in and stir. Taste it before adding more salt. Chill for at least an hour before serving. This can be kept in the refrigerator for about a week.

Here are three examples of the most common variety of cooked salsas. Feel free to experiment and see what tastes good. Leftover grilled corn can also be mixed with tomatoes and onions to make a thick salsa. Cherries can be boiled down and combined with mango to create a thick fruit salsa. Even left over grilled zucchini and bell peppers could be combined with finely chopped cucumber and turned into a thick and crunchy salsa.

Cooking vegetables and fruits causes flavors to change, there's no reason to limit your summer salsafication to fresh tomatoes, cilantro, and onion. Experiment a little. If you have a great salsa recipe thayou'd like to share (cooked or uncooked), send it my way. If I get enough I'll do a "Reader's Favorites" around July 4th. If you want your name and a link to appear with the recipe, just let me know.

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michellehaus / May 29, 2006 10:44 PM

I can't wait to try all of these--the pineapple papaya salsa is wonderful. The sweetness on initial tasting is soon followed by a nice, smooth taste immediately followed by the heat of the peppers. Delicious! Thanks, Cinnamon, for more great recipes!

Megan / May 31, 2006 12:24 PM

...but where can you get a good, fresh tomato? even if you're willing to pay, they seem hard to come by.

a scientist / June 2, 2006 11:29 AM

as a scientist, i'd suggest growing your own tomatoes.

Megan / June 8, 2006 4:16 PM

Indeed I am, scientist friend. Indeed I am. But I have to wait until August.


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