¡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?

Good, Better, Best

OK so, let’s generalize about eating veggies. We’ve covered some specific eats and styles of cooking, but big picture, what to do? Here’s a few thoughts.

Crudité:
AKA, fancy French word for raw! Raw veggies are wonderful, and there’re few better methods to get great flavor from them: Crudité veggies are usually prepped and cut to bite size, which is nice for your diners, given the robust textures involved. While crudité veggies are usually done as an appetizer, they needn’t be held to just that: If you’re doing a multi-course meal, consider a crudité course between others as a nice palette cleanser. You can certainly add raw veggies to a main course or salad as well. A crudité course typically involves something to dip the veggies in, like a nice olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or a vinaigrette; even super simple things like butter and good salt with fresh radishes is a real treat.

Steaming:
A lot of veggies will turn out grandly if steamed, but not that many folks do it – I’m not sure why, maybe we feel we need special equipment, etc… Truth be told, a steaming basket does do a better job and if you’re truly gonna steam, ya kinda need one: See, to do this correctly, you need a little boiling water turning to steam beneath your veggies, with the rising, moist heat doing the cooking. If your veggies are sitting in boiling water, well, you’re not steaming, OK? Obvious choices to best benefit from this method include sugar snap peas, carrots, artichokes, asparagus, quartered onion or cabbage, and…

Boiling:
Well, let’s face it, boiling is kinda crude in the big picture of things: If you’re preparing nice, delicate, flavorful veggies, why boil ‘em to death if you have options? Answer, don’t, just do the ones that need or want this method. Truth be told, I can’t think of many things other than spuds that really want to be boiled… Yams, maybe turnips… I just can’t think of much more, and truth be told again, most of these will taste, look, and feel better with other methods, such as…

Roasting:
Roasting is cooking with dry heat, which might sound an awful lot like baking because… It is. Either method speaks of cooking with dry heat, with maybe a small amount of fat or liquid; baking usually refers to breads and baked goods, while roasting speaks to eat, fish, poultry, etc. For veggies, roasting is best done in an open pan, (We like glass and stone a lot, but metal’s fine if that’s what you’ve got). Dang near any veggie you want to cook will love being roasted and will reward you with depth and intensity of flavors that’ll knock your socks off. From potatoes to tomatoes and everything in between, try it, you’ll like it. Love asparagus or artichoke steamed? Try ‘em roasted with a drizzle of good olive oil and salt. Roast disparate veggies, (i.e. those that cook at different times), together by varying the cut you use to prepare each veg; for example, cut potatoes and carrots relatively small, while leaving celery, onion and tomato bigger – Balance things right and they all get done at the same time and are juuuuuust right! Roasting absolutely begs for flavor, so indulge, but conservatively – Apply my Golden Rule of Three, (No more than 3 spices, major flavor notes, etc), and have some fun: Olive oil, salt and Oregano; Garlic, lime, dill; thyme, chive, and balsamic vinegar; Salt, Pepper, and Rosemary – get the picture?

Braising:
Brai… huh?! Oh, trust me, if you don’t know braising, you wanna, for real! Braising means browning food in a fat, and then slow cooking it in a covered, liquid filled container. Do veggies dig this? Is the Pope Austrian? YES!! What are we talking about here? OK, demo time – how about killer root veggies for a nice treat? take potatoes, carrots and beets, cut ‘em into roughly bite sized pieces, and then heat a sauté pan to high with good olive oil in it. Brown the root veggies evenly, then put them in a casserole pan and cover with a bottle of good dark beer, like a Porter or Stout of your choice. Add garlic, salt, pepper, and a shot of Tabasco, and let that mix simmer until the veggies are fork tender, then serve with… Get the picture?

Anyway, there ain’t much right and wrong, just what you like, what you don’t, and what you ain’t tried yet – So try something here you’ve not, and let me know whatcha think!

Classic Bruschetta

OK, well tomatoes are coming, and I have seen the variety and tasted the quality, so y’all are up for some wonderful treats! We’ll start into tomato dishes with a classic Bruschetta, perfect for a summer evening.

Classic Tomato Bruschetta

3 or 4 ripe tomatoes of your choice
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tblspns extra virgin olive oil
1 tblspns balsamic vinegar
3 or 4 leaves fresh basil, chiffonade cut
Salt and pepper to taste

To chiffonade:
Stack your leaves so they’re all lined up the same way. Now roll the leaves into a nice, tightly rolled bundle. Start at one end with a sharp parking knife and make cuts clean through the roll, about 1/8″ apart – The tighter the roll, the finer your cut – You can go thinner than an 1/8″ as you see fit!

1 loaf of Focaccia, Ciabatta, or French bread

scald your tomatoes by dropping them in water that you’ve just brought to a boil and then removed from the heat. Let ’em sit for about a minute and then pull ’em out and pat ’em dry. use the edge of a paring knife to peel the skins off the ‘maters.

After you’ve skinned ’em, cut the tomatoes into quarters and remove the centers and seeds. Now cut your bounty into a rough 1/4″ dice.

Combine the minced garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and basil in a non-reactive bowl, toss to coat everything thoroughly, cover and let sit in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Slice your bread into nice, grab-able slices and arrange on a cookie sheet. Brush each slice lightly with extra virgin olive oil and put ’em under your oven broiler until golden brown.

Keep the bread and bruschetta separate, so that folks can spoon up their own, and to keep the bread from gettin’ soggy.

Serve with a nice, cool bottle of white wine and enjoy!

Neeeeeext!

Well, went and opened my big mouth about the corn pico, so gotta provide the full meal deal on that! Here ya go:

Roasted Corn Pico de Gallo

Rinse clean and dice:

½ onion
1 cup cilantro
3 medium-sized tomatoes
Kernels from 1 ear roasted corn
Juice of 1 large lime
Splash of orange or grapefruit juice
Salt, pepper, and sugar to taste

Add a chile or pepper, as desired; if you’re a heat weenie, (And you know who you are), dice bell pepper and go with that. For you Chileheads, anything from Jalapeno to Serrano to Habanera will do – Once again though, TASTE YOUR CHILE BEFORE YOU ADD IT, so you don’t make stuff too hot to enjoy! With the hotter chiles, always vein and seed ‘em before dicing and don’t go to the bathroom right after preparation….

Incorporate all ingredients in a non-metallic bowl; let sit for an hour for taste to mingle and develop. Keeps for a couple days refrigerated.

One additional note on beans; you CAN freeze ’em, ya know. If you put ’em in a good sealing freezer bag and suck all the air out, (Poor man’s vacuum packaging), they’ll last for 90 days easily and still maintain their taste. Of course, canning is much preferred, but sometimes ya gotta do whatcha gotta do, right?

Beans, Beans, they’re good for your heart…

Sorry, couldn’t resist…

OK very first question for the chef blog, and here we go:

“This week it’s a bean glut if you are eating locally here in Northern Minnesota. Our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members and customers at our market stand will find lots of just-picked green, purple, and striped fresh beans available.

Of course, the first green beans of the season deserve just steaming with some butter on top, but after that—what to do with pounds of them? How about some suggestions for all of us snap-bean-lovin’ locavores? Maybe some ways to spice them up a bit? We know that’s right up your line!”

Indeed, it IS!

Beans aren’t just fun to look at, they’re great food and can take on a bunch of roles in a meal, from the common to the exotic. As the question notes, one thing you MUST do is present them as plainly as possible when they’re at the height of freshness:

Ever heard of an amuse bouche? This is a little one or two bite gourmet introduction to a meal, and really, is also a pretty good introduction of the chef: If you’re serving a certain nationality, announce, (Or maybe just hint at), what is to come: Here’s a quick and easy one to try with any of the varieties the gang has ready right now:

Beans Provencal

Choose 2 or 3 nice beans for each guest, cut the ends off leaving roughly even lengths of bean.

Core, seed and dice a ripe tomato

Mince about 3 tablespoons of onion or shallot.

Prepare a dressing of the following:
1 tblspn white wine vinegar
2 tblspn olive oil
1 tblspn grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tspn basil
1/4 tspn thyme
small garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper to taste

Steam beans until just al dente, (Crisp-tender, if you will).

Combine beans, tomato and onion in a bowl and pour the dressing over them, toss everything to incorporate, serve right away.

If you want to be a bit fancy, tie 2 or 3 beans together with a piece of chive and serve on a small plate with a basil leaf – Looks great, tastes better!

OK, enough of the small stuff; part of the question was “what to do with pounds of them?” Monica’s not here right now, but I know, KNOW that if I didn’t pass this along, she’d kill me…

Any Bloody Mary fans out there? Thought so… Well, if you like those and/or pickled stuff, (And who doesn’t?) then you MUST make pickled beans! They’re the cat’s meow in a Bloody Mary and darn fine munching any other time. Here’s a quick and easy recipe for making your own.

Quick Pickled Beans:

1 lb whole beans, ends cut off and rinsed.
1 red bell pepper, veined and seeded and cut into strips
2 cloves of garlic, cut into quarters
2 bay leaves
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups white wine
2 cups water
2 tbspns sugar
2 tbspns salt
2 tbspns whole coriander seed
2 tbspns whole mustard seed
2 tbspns whole pepper seed

Put beans, pepper strips, garlic and bay leaves in a non-metallic bowl large enough to hold that and the liquid you’re gonna use.

Put everything else in a sauce pan and bring to a boil, stir until salt and sugar dissolve. reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour the mixture over the beans and make sure they are completely covered; if they’re not, add water until they is!

Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 48 hours. Beans will keep, refrigerated, up to a week. If you want or need longer than that, then it is canning time, and that is a good thing! Pickled beans can be canned via hot water bath, but if you’re gonna do fresh beans, (Which you really SHOULD do), you’ll need to pressure can them – We’ll talk more about canning towards the fall, unless questions come up sooner.

Now another part of the questions was, “Maybe some ways to spice them up a bit?” and pickled beans is a GREAT way to do just that. Our gardener pals have some fantastic hot peppers as well, you know, (Anybody who was around for my roasted corn pico de gallo the other week knows I ain’t lyin’…). Just take a couple of your favorite hot peppers, (From 1 to 4 per batch, depending on the pepper and your tolerance for heat), and add that to the mix and bingo, you got spicy pickled beans! Seriously though, if it’s habaneros, 1 is gonna do it; jalapenos, you could get away with 3 or so, but TEST THEIR HEAT BEFORE YOU COOK – Ain’t no fun making great stuff that’s too hit for anybody to eat, right?

Last offering for beans is a southwestern take on the classic American Three Bean Salad, tweaked for string beans – This is a great summer cook out dish and always a hit at a potluck. The slight smokiness of the paprika and the tang of fresh cilantro are a real treat!

Eben’s Southwestern Three Bean Salad

1 15 oz. can of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed.
1 15 oz. can of kidney beans, drained and rinsed.
1/2 pound of string bean of your choice, steamed al dente
2 stalks of celery, finely diced

1/2 red onion, finely diced
1/4 cup fresh, finely chopped cilantro
Optional: 1 ear roasted corn, kernels cut off the cob
Optional: 1 medium jalapeno pepper, chopped fine

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 tspn smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix beans, celery, onion, and cilantro and corn

In a separate bowl, mix everything else together and whisk to incorporate; add the dressing to the bean mixture and toss to coat. Serve chilled.

OK, that’s all for now – Feel free to ask questions, etc and see y’all next time.