Monday, August 31, 2009

Let's Talk Salsa.

It's August, and you're eating, breathing and living tomatoes. Your lips are raw from that tangy tomato acid and you can't stand another caprese salad, but you still eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner because you vaguely remember that time late last winter when you were dreaming in red and snarling at the mere glimpse of kale and chard. Still, tomatoes are getting old, and there are more right now than ever. What's a locavore to do? Well, I'm going to recommend two lovely dances to perform with your tomato excess, ones that will leave you satisfied and stocked up for the winter season: the salsa and the can-can.

Well, I hope you like long hours in the kitchen better than bad puns. Canned salsa is an ideal way to use up an excess tomato supply, but the process is time consuming. Expect to spend three hours in the kitchen, and longer if you are using an electric stove. Justify the time by remembering you're preserving historic foodways and learning a new, interesting skill. Canning connects you with the past and stores summer in a jar to savor during those cold, depressing months when all you're eating is butternut squash and toast.

Start by visiting the National Center for Home Food Preservation's website on canning salsa. Note that the proportions of tomatoes, sweet peppers and other vegetables to total acid is very specifically formulated. Deviating from the recipe means risking a poisonous salsa (fear the botulism!), and aspiring canners are advised to stick carefully to the recipe at hand. I admit that before this summer, I always thought canning salsa was as simple as throwing together a quick pico de gallo (a fresh, chunky, uncooked salsa) and boiling it in a hot water bath. I was wrong! Canned salsa is cooked prior to canning. Here is the recipe I used (Chile Salsa II, taken directly from the website above):
  • 10 cups peeled, cored, chopped tomatoes
  • 6 cups seeded, chopped chili peppers -- a mixture of hot and sweet.
  • 4 cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup vinegar (5 percent)
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
Necessary canning supplies include:
  • Large canning pot, preferrably with rack insert for jars
  • Pint or quart jars with new lids and rings
  • Jar funnel
  • Tongs for picking up jars
Before touching a single tomato, start by preparing all canning supplies. Put glass canning jars in the dishwasher and start the cycle, so that they will be freshly sterilized when the salsa is done. Fill the canning vat and heat it up. Boiling a big pot of water takes longer than you think.

Now it's time to attack those tomatoes. Boil water in another big pot, and submerge as many tomatoes as you can for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer tomatoes into a bowl of cold water with a slotted spoon and pull off skins. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This takes a long time. Listen to some music.

Coarsely chop tomatoes and throw them into yet another large pot. Now, de-seed the peppers and coarsely chop them using a food processor. Take care with all hot peppers -- I recommend wearing rubber gloves. I had some trouble in estimating how many hot peppers to include in the salsa, and the result ended up being quite mild since I was afraid to overdo it. I included 1 hot pepper per quart of salsa in the recipe. There could certainly have been more. Use the food processor to chop the onions as well. As an aside, if you don't own a food processor, my lovely fiancee showed me how to chop dry ingredients using just a blender: fill it 2/3 full with peppers or onions, then submerge ingredients in water. Pulse blender on a low setting, periodically checking the chopped size of the contents, then pour out into a strainer. This worked really well for me, though the size was not uniform.

Add spices and vinegar, then bring the whole salsa to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Now, finally, it's time to can. Had enough?

Since that vat of water should be boiling by now, all that remains is to jar the salsa. First, put the new jar lids in a saucepan and cover them with water. Boil this on the stove while dealing with the salsa. Sterilizing every tool is important. Now, use the jar funnel to easily spoon the salsa out of the pot and into the jars. Poke a spoon down into the salsa to remove any air bubbles, and do leave about a half and inch of headroom between the top of the salsa and the top of the jar. If you fill the jars too full, a seal may not be created during the water bath process. Take lids out of boiling water and place them on jars. Secure with rings (you do not need to boil these). Now place jars in canning vat and boil them for 15 minutes.

Keep some of the salsa in the refrigerator to try on-the-spot. Was it worth the time? Yes...canning salsa may be time-consuming, exhausting, and challenging. But then, some of the best things are.

1 comment:

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