Basic Salsa Picante:

..sin cilantro, y todavía muy buena:
(c) 2013, Davd

It’s expensive to buy in a jar; it’s easy to make at home; it turns the reliably economical “canned diced tomatoes” into a versatile treat, it keeps a week or longer in the ‘fridge, and it goes superbly well with boiled barley or rice. You can even poach fish in it (Pacific pink salmon and pollock/goberge are two of the least expensive and poach very well in salsa), add rice or barley, and have a good, very healthy one-pot meal. Salsa can be a basic part of your diet, economical in time and money, and about as healthy as anything you cook.

If cabbage and carrots are the standard winter vegetables, canned or frozen* tomatoes are the choicest summer vegetable that can come into the winter kitchen almost as good for cooking as fresh. I delight in fresh cucumbers, and eat one or two per day all summer, but i don’t even want to think about eating frozen or canned cucumber. (If you just imagined the texture of a thawed cucumber, i’ll wait for you to go retch.) Dill pickles, yes, i do buy those fairly often in winter; and a few times i have actually made them—but tomatoes are more nutritious and dill pickles cost more per volume, plus their alum and salt content isn’t altogether healthy.

For making salsa picante, diced canned tomatoes are the form to buy. (For pasta sauce, “crushed” tomatoes are preferable, but if diced cost noticeably less, they’ll do OK for pasta sauce as well. Don’t try to make salsa from crushed tomatoes.) Frozen tomatoes can be thawed, chopped in a food processor or blender (or in the cooking pot, with kitchen scissors) and make good salsa; but i tend to use frozen for pasta sauce. For now, i’ll write two techniques for canned, diced tomatoes, and later, a few words about adapting them if you have fresh or frozen.

“The midwinter technique” uses canned diced tomatoes, onions, fried in good vegetable oil, and three spices you will find valuable for other cooking as well: Chili powder, cumin, and paprika. (all three are sold fine-ground, dry; and they all keep well; so if in doubt, buy a larger size of each if the price per kilo is lower that way.)

If you have celery leaf, celery seed, leftover celery (the outer stems tend to be coarse and strong-flavoured, as are the outer leaves of cabbage) or the stronger celery-like herb lovage [liveche, Levisticum officinale] add a little to the tomatoes when you start them heating.

The standard can of tomatoes contains 796 ml or 28 ounces (i would guess in the US it will read in ounces) and costs about a dollar on special**. (If you find that size cans of tomatoes for much less than a dollar, buy a dozen or two; they should keep more than a year.) Being canned, they need no special storage conditions.

Set out your ingredients: A can of diced tomatoes, a small-to-medium-sized onion (i prefer sharp to mild), celery stem or celery leaf (or liveche) if you have it, and your containers of chili powder, cumin, and paprika.

First, put a small frying pan on the stove (or you can use the pot where you’ll make the salsa) with a thin but visible layer of oil in it, and get it heating while you cut up the onion, fairly small. I quarter onions “from pole to pole” [from the root end to the bud end], and the quarters are easier to peel than an onion is while whole. Setting two peeled quarters together on the cutting board, flat side down, you can slice them a quarter inch thick or thinner, fairly quickly. The onion layers will separate, so quartered and sliced, a medium onion will be down to fairly small pieces. (You can cut the outer layers of each quarter halfway ’round it, halfway to the middle, to make the pieces really fine.)

Put the onions in the pan to fry until lightly browned. Medium heat should do.

As soon as the onions are chopped and starting to fry, open the can of tomatoes and when the lid is almost cut free from the can, use it to hold back the tomatoes and drain some of the liquid into a mug or teacup for thickening the salsa at the end. Then pour the tomatoes and the rest of the liquid into your cooking pot (unless you’re frying the onions in it, in which case wait until they start to brown) add celery (or liveche) if you have it, and heat on medium power. While the tomatoes are heating, add one flat to slightly rounded tablespoon of chili powder, and one slightly rounded teaspoon each of cumin and paprika, then stir. Add the onions as soon as they’ve browned a little.

As with porridge—as with all cooking—you should stir often enough to keep things from sticking to the bottom of the pot, as well as to mix things together. You can soon learn to feel with the spoon, when things start to stick. I don’t find salsa ingredients tend to stick until the cornstarch is mixed in and thickens.

The best timing is for the spices to go in while the tomatoes are still almost cold, and the onions when they and the spices are halfway to boiling. When the mixture is about to boil, ease the heat to medium-low, stir, and let things boil for just a minute or so, while you stir a generous forkful of corn starch into the liquid you saved in that mug. (A fork is much better than a spoon for stirring corn starch into liquid, and the liquid should be cold rather than hot while you’re stirring in the powdered corn starch.)

Next, add the corn starch and liquid to the pot, (this time the spoon will be better for stirring, though the fork can be made to work) and quickly stir it in well. As soon as the cornstarch mixture gets to boiling, in the presence of fat (the oil that came in with the onions), it will thicken the salsa. Cornstarch only needs to cook for half a minute—and hey! compadre!—you have home-made salsa. (Turn off the power, or take the pot off the woodstove, before the salsa sticks, now that it’s thickened.)

Freshly made and boiling hot, salsa will heat cooked rice or barley from the ‘fridge, and they’ll average out at a pretty decent eating temperature. I usually mix two parts grain to one of salsa—approximately. Use the proportions you like best—it’s your food.

(A frugal trick would be to pour the salsa into the can the tomatoes came in, then put some grain into the pot to absorb most of the salsa that didn’t pour, put that grain into the bowl you’ll eat it from, and then add salsa from the can to the proportions you want. A tin can can take boiling heat, and if you have a snap-lid that fits it, you can store the salsa in the ‘fridge, in that can, once it cools—compact and a minimum of fuss.)

The amounts of chili powder, cumin, and paprika i listed above work well for me; but chili powder varies in “heat” and so do men’s tastes. Adjust the amounts from your experience after you’ve made salsa once or twice. You can add “sweet peppers” to your salsa, but you don’t need to, and they’re often very expensive in Canada. Likewise with cilantro, which most weeks, i couldn’t even find in the stores nearest me… the cumin is enough, combined with chili powder and paprika, to give the basic salsa taste.

I eat salsa 3-10 times per week, year-’round, because it’s easy to make and i really enjoy tomatoes. In summer i make it less often because i’m having fresh tomatoes in salads and sandwiches… but salsa and barley or rice combine so well, and are so quick to put together when i’m in a hurry, that even in summer i use that combination fairly often.

In summer, i use fresh tomatoes, and chives rather than onions, because i prefer the chive flavour and the green colour makes the salsa look even better. (Next summer i’ll probably post more details about that.) The next post, this late autumn, i think, should describe how to poach “white” fish in salsa. Meanwhile, get some canned diced tomatoes, chili powder, cumin and paprika, onions and cornstarch if you don’t keep them on hand already, and give basic salsa a try.

It’s a good, handy, versatile technique to know.


* Tomatoes from the garden can be put in a plastic food bag and frozen in their skins. The skins protect them from drying out [“freezer burn”]. They do lose their texture when thawed, but for salsa or pasta sauce, that’s a minor rather than a major loss.

** I’ve found them at that price in the nearest Wal-Mart most of this year. Perhaps the Wal-Mart house brand has a bit more liquid and a bit less tomato, so i usually buy Co-Op or a name brand if it’s available at the same price.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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