As Super Bowl Sunday approached, I debated with myself over what football foods to feature as we watched the Saints battle for their first NFL championship over the Colts. It’s been a great football season and the conclusion should prove to be as exciting as some of the nail-biter games we’d enjoyed over the last few months.
As I browsed the food blogs and culinary websites for ideas, I saw a lot of the usual suspects such as wings, pizza, nachos and a variety of dips. I saw a few muffalotta, po-boy and other festive sandwich recipes. I saw a few recipes for gumbo and chili. But none of them really scratched my itch. However, I did see several pictures of Super Bowl spreads that featured big bowls of chips and salsa. That intrigued me.
To me, fresh salsa, along with watermelon and frozen margaritas, exemplifies the taste of summer. In the middle of winter, watching the final game of another fantastic football season, I thought a bowl of fresh, spicy salsa might really give us the inspiration to forget the icy temperatures for a while. Plus, salsa is so versatile. You can put it on just about anything. My plan was to make a big bowl of salsa and all the fixings’ for tacos and quesadillas. The salsa would still be the star of our Super Bowl Sunday.
There is no shortage of great salsa recipes out there and I’ve tried many variations. You can roast, par-boil or grill your ingredients, you can add fruit like peaches or cherries, you can make a tangy or sweet salsa, and the possibilities are endless. I’ve tried all manner of roasting vegetables in all manner of combinations. I’ve tried roasting the peppers and onions and leaving the tomatoes raw. I’ve tried roasting the tomatoes and leaving everything else raw. I’ve tried all kinds of combinations of tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, onions, fruits and spices. But I keep coming back to a recipe that my best friend Jenny first turned me on to years ago. I learned the basic approach from Jenny and modified it to suit my own tastes. This is a fresh salsa, nothing is roasted or cooked in any way and I love that bright, fresh flavor.
The recipe starts with tomatoes, onion and peppers. One of the most important tricks that Jenny taught me was that the tomatoes need not be super ripe and luscious. In fact, the salsa is better if they’re slightly hard or not quite ripe. Save the perfect, ripe tomatoes for BLT’s and use the less perfect or inexpensive ones for salsa. It’s a great reason to make salsa in the winter, when we can’t get a decent tomato here in New England. The other trick that I picked up from Jenny is to strain everything of its excess water before you combine the ingredients. This technique makes for a much less watery and much more flavorful salsa.
5 or 6 medium sized tomatoes
Half of a large yellow or white onion
One medium sized poblano or Anaheim chili
One or two large jalapenos, depending on your taste
1 large lime
Cumin, cayenne, chili powder, salt and pepper to taste
Start by roughly chopping the onion and chilies and putting them into the food processor with the metal blade. If you like your salsa spicy, leave all the seeds in the chilies. You can start with one jalapeno and add the second one if the mixture isn’t hot enough. Remember that once the salsa has chilled, the level of spice will be muted. If you like your salsa really spicy, add both jalapenos so it will keep its heat in the refrigerator. Blend the onions and chilies in the food processor until they are finely chopped, but not pulverized. Some texture is nice. Scoop this mixture into a strainer and let it drain over the sink while you work on the tomatoes.
Another great trick Jenny showed me was to grate the tomatoes rather than chopping them, which gives the salsa an excellent chunky texture. Take the metal blade out of your food processor and use the grating attachment to process the tomatoes. Once you’ve got your first batch of tomatoes processed, dump the onion mixture into a large bowl and scoop the tomatoes into the same strainer. You want to really work the grated tomatoes around in the strainer to make sure you get most of the water out. The more water you can extract from the tomatoes, the less diluted your salsa will be. Keep processing and straining until your tomatoes are finished.
Now comes the fun part, spicing and flavoring. I like my salsa kind of tart, so I squeeze the entire lime into it. If you like your salsa less tart, use half the lime. I like cumin, cayenne, chili powder, salt and pepper in my salsa. But you can use whatever combination of spices you like. Some people really like cilantro in their salsa, but this is another ingredient that will change flavor over time. The longer your salsa sits, the sweeter the cilantro becomes. I have found that adding cilantro to the salsa at this stage makes for a sweet salsa within 24 hours. Depending on your taste, I recommend saving the cilantro for whatever dishes you plan to serve with your salsa.
Now cover your salsa and stick it in the fridge. In a few hours, the salsa will be ice cold and perfectly delicious. And it’s sure to win you big cheers at your next sports watching or tail-gating party.