Flash in the Pan 

At home with salsa master Roy Sasser

Roy Sasser spoke slowly, in a Georgia twang thick enough to get a truck stuck.

“Ah don’t know hwhat Ah’m doin’,” he confessed, solemnly, but with a coyote twinkle in his eye. “Ah jus throw a bunch a shit together.”

He is, arguably, telling the truth. It was definitely a bunch of shit Roy was throwing together—good shit. A mountain of peppers had swallowed the north end of his kitchen: Anaheims, Hungarian wax, jalapeños, some big New Mexico–style chilies and some tiny red and green ones that screamed “danger!” Tomatoes piled up at the other end, along with onions, garlic, tomatillos, carrots and cilantro. All the produce was homegrown or purchased from local farmers.

As for whether Sasser, who resembles Willie Nelson with his gray braids and red bandana headband, knows what he’s doing…well…chaos does seem to play an important role in his process, but I don’t really care as long as he can reproduce what was in the jar he gave me last winter. And if he can, then maybe knowing what you’re doing is overrated.

I first met Roy last summer when I bought a car off his Ravalli lot, Rocky Mountain Wholesalers. My suspicions, already solidifying after the sweet deal he gave me, were confirmed with Roy’s follow-up gift of a jar of very hot salsa. This was no ordinary used-car salesman.

“People love it,” he says of his product, which he calls J.R. Salsa (his first name is James), “and ah love givin’ it to them. That’s mainly waa ah mike it.”

Roy makes about 20 gallons every summer and stores his treasure in sealed quart jars. Though he gives most of it away, he always keeps a jar ready in the fridge. Breakfast, he says, is his salsa meal of choice, with eggs, or potatoes.

Standing in his kitchen last Sunday, Roy handed me a pair of latex gloves. “Wear these,” he said, “or you’ll majorly regret it.”

I bored into the mountain of peppers, tearing out the stems with my unbare hands, sneaking glimpses of Roy in action whenever possible.

He was the eye of an artistic storm. I know, I know, the eye of the storm is the calm part. So was Roy, internally at least, as he whirled between his spinning food processor and the pots of salsa on the stove. Like a painter surrounded by a palette of colors, Roy danced between his piles of prepped ingredients, completely in the zone.

Load after load from the food processor was dumped into pots on the stove, each load action-packed by the fact that the off switch on Roy’s food processor was broken. To turn it off, Roy had to crack the lid so the safety shut-off would kick in. To get the pulsing on/off action that he wanted, Roy had to lift the lid, replace it, lift it, and so on. Hunching intently over the machine, Roy worked this method with the practiced fluidity of a truck driver working the gears of a 16-speed rig.

Clearly he knew what he was doing, but it was tough to discern his method by watching. When we broke for pizza (chicken, on a ranch dressing base, smothered in fresh salsa) I explained to Roy that we needed to cram his spontaneous salsa process into the relative proportions of a recipe.

“Okay,” he said, through a ginger ale burp. “I’ll make it really simple for you.

“When I make salsa I put four pots on the stove. In each pot I dump two food processor loads of tomatoes. Then a load each of jalapeños, bells, Anaheims, wax, big chilies, little chilies, onions, tomatillos and half a load of carrots [mostly pureed, but chunks are fine]. I repeat this process in each pot until it’s full. Then add salt—kind of cover the top of the pot with a layer—and half a cup of minced garlic.”

Each pot also got a half-bunch of chopped cilantro, a dozen dried habañero peppers, crumbled, a cup or two of crushed and dried chili peppers, a good handful of dried whole chili peppers crumbled in, about three heaping tablespoons of ground cumin, and a big can of Mexican-style pickled jalapeños and carrots—vinegar and all.

The salsa is brought to a boil, with frequent stirring, and poured into sterilized jars, which seal as they cool.

There is, you may have already realized, a truly insane amount of chili in Roy’s salsa. He says that when he wants something mellower, he just mixes his salsa with fresh chopped tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and carrots.

But last Sunday, as the NFL season kicked off on the wide-screen TV, the men in the kitchen were taking it straight. Roy’s friend Eric, assisting Roy, showed no fear. Even his Mexican wife, he explains, can’t hang with his preferred level of heat. Roy’s wife, meanwhile, is so sensitive to peppers she had to spend the day with friends. As we worked, we gulped fresh salsa in warm spoonfuls until the Frenchman finally showed up with a bag of tortilla chips.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Just add salt

Q: Dear CBA,
I like to salt and dry my meat. However, I’ve not been able to find any rules of thumb for how much salt to use, and for how long to dry it. So I wing it. And rather than risk spoilage, I generally go overboard on the salt and the drying. How much salt should I apply per pound of meat? Do I even need to dry meat that’s been cured by salt?
—Salty Dog

A: Dear Salty Dog,
Old-timers say the brine you cure your meat in should be salty enough to float an egg. There’s your rule of thumb.

But in the real world, different meats require different amounts of salt to cure properly. By cure, I mean the sterilization of bacterial life by salt. Subsequent dehydration, while not absolutely necessary to prevent spoilage, does help. In general, the less salty the meat, the drier it should be.

When it comes to salting proportions, I’m a notorious winger myself. Last week, for example, I brought home 30 Kokanee salmon from the lake. After cleaning and butterflying them (with a transverse cut along the side of the spine, separating the ribs and cutting through to the dorsal skin), I soaked the fish in a heavy salt solution to get some slime off. Then I rinsed them and tossed them in a mixture containing about a cup each of salt, soy sauce, liquid aminos (which, like soy, contain salt), sugar, vinegar from the pickled pepper jar and a bunch of fresh chopped dill. Then I added water until they were covered and tasted it. It tasted pretty darn salty, so I marinated overnight. The next day I smoked the salmon, and they were perfect.

If you want to get more specific, look online. You’ll find a dizzying array of proportions, most of which will require you to weigh your meat.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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