Flash in the Pan 

Setting up a year’s worth of salsa

When harvest season approaches, I hit the farmers’ market like a sailor hits a strip club: with a fistful of dollars I don’t ever want to see again.

Sometimes I’m on a mission, such as to prepare and stash a year’s worth of salsa. Sometimes I’m just along for the ride, ready to roll whatever comes my way into my winter stash. Deals on peaches? Dry them, or make jam.  Bags of beans, broccoli or anything else green? Blanch, ice-bath, drain and then freeze that green for later.

One important family of crops is the nightshades, like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers, many of which, it turns out, go really well together as storage foods. Tomatoes and eggplant make the backbone of ratatouille, which can be canned or frozen, while tomatoes and peppers call for salsa.

Mmmmm, salsa. If I hit the market ready to spend big bucks—say, $100—I can ensure a year’s worth of salsa in the pantry. So I lay my money down.

By “year’s worth of salsa,” I mean about 20 quarts, or two batches in my three-gallon pot. That’s just for me, a guy who likes his salsa on his eggs and his corn chips, in hearty but reasonable doses. Some people, like Shorty, can sit down with a jar of salsa and a spoon, and those 20 quarts will be gone before you can say “Buenos nachos.” That’s why I often make extra.

Seeking salsaliscious nightshades in serious quantity makes you a big spender at the market. You have clout. The farmers give you extra time. They sweeten the pot, tossing in goodies like ears of corn, maybe a glass of cider, a small melon, not to mention bulk deals.

When the peppers are abundant and diversely represented, and the tomatoes likewise are glorious and plentiful, it’s time. The quantity of these nightshades determines the onion, carrot and garlic requirements, and constitutes the bulk of your cash output, so they should be the focus of your deal-seeking efforts. The ratio of tomato to pepper should be about equal by volume, or three-part tomato to one-part pepper by weight. For 30 pounds of tomatoes, you also want 10 large onions, 3 pounds carrots and 6 heads garlic.

Choose the mix of peppers to meet your desired heat level, mixing it up as much as possible with hot, medium, sweet, green, red, yellow, purple, etc.

I learned the ways of nightshade sauce from Roy Sasser, the best used-car salesman in western Montana (Rocky Mountain Wholesalers in Ravalli). Over the years I’ve strayed a bit from Roy’s exact path, as all grasshoppers do when they leave the monastery, nixing cumin and tomatillos, for example. But Roy’s fundamental sals-ology lives on in my jars. 

“Ahh done really know ah-what aam doin’,” says my guru, in a Georgia twang thick enough to get your truck stuck. “Ahh jus throw sum she-it in jawrs.”

Roy’s basic unit of measurement is the food processor load. As in: five loads of tomatoes, five loads peppers, two loads onions, one load carrots, half a load garlic. Then, keep adding loads of peppers and tomatoes until the pot is full. He preps the veggies for maximum efficiency in the processor—the onions chopped, carrots and peppers sliced in rounds, tomatoes cut in half.

Last time Roy and I made salsa, his on/off switch was stuck in the “on” position, so he switched and pulsed by clicking the lid in and out of place. Hunching over his machine, Roy worked his method with the fluidity of a truck driver working the gears of a 16-speed rig.

Roy uses jalapeños, bells, Anaheims, wax, big chilies, little chilies, cups of crushed dried chili peppers, crumbled handfuls of dried whole chili peppers, including a few habaneros, and even a can of Mexican-style pickled carrots and peppers, all run through the processor. This diversity adds a deep complexity to the finished product.

When I choose my mix, I make sure to make it extra-extra-hot, for several reasons. First, the flavors behind the heat are extraordinary, and the heat triggers an endorphin rush on par with runner’s high. Plus, if it’s hot enough, it will keep Shorty from mainlining my stash.

Sometimes, at Roy’s suggestion, I add a jar of homemade pickled carrots and peppers. This year I went with about 30 big roasted green chiles, chopped and added at the very last minute.

When the pot is full, mix it all up, turn on the heat and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping often to prevent scalding. While it’s heating, add a bunch of chopped cilantro, a cup of minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.

When it boils, stir in the chopped roasted green chiles, turn the heat off, ladle the salsa into hot sterilized jars, and screw on the sterilized rings and lids. The jars will seal as they cool.

There’s nothing like gazing upon your stash of salsa, listening to the symphony of pings as the jars seal, and thinking about all of the future meals that salsa will improve. The good time that started at the market earlier that day with just a wad of cash has turned into a good time that will keep on giving, all year long.

Ask Ari: Pondering pectin

Q: Dear Flash,

I’ve got a box of peaches and I want to make jam. Most recipes I’ve looked at are pretty straightforward, but what is pectin, and why do they call for so much sugar—like five cups of sugar for four cups of peaches? WTF? My peaches are already almost too sweet.

—Just Peachy

A: Pectin is a thickener used in most jams. Unlike gelatin, which is made from animal tissue, like horse hooves, pectin is a plant-based molecule that’s important in cell structure, and is usually derived from processed apple peel, orange peel and sugar beet residue. Pectin comes in powdered and liquid forms, which behave differently and are not interchangeable.

The recipes call for all of that sugar in order for the pectin to thicken properly, in accordance to the standard set by commercial variety extra-thick jams. Not all jam need be so thick, but be warned: Messing with the balance of fruit, sugar and pectin can cause the thickening to fail entirely, leaving you with canned peach soup.

This is all by way of fair warning before I tell you what I do, which basically breaks all the rules but still makes some mighty fine peach jam.

Blanch your peaches briefly in boiling water, until the skins loosen and can easily slip off. Then slice peaches into quarters or smaller, and add them to a pot in which 1 quart of apple cider for every 10 pounds of peaches is heating. Mix in a tablespoon of liquid pectin for every pound of peaches. Heat the peaches and cider, stirring often, until it comes to a boil. Immediately ladle the hot peaches and syrup into sterile jars, and cap with sterile rings and lids. The lids will seal as the jars cool, and the peaches will be bright, gorgeous and delicious. Not as thick as Smuckers, but thick enough for me.

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