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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Best Salsa Ever

My family got this salsa recipe from a little, then-hole-in-the-wall Mexican food restaurant in San Antonio, TX somewhere around 25 years ago. It's still the best salsa I've found anywhere, and the restaurant--now successful and with multiple locations--is still making the same salsa. Naturally, our version and the restaurant's have diverged over the years, but the ground rules have never really changed.

First, a disclaimer: I don't actually have or follow a recipe! I just know the ingredients that are needed, and I put them together until it tastes right. What I'm about to give you are the guidelines I use for getting all the ingredients and some rough guesses at the right quantities to make it all work together. If you follow this recipe exactly, you'll probably (I think) have something edible. If you want it to really shine, you'll need to take your time and pay attention to the "tuning" notes I've added at the end of this post. You'll also probably need to make it several times before you get the hang of it. What makes it difficult is that the amounts of ingredients you need change based on variations in the quality and flavor of the ingredients (primarily the tomatoes) that you get. Now, on with the show...

The Ingredients

I've split the list into "main" ingredients, which are what make up the body of the salsa, and "flavor" ingredients, which you use to tune the flavor to your personal preference. The quantities--or at least the ratios--of the main ingredients that I use are pretty well-known (by me, that is):

Main Ingredients
  • 8 lb Roma tomatoes
  • 2 lb slicing tomatoes
  • 1 lb Serrano peppers
  • 1 lb sweet onions

Note: With these quantities of main ingredients, you'll end up with very near the right amount of salsa to serve about 50 people at a rehearsal dinner where taco salad is being served (ask me how I know!) It probably makes around six or eight quarts. Make as much or as little as you want. The important part is to get the ratios right. You need about 10:1 by weight tomatoes to peppers and roughly the same amount of onion as pepper. In other words, one pound of peppers for ten pounds of tomatoes or 1/4 pound of peppers for 2.5 pounds of tomatoes. The onion should always be roughly the same as the peppers. If you cut back on the main ingredients, remember to scale back on the flavor as well!

Here's where it gets tricky. I've tried to guess at rough quantities here based on the quantities of main ingredients I listed above, but this is just that: a guess. Take it as such! I'll cover these ingredients more in depth in the step-by-step directions later:

Flavor Ingredients
  • 1/3 cu lemon juice (bottled recommended)
  • 1/3 cu lime juice (bottled recommended)
  • 3 T garlic powder
  • 3 T salt

The Tools

Gather up the following tools and take them to the place where you'll be working:

  • Cutting board
  • Knife--sharp and/or serrated
  • Tomato corer--great for coring the tomatoes but even better for deseeding peppers
  • Small bowl or nearby trash can for scraps
  • Two large bowls, each big enough to at least hold all the tomatoes--you can get by with only one, but two is better
  • Food processor--NOT a blender!
  • Spatula for scraping/stirring
  • Dish towel--spill/splash cleanup
  • One or two powder-free latex gloves--for protecting your hand(s) from the peppers
  • Chips for sampling the salsa to fine-tune the flavor

The Directions

  1. Pop the stems off the tops of the peppers and wash the tomatoes and peppers.
  2. Protecting your hands with the gloves, halve and deseed the peppers. Taking the seeds out greatly reduces the heat from the peppers. The tomato corer is great for removing seeds from pepper halves. If you're feeling brave, skip this step. If you don't use gloves, you'll want to refrain from touching your eyes, nose, or any other sensitive areas for the next day or two.
  3. Core the tomatoes, and take off any other blemishes, bad spots, etc. Quarter the romas. As the slicing tomatoes are larger, you'll probably want to cut them into six or eight pieces. Put the tomato slices into one of the large bowls. If the tomatoes are excessively juicy, this lets the juice drain from them while they're waiting to be chopped up.
  4. On to the processing: chop up the peppers in the food processor pretty finely. You don't want it pureed, like a blender, but it's hard to get the peppers too fine in a food processor. High speed is fine for peppers.
  5. Cut the ends off of and peel the outer skin from the onions. Slice them up and chop them in the food processor, too. I save chopping the onions until right before I put them in to spare myself and others from the fumes. If your food processor is big enough, you can do the onions and peppers at the same time. I try to chop the onions less finely than the peppers, but that's not too important, either. High speed is fine here, too.
  6. Put the chopped peppers and onions in the second large bowl and cover them unless you want to drive everyone from the room you're working in.
  7. Now run the tomatoes through the food processor. You want to leave the tomatoes in larger chunks than the peppers: around 1/4 inch in size or larger. This may take some practice in your food processor. If you have a sharp blade, it's very easy to reduce the tomatoes to mush. Even the low speed of dual-speed food processors may be too fast. If so, you'll need to use the "momentary" setting and quickly flip it on and off to slowly dice up the tomatoes. As soon as you have no chunks left that are larger than about 1/2 inch, they're done. After chopping the tomatoes, pour them on top of the onions and peppers in that bowl.
  8. After all the tomatoes are chopped, you'll have some tomato juice in the bottom of the bowl that was holding them. You can add this if you like, but note that the salsa tends to float, so when you get to the bottom of the bowl, it'll be mostly juice. I usually just dump the extra tomato juice.
  9. Now for the hard part: the flavor ingredients. If you want to follow this recipe exactly (not recommended!), just add the lemon, lime, salt, and garlic in the amounts I listed and stir well with the spatula. Keep refrigerated, and let me know how it turns out. If you want truly great salsa, go on to the following paragraphs to learn the basics of how to balance the flavor ingredients with the main ingredients.

Fine Tuning

Instead of the full amount, start off by adding about three quarters of the amount of the flavor ingredients I listed, stir well, and then taste it. The exact amount isn't important. Just start slow and build up. Use the following guidelines to decide what to add:

  • If it tastes "flat", or too much like tomato, add more salt.
  • If it doesn't taste sweet enough, add some garlic and citrus (lemon and/or lime--your preference). Sometimes a touch of cumin, aka comino, will bring out the sweetness, too. Only use a little--like less that 1/4 teaspoon per cup of salsa. Some restaurants go crazy on the cumin in their salsa, and it just overwhelms everything else.
  • If it seems too hot, add citrus, especially lemon. It reduces the peppers' bite. Don't go overboard, though!
  • If you get too much lemon in, it can be balanced with salt up to a point. (Not sure if the same works for lime.)
  • If you get too much salt, citrus may help a little bit, but you'll probably have to pick up some more tomatoes to reduce the saltiness. A little bit of sugar or cumin can help here, too, mostly by masking the salt flavor, but I don't recommend it unless you've only gone a little bit over on the salt.
  • If it just doesn't taste quite "right", it probably needs more garlic. I can't help you any more there. I guess that one just comes with experience.
  • If you get to a point where you think you're adding too much of the flavor ingredients, and it still doesn't taste quite right, letting it sit for 1-2 hours--I recommend refrigerating ASAP--can change its flavor quite a bit as the ingredients blend. Just check it again later.

Additional Notes

If, while stirring the salsa, some light yellow foam forms on top, it means you're pretty close to the right mix of ingredients. I'm not sure what does that, but it always happens.

When made from good-quality ingredients, this salsa will keep for as long as 3 weeks in the refrigerator, but it's best if used within the first week or so. Freezing this stuff is a no-go. It basically turns to water with little scraps of tomato floating in it. Canning preserves it better than freezing, but don't attempt to can it unless you're familiar with the issues around safe home canning of tomatoes!! I've only canned it for one growing season so far, and the result was quite different from the fresh product, but it turned out well enough. I intend to keep working on it to see what I can do with it.

Some people like to add cilantro to their salsa. I admit that it does add a pleasant touch, but I generally don't find it to be worth the hassle. Cumin is another popular addition, but be careful: a little goes a long way.

You can use fresh lemons, limes, and garlic. If you know a fresher source of salt than the little cardboard container, let me know. Using all fresh ingredients can give the salsa a fuller flavor, but the flavor of citrus fruit and the potency of garlic varies widely from one store visit to the next. This makes it even more difficult to get the right blend of ingredients, and lemons with the wrong flavor can make a whole batch turn out poorly. That's why I nearly always use bottled lemon and lime juice and garlic powder. These products have a fairly uniform flavor and potency, so it's easier to get consistently good results with them.

Many salsa recipes call for Jalapeño peppers instead of Serannos, and if you enjoy the taste of Jalapeños you can use some here. Try using 50% Serrano and 50% Jalapeño. Just keep the tomato:pepper ratio correct, and don't leave out the Serranos entirely. They're part of the key to this recipe.

You may also be tempted to try different types of onion. I've tried a few, and I've never found any to be satisfactory. In fact, if I can't get sweet onions, I sometimes just go without any onion at all. Ideally, find some Texas 1015's.

On the other hand, feel free to experiment with different varieties of tomatoes. I list Roma and slicing tomatoes because that's generally what's easy to find at the grocery store, and using Romas as filler is cheaper than going with all slicing tomatoes; however, I've experimented with several other varieties of tomatoes including Phoenix, Celebrity, Better Boy, Beefsteak, and BHN 444. All of them made at least a decent salsa except for the Beefsteak. I didn't like the taste of that at all. Better Boy and Phoenix are my personal favorites so far. YMMV. Note that different tomato varieties will need different combinations of flavor ingredients--another complication!