Dip Into Summer
by Buck Quigley
Why homemade salsa is the best summer food
Guy Clark, besides being one of America’s best songwriters, is also one of her most astute philosophers, if we are to sit back and savor his timeless observation: “Only two things that money can’t buy—That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
So every year about this time, I like to start my day by kissing my wife and daughter and checking on my tomato and pepper crop. It’s not a vast tract of land—really just a dozen or so terra cotta pots on the upstairs balcony. But for a few moments as the sun rises and shines on the thickening green leaves on the budding young plants, I feel in tune with the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan folks who must have woken up centuries ago in our hemisphere to perform a similar ritual.
Tomatoes and peppers, or, as they are more appropriately called, chiles, are members of the solanum genus. This vast group of plants also includes potatoes, tobacco, and deadly nightshade. The good, the bad, and the ugly. As I look at the thickening stems of my plants, still dripping after an overnight shower, and see the little yellow flowers giving way to incipient fruits swelling with the magic of life, I like to imagine how they will taste when the time comes to pick them and whip them up into the relish we know as salsa.
Today, salsa—the Spanish word for sauce—is the most popular condiment in the US, having supplanted ketchup nearly 20 years ago. It was a long time coming, when you consider that chiles and tomatoes were domesticated crops in Central and South America for thousands of years before the birth of Christ. When the Conquistadors arrived and began their murderous campaign of genocide to plunder Aztec gold, the combatants on both sides were fueled by salsa. Now, as much of that bloody booty lies enshrined in museums or entombed in shipwrecks, it’s salsa that springs eternal, adding spice to our modern lives.
We know this according to the Florentine Codex, written in the early 16th century by a Franciscan missionary named Bernardino de Sahagun, who documented every food common to the Aztec culture. Beans, mushrooms and squash seeds were commonly mixed with chiles of all colors and tomatoes, for red salsa (salsa roja), or tomatillos, for green salsa (salsa verde).
Here’s a vendor at an Aztec market, according to Father Bernardino:
He sells foods, sauces, hot sauces, fried meats, olla-cooked, juices, sauces of juices, shredded meat with chile, with squash seeds, with tomatoes, with smoked chile, with hot chile, with yellow chile, with mild red chile sauce, yellow chile sauce, sauce of smoked chile, heated sauce, he sells toasted beans, cooked beans, mushroom sauce, sauce of small squash, sauce of large tomatoes, sauce of ordinary tomatoes, sauce of various kinds of sour herbs, avocado sauce…
As my mouth began to water reading that list, it occurred to me that along with the other great accomplishments of the Aztec civilization, they appear to have invented the first Mexican restaurant.
As a footnote, we should place blame on Christopher Columbus for incorrectly calling chiles “peppers” because of their spicy similarity to old world black pepper, native to India—the place he was trying to get to, half a world away.
In 1868, on an island 140 miles west of New Orleans, Edmund McIlhenny packaged his first Tabasco pepper sauce in 350 used perfume bottles. Now a staple in Louisiana cooking, Tabasco is the grand-daddy of American hot sauces. Trappey’s and Crystal are other early brand names for the thin spicy stuff that’s generally sprinkled over food to give it zip—but that’s not really what I’m talking about when I use the term “salsa.” I mean something with a little body that includes tomatoes or tomatillos, and chile peppers. And yes, there are many store bought brands that fit that category, otherwise it would not have been possible for salsa to unseat ketchup as king of condiments.
The problem is that the salsa you buy in the store has been cooked and canned to preserve freshness. If it’s all you’ve ever had, you’ve never really experienced the richness of flavors in a fresh batch. And it’s so easy to make your own, there’s really no reason to buy it when the basic ingredients grow so well right here in the dirt in our latitude. And it’s not too late to pick up a few plants at a garden center or market and get your own crop in the ground this year. As summer cools down and fall comes knocking, you’ll be glad to have those bright little fruits to put a fire in your belly.
There is also a growing body of research to say that capsaicin, the stuff that makes chiles hot, contains medicinal benefits for everything from your joints to your respiratory system. It’s almost surprising they’re not illegal.
And what other condiment has a musical form and dance named after it? Salsa has all that for a reason. A good salsa is every bit as invigorating to the soul as a great party, and eating spicy foods are good way to help you cool down by promoting perspiration and giving your body an endorphin rush. That’s why I say it’s the perfect summer food.
Below is a basic recipe for a red salsa, but keep in mind that making your own is as improvisational as playing jazz. Once you know the melody, each pass-through yields surprising delights. Heat it up or cool it down by playing with the number and variety of peppers you use. Just make sure you pick your ingredients right before you’re going to use them. The flavor of a juicy chile is like nothing else on earth. Like the heat and light of the sun made solid. Savor it.
And here’s a cooler sauce, since variety is the spice of life:
NOTE: Incidentally, some people have told me they’ve tried to make salsa but it comes out too thin. The most common mistake here is that they’ve added water. You never need to add water. Also, take it easy with the blender. Keep an eye on your salsa and shut it off while it’s still chunky—you’re not making a Bloody Mary…although that’s another great use for homegrown peppers.
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