Friday, July 19, 2013

We Secretly Love The Heat (Salsa Fresca)

We're heading into the peak of summer, so what better time to post a classic treat enjoyed in cultures throughout the world: salsa! The Spanish word for sauce, salsa can actually refer to a number of sauces in Hispanic cuisines; however, in the U.S., it typically refers to a spicy tomato-based sauce, often enjoyed as a dip. There are a number of types of these salsas (Wikipedia lists over 15), but the two main categories break down to cooked versus raw. In this case, we're focusing on the raw side, and making our own salsa fresca, or "fresh sauce". And given it's the time of year when those of you with gardens should be seeing ripened tomatoes and peppers, this is a perfect idea for what to do with some of your harvest.

Can you handle the heat?

Among the primary ingredients of most salsas are onions and capsicums, or chili peppers. In most of the world, they are referred to simply as a "chilli", but we can thank Christopher Columbus for the confusion in terms. It seems that when he first encountered the fruit (and yes, it's considered a fruit, more on that in a bit), their spiciness reminded him of black pepper, and he thus called them chilli peppers (though they aren't related to black pepper spice at all).

Anaheim peppers - mild heat
Chili peppers are basically hollow berries, and have a thin but hardened wall that surrounds the area where seeds will grow. What makes them spicy is capsaicin, a potent and oily chemical that activates pain and heat receptors in our mouths. Capsaicin brings on a rush of warmth across your body, and forces the body to begin sweating and increase blood flow across the skin, attempting to cool you down. This also causes an increase in your metabolic rate, so you burn more energy - that's the reason why oftentimes you may find you consume smaller portions when enjoying a spicy meal. And that's the funny thing about this heat-inducing chemical: we all secretly love the heat, and keep coming back for more. (Source: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen)

Peppers have varying degrees of capsaicin in them, with peppers like ghost and habanero peppers are the hottest, while pepperoncini and banana peppers are a tangy spicy-sweet. The hotter peppers can be dangerous to work with in the kitchen, because capsaicin is difficult to remove. From one of my early cooking experiments working with a habanero to make chili, and the subsequent days of pain my hands were in, I can tell you that wearing a pair of thin kitchen gloves is worthwhile. Even the equipment you work with, such as knives and cutting boards, should be thoroughly washed in hot, soapy water.

The star player
Preparing a salsa fresca is relatively simple in that there's no cooking involved, only a collection of the right ingredients, most of which need chopped to whatever degree you prefer the chunkiness of your end result. Aside from that, time and patience are the key necessities here, as once the items are combined, they need time to develop and blend - and trust me, it's worth it. The complex mixture of flavors, and not just your love for "heat" will keep you coming back for more.

Salsa Fresca

15-16 tomatoes (medium, on the vine)
3 Anaheim peppers
3 Jalapeno peppers
4 limes
1 large onion
2 bulbs garlic
2 tbs fresh cilantro

Chop the onion to a medium dice and place in a small bowl. Juice the limes, and pour the juice over the onions. Set aside to "cook" - the acidity in lime (or lemon) juice breaks down the sharpness of raw onions, "cooking" them.

Limes - one of my favorite fruits!
Finely chop the garlic (remember, this is going to be raw, so you probably don't want very large chunks of garlic).

I prefer a very fine mince for this particular salsa, but there may be times you want large chunks

Dice the tomatoes to desired size/chunkiness. Seed and dice both peppers, discarding seeds (the largest concentration of capsaicin is located in the fleshy part that surrounds the seeds - keep that in mind when working with the peppers). Finely chop the cilantro.

In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, peppers, and garlic.

Sitting pretty
Pour in the onion-lime mixture and stir to incorporate.

It all comes together

While this can be served immediately, remember that the flavors combine and enhance over time. I recommend refrigerating for at least 2 hours before consuming. The salsa should keep in your fridge for about 4-5 days; otherwise, you can use canning methods for preserving the salsa for future use.

Copyright 2013 GourmetGents

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