Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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Freewheeling summer salsa

Tasty experiment features tomatillos and cherry tomatoes

By , Columbian staff writer
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What to do with all these tomatillos, tomatoes and peppers from my garden? Make salsa, of course!
What to do with all these tomatillos, tomatoes and peppers from my garden? Make salsa, of course! (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

My dear friend Angela gave me two tomatillo starts in April — in addition to many other baby veggies — before we had even turned the sod for our new vegetable garden. The tomatillos languished in containers for about a month until we were finally able to get them in the ground, when they shot skyward like close relatives of Jack’s magic beanstalk.

They are now massive, almost treelike plants, weighed down with what appear to be billions of tomatillos in papery green husks. They are fighting for primacy with the zucchini and I couldn’t say who’s winning. Perhaps the cherry tomatoes will overtake them both. All together, these vegetables are taking over the house, hogging my kitchen countertops, rolling around on the floor, and spilling like an avalanche out of the less-used closets. Yesterday evening, a couple of cheeky zucchini hopped up on the couch along with our cat, hoping for a belly rub.

My English husband is unfamiliar with tomatillos, although I grew up eating tomatillo salsa by the barrelful at my favorite Mexican restaurants in Pasadena, Calif. I’ve never cooked with them, so I thought this week was as good a time as any to see what I can create in the tradition of salsa verde.

My self-imposed challenge is this: Use only the ingredients that I have on hand and whatever else I can find in my garden that seems salsa-ish, like onions, peppers and golden yellow cherry tomatoes. Can you put zucchini in salsa? Yes, you can. The trick is restraint (something I’m not very good at, to be honest).

So here’s my experimental recipe, which is not as tangy as traditional salsa verde, but intensely tomatoey and naturally sweet. It’s a satisfying, mellow accompaniment to crispy corn chips and I’d also like to try it as a flavorful braise for chicken or as a marinade for tri-tip roast. Because of its subtle flavors, it would also pair well with grilled halibut. It turns out that the secret to salsa is simply boiling things in a pot. If you can do that, you can make your own homemade salsa, using whatever you have on hand to suit your tastes and make good use of whatever garden produce is currently threatening to overwhelm you.

Monika’s Freewheeling Tomatillo and Cherry Tomato Freezer Salsa

I put about 30 or 40 diced tomatillos in a large stockpot, as well as about 100 diced Sungold cherry tomatoes and Yellow Pear tomatoes, combined. I found a huge onion in the bottom of my veggie crisper, sliced it, and added that. Next I added one green bell pepper and bright red cherry pepper from my garden. Interesting fact: the sweet cherry peppers are what’s used to make pimientos, so I figured I could double the amount of sweet pepper flavor by also adding a small jar of pimientos. I also picked about five scallions, chopped them up and threw them in the pot for a different kind of onion flavor, along with six or seven cloves of peeled and crushed garlic.

I kept staring at the three giant zucchini on my kitchen countertop, and they stared right back, daring me to add them to the salsa. I’m not the kind of gal who shies away from a dare, especially when delivered by a large green vegetable. I grated about a third of the biggest specimen, just to show it who’s boss. (Clearly, the zucchini is the boss.) Altogether, I imagine it amounted to about 3 cups of shredded zucchini.

Now here is where I had to diverge from a traditional salsa recipe. (OK, maybe the zucchini is where I diverged, but bear with me.) I don’t keep jalapenos in the house because my husband’s delicate British palate can be offended by Scoville heat units in quantities so minute as to be undetectable by regular scientific methods. I exaggerate to illustrate, of course, but he really doesn’t enjoy anything beyond the mildest tingle to accompany his tortilla chips.

In light of my husband’s aversion to capsaicin, I wasn’t too bothered by the lack of jalapenos; I wanted him to enjoy this salsa, too. I decided to season the salsa with what I had on hand: a generous amount of salt, lemon pepper, cumin and a few dashes of cayenne. I figured I would taste the salsa as it cooked down and add more as needed.

I set the salsa to simmer on low heat in its own juices, not adding any additional water because the tomatoes seemed juicy enough on their own. I let it cook down for about four hours, then I ladled it into clean, just-boiled mason jars. Like freezer jam, homemade salsa can be stored in the freezer for many months. After thawing, it should be consumed in about a week. I recommend opening a jar during the coldest part of January so that you can remember the sweet, fresh flavors of summer.

I am definitely going to give Angela a jar of this salsa as payback for those tomatillo starts, along with three or four thousand zucchini.

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