I must have pleased the weather gods, or whoever controls rain and shine. Ever since my last post, it’s been lovely around here. There’s been sun, sun, and more sun, a whole week of hot days and cold beers and windows wide open. We had a picnic; we went rowing; we stuck our feet in the Sound; and on Saturday, we even cleaned the basement. (This last might not sound like fun, but I’ll let you in on a secret: when it’s hot outside, our basement is like heaven. It’s always a season cooler down there.) It’s been summer. It’s been the bee’s knees. I didn’t even mind the thunderstorm that rolled through last night. It was an especially hot day, and as dusk came on, I raised the windows as far as they would go. Brandon was out at a catering job, and I busied myself with a batch of soup and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and I’m telling you, nothing has ever sounded so sweet as those raindrops on the sill, singing backup for Johnny and June. I swooned a little just writing that sentence.
At any rate, all this to say that I think the season is finally upon us. All the signs are there, including the most crucial one. This weekend, Brandon made salsa.
Now, before this goes any further, you should know a little something. In one of our first conversations, before we’d even met, Brandon talked to me about salsa. We were in the business back then of comparing our favorite foods – a fitting variation, you could say, on “What’s your sign?” – and one day, he brought it up. Actually, I believe his exact words were, “I love anything with the consistency of salsa.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. I giggled a little, for sure, and thrilled silently for a second at the thought of a man who could care so deeply about sauces and condiments. But I figured he was just being cute and clever, and trying to say the right things. Needless to say, I was wrong. Not about the cuteness or the cleverness, mind you, but about the salsa.
The truth is, Brandon eats salsa by the quart. He eats salsa like I eat dessert, in great, lusty gulps. Whenever I lose sight of him in the grocery store, all I have to do is head for the tomato display. He’s bound to be there, sniffing and prodding, sizing up the prospects. The man is a salsa machine. He makes it; he eats it; and then he starts again.
Salsa may not sound like anything particularly exciting to make, and it certainly is simple. But a great salsa is special, an alchemy of sweetness and acid with just enough salt. Brandon’s repertoire of salsas includes three varieties: a pico de gallo; a fiery green sauce of cilantro, jalapeños, and garlic; and a grilled or roasted salsa, made from tomatoes and chiles that have been charred over a fire. I mentioned the latter two in a post almost two years ago, as accompaniments to a dinner of fresh tortillas and beans. In response to requests, Brandon wrote rough sketches of the recipes in the comments section. But in the time since, he has tweaked and altered his methods, and seeing as he made a particularly spectacular go at the grilled version on Saturday night, I thought it was time to revisit the notion. Plus, it’s summer, people. You’re supposed to be making salsa. That’s just how it works.
Brandon first came upon the idea for his grilled salsa in New York, at Burritoville, of all places. He used to stop there for cheap plates of beans and rice and a pass through their salsa bar. One of his favorites was the roasted tomato variety, which the menu on the wall billed as a blend of fire-roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic, and jalapeños, with cilantro and lemon. One day, he made a mental note of the ingredients list and decided to try making it at home. So it began. Back in his apartment, he roasted the vegetables under the broiler until they were charred and blistered, and then he zizzed them in his housemate’s Cuisinart. Then he sat down with a bag of tortilla chips and ate it – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – for a few days. And then he did it again. He was still doing the same thing, more or less, when he met me. And some days, especially in the summer, he still does.
One could do a lot worse, I think, than eating salsa all day. Especially this one. The tomatoes still wear the warm flavor of the grill, their fruitiness amplified a notch. Over the heat of the flame, the onion and garlic give up their sharpness in favor of a mellow, savory flavor. Even the jalapeños relax a little, ceding some of their heat for a low, earthy burn. Punched up with cilantro and lemon, it’s both sweet and acidic, bright and rich, and thick enough to sit tall atop a crisp, salty chip. Which is, come summer, where we all want to be.
Grilled Tomato Salsa
This salsa is delicious with tortilla chips, of course, but also with beans and rice, grilled beef, guacamole, slices of avocado, chile rellenos, or, frankly, almost anything with Mexican leanings. Brandon usually makes it by eye and by taste. It’s hard to mess it up, so play with it as you like. If you choose to cook the vegetables less than Brandon does, your salsa will have a fresher, more raw flavor. If you cook the vegetables longer, your salsa will taste more roasted. Lastly, if you don’t have a grill at the ready, you can achieve the same – or similar – ends with your broiler.
2 ½ – 3 lb. ripe Roma tomatoes
1 large onion
1 head garlic
1 – 4 jalapeños
2 – 4 lemons or limes, or a mixture of both
½ bunch cilantro
Preheat your grill. We use a gas grill, and Brandon sets it to high. If you’re using a charcoal grill, get it nice and hot.
While the grill heats, prepare the vegetables. Rinse the tomatoes, and set them aside. Peel and trim the onion; then cut it in half along its equator. Trim the top off the head of garlic, revealing the tips of the cloves inside; then wrap the entire head in aluminum foil. Rinse the jalapeños, and trim off their stems. If you want a very mild salsa, remove their seeds; otherwise, leave them intact.
Arrange the tomatoes, onion halves, jalapeños, and garlic on the grill. We like to close the lid to help keep it hot, but if you’re using a charcoal grill, this might create a smoky flavor, which you may or may not want. It’s up to you. Either way, let the vegetables cook, turning them once or twice, until they are nicely charred. The onions should be quite blackened on their cut sides, and the jalapeños should be charred. [A tidbit of interest: the more you cook the jalapeños, the less spicy they will be.] The tomato skins will begin to wrinkle a bit and blacken, and some of the tomatoes will split open. Carefully open the foil packet to check the garlic: does it feel soft? If not, return it to the grill until it does.
When the vegetables are ready, transfer them to a large sheet pan, and cool to room temperature. Dump the tomatoes, onion, and 1 jalapeño into the bowl of a large food processor. (Ours is an 11-cup.) Remove the softened cloves from the head of garlic, and add them to the bowl. And add the juice of 2 lemons (or limes), the cilantro, and a good dose of salt. Process to a salsa consistency. Taste, and add more jalapeño, lemon juice, and salt to taste. (Most of the time, Brandon likes to use about 3 jalapeños. And depending on the flavor of the tomatoes, you might need quite a bit of lemon juice. On his most recent go, he used 3 lemons’ worth in total. Likewise, this salsa requires quite a bit of salt. Don’t be shy.) Taste, and tweak until it is to your liking.
Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled before serving.
Note: If you have any leftover grilled jalapeños, know that they’re delicious with beans. For lunch today, for example, Brandon put a bit of olive oil in a saucepan, threw in one grilled jalapeño (whole; no need to chop it), and warmed them together over medium heat. Then he added a drained can of black beans and a pinch of cumin. When the whole mess is warm, it’s ready.