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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, April 12

Gapers Block

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We decided we wanted some heat so we went to Arizona for five days. What happened to summer in Chicago? I don't like the heat all the time, but wearing a long sleeve shirt, jeans and shoes and socks in the middle of July is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

The heat in Arizona was a bit much, but I'm starting to miss it. There's not much I can do to cause Chicago to have those sultry, heavy days, but at least I can make some hot food to make up for it. And I'm not talking soup. No, I'm talking heat of the culinary variety due to capsacin.

Capsacin is the molecule in peppers that make your tongue swell, your eyes water, your throat burn. Wilbur Scoville created a scale that measures the spiciness of peppers almost 100 years ago.

There are tons of sites that specialize in peppers, spiciness and how to get the most bang for your culinary buck, but here is a simple rule of thumb: the smaller the pepper, the spicier it is. Thai chilis are tiny. Banana peppers are not. The good thing about peppers is that they weigh almost nothing so you could easily get one of each kind of pepper that your local market carries and you'd probably still pay less than $3.

The easiest way to use fresh peppers is in salsa. For all y'all anglophiles, "salsa" simply means "sauce." It has nothing to do with how spicy something is. Sure you could pick up a jar of that Ortego de Gringo salsa, but if you want true heat and complex flavor, you're going to have to put aside the bottled nitrates and make something from scratch. Almost no cooking is required, just cutting, stirring, and eating.

Tomatillos are those little green tomato-looking things with the papery husks that you may have seen at the grocery store. They're not really tomatoes, but they are great for making salsa with. While most foods have flavors that change when they're cooked, there is a dramatic difference between cooked and raw tomatillos. Raw tomatillos are almost slushy and ripe-tasting in their fresh, green flavors. A roasted tomatillo is more voluptuous and rich in their sweet and tangy flavors. They're usually also cheap.

It is fresh corn season. We're at the beginning of it and we've got several more weeks of fresh corn. If you're like us you probably buy them when they're five ears for a dollar, you eat two of them and end up with a couple of extra ears that are cooked -- but you rarely want to warm up again. They're perfect for making salsa with.

Fruit salsa is the coolest thing since tomato salsa, which is so last year. If you're going to go to the trouble of chopping stuff, you may as well go a little wacky and pick up a couple of plums or a peach or two to make a delectable fruit salsa. It's not quite dessert, but it does go much better with a margarita than tomato salsa.

Tomatillo Salsa (two versions)
5-8 tomatillos, paper removed and washed (about 1/2 pound)
2 serranos or 1 jalapeno
5 or 6 sprigs of fresh cilantro leaves
Very small handful of finely chopped onion, less than 1/4 cup

For the raw version, roughly chop all the ingredients (except for onion) and add to the blender with 1/4 cup of water. Blend until pureed and pour into a bowl. Stir in the onion and taste before salting, at least 1/4 teaspoon.

For the roasted version, turn on your broiler or your grill. If you're using your broiler, cut the tomatillos and pepper in half and place skin side up on the pan. Roast for about five minutes and flip over for another three to five minutes. For your grill, take a wooden skewer and put it through the whole pepper and tomatillos and grill for two or three minutes, flipping it a quarter turn every 30 seconds or so. The skin will blacken and blister. Take the items off the pan or skewer and rub them with a paper towel to remove the skin, which is hard to chew and I think it just takes burnt. If you're a fan of "cajun" flavor, don't bother. (To help them sweat off the skin, place them inside a plastic bag and keep it closed while you rub the pieces one at a time. The skin is easier to remove when it is warm.) Blend everything but the onion in the blender with a 1/4 cup of water until you have a coarse puree. Stir in the onion and at least a 1/4 teaspoon of salt.

While you can eat any of these right away, they're often best if you let things sit for a day or so before serving. You'll let the flavors marry and you'll get a blending of flavors instead of a bite that tastes like onion followed by a bite that tastes like cilantro.

Corn Salsa
2-3 ears of sweet corn
1 medium tomato, diced
1 red bell pepper (or half red, half green), diced small
1 jalapeno, minced
minced fresh cilantro or parsley to taste
juice of one lemon or lime
salt and pepper

This is a sweet-ish salsa based on the fresh flavor of sweet corn. It's also an interesting way to use up leftover corn after a barbecue or picnic. Cut the kernels off two or three ears of boiled or grilled sweet corn, making sure to separate kernels. Add in the diced tomato, bell pepper, jalepeno and cilantro and mix them together. Pour in the lemon or lime juice and toss again. Taste it, then add salt and pepper according to preference. Serve immediately, or let it marinate for a little while in the fridge.

Fruit Salsa
While anything goes, you'll get better results if you pick a juicy fruit and leave the bananas for dessert. Peaches, plums, papaya, mango, cherries, etc. No matter what fruit you choose, the following ingredients will go well with it. You'll have to guess about how much fruit will equal a cut measurement. This isn't rocket science, so don't worry about the "correct" measurements.

3 cups of cut fruit (1 mango, 1 large papaya, 4-5 peaches, a pint of cherries, etc.)
1/2 lemon squeezed for juice
1/2 lime squeezed for juice
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 jalapeno, chopped in tiny bits
5-6 stalks of cilantro leaves (or parsley)
1/4 cup of olive oil
salt and pepper

You'll want the fruit to be in fairly tiny bites. You can get this by chopping it all into knuckle-sized chunks and pulsing a couple of times in the blender. Or you can just chop a little bit more with your knife until the fruit bits are about the size you would like on your chips. Stir all the ingredients together, cover and refrigerate overnight.

All of these are great with tortilla chips, but they can also be used for other things. The tomatillo salsa goes great over a snapper or other fish fillet that you've grilled. It's also wonderful in some tacos and unlike ketchup, it does count as a vegetable. The corn salsa can actually be served as a salad to go alongside your hot dogs or veggie burgers. The fruit salsa is also great over anything you can put on the grill. Fruit and pork were meant to be together. It could even be spread on a pre-cooked pizza crust with some fresh mozzarella cheese on top.

The best thing about all these salsas? They're cheaper to make fresh than to buy the most gringo bottle of nitrate-laden salsa. Sometimes the best way to get good salsa is to think outside the tomato.

Speaking of cheap, it's almost time for fall classes to start up. You probably have some amazing recipe you concocted on the hot plate you smuggled into your dorm room, or you came up with a great way to use that case of ramen you bought on sale. Maybe you got laid off and came up with great ways to make your food budget stretch. Send your tasty, but economical food ideas to ccgapersblockcom and I'll include them in an end of August column.

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bean / July 27, 2004 9:46 AM

Your salsa ideas sound great, but I'd make one change to each of the recipes.
Perhaps my age is showing, but it seems to me that in the past few years, as they've become more popular, jalapeno peppers have lost much of their heat. I think in making the transformation to mass production, farmers have somehow lost the heat of the pepper, though the flavor is still OK.
I'd add a habenero pepper to each of the recipes (half if you're a wuss) for some legitimate kick!

Cinnamon / July 27, 2004 1:44 PM

Heat is very subjective, but I would agree that jalapenos do seem to be a bit milder than they were when I first started cooking with them. Habaneros and Scotch bonnets are incredibly hot peppers, but for some people they're so hot they blot out all other flavors. I suggest picking up a pepper you've never tried before, or maybe even heard of before. Experiment! Even though we have lots of fresh pepper options, don't forget about the small bags of dried peppers, or even the chopped peppers in cans. Depending on what you want in a pepper, these might be great for you as they'll offer more flavor than heat.

Lacey / July 29, 2004 10:56 AM

Yum, I'll be trying these out!

I recently made salsa and I would like to warn people briefly about fresh lime juice. It tastes great in salsa, just be sure to wash your hands after you touch it, and be ESPECIALLY sure not to expose your lime-juiced skin to the sun after you've used it. For some people, the juice will cause your skin to darken and look similar to a bruise. The skin pigmentation will last a few weeks and does not wash off. So, just wash your hands after you eat your delicious lime-juicey salsa. :)

suzanne / August 2, 2004 12:07 PM

i made the fruit salsa last nite w/ peaches and mango. Y-U-M! can't wait to make the corn salsa next. thanks for the tastiness!

Cinnamon / August 2, 2004 5:33 PM

Thanks, Suzanne. That's the best compliment, ever! To know that I inspired you to put something in your mouth is just delightful.

Gretchen / August 12, 2004 10:10 PM

some habanero is key for fruit-based salsas.
oh, ans make sure to wear latex gloves while cutting up the peppers, the oil can burn you! maybe not right when it gets on your hands but when it gets in your eyes or, uh, other places your hand might go over the next couple hours. trust me, i worked i a restaurant where I made salsa a lot, and had constant burning hands. then one day i got a little in uh, my eye. damn! then i started using gloves. if you don't use gloves, wash your hands well with vegetable oil, then soap. that works pretty good to take the pepper oil off.


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