For two years I lived in the crossborder community formed by the cities of El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Chihuahua. Most Fridays I volunteered an eight-hour shift at Casa Vides, an immigrant shelter in the Annunciation House network. Aside from a few staples, all food was donated. Most of the house's fresh fruits and vegetables were overripe offerings from a local produce market. I quickly became accustomed to wrinkled peppers, partially fermented bananas, and dimpled avocados. Paring away undesirable parts often revealed a substantial portion of beautiful, tasty food. So good stewardship goes.
Not being a culinary whiz myself, yet interested in the resourcefulness of Vides' guests, I often observed the women and men whose turn it was to prepare la cena, or dinner, for the house that evening.
When the necessary ingredients were available the assigned cook would usually prepare salsa as a condiment to be put on each table during the meal. I've taken to making it as a dip for social functions. The following recipe includes the original preparation method, as I learned it, along with a couple of variations noted at the end. The beauty of the recipe is that it is easy to alter according to your own tastes and ingredient preferences.
ingredients (all fresh)
1 red bell pepper
1 white onion
8-10 cloves of garlic
1-2 limes (or 5-6 key limes)
salt to taste
1. Wash the fruits and vegetables. Peel the onion and garlic. Quarter the onion. Halve the limes and remove their seeds. Fill a large pot halfway with cold water and place on a large stovetop burner. Place whole tomatoes, pepper, jalapeños, and garlic cloves, and the quartered onion into the water. Bring to a boil.
2. Cook uncovered. Every few minutes, stir and submerge vegetables into the boiling water with a long-handled wooden spoon to ensure that all surfaces cook. Once the water comes to a boil, the following process will take approximately 15-20 minutes. When the tomato skins split, carefully remove the tomatoes from the pot and place them in a colander in the sink. When the jalapeños change color, remove them from the pot and place them in the colander. When the red pepper skin splits, remove it from the pot and place it in the colander. Turn off the burner. Then remove the garlic penultimately and the onion lastly and place them, respectively, in the colander.
3. Be careful. The vegetables will be hot. If too hot to handle, you can rinse them in cold water or wait 10-15 minutes until cool enough to handle. Peel the skin from the tomatoes and place them in a blender. Split the jalapeños from top to bottom and remove the stems (note: most of the jalapeños' heat comes from the seeds--for mild salsa, remove veins (ribs) and seeds from the jalapeños; for medium salsa, remove seeds only; for hot salsa, leave veins and some seeds intact). Place the jalapeños in the blender with the tomatoes and do not touch your face until you wash your hands. Remove the stem from the red pepper and place it in the blender with the tomatoes and jalapeños. Place the onion and garlic in the blender.
4. Purée the vegetables in the blender until smooth. Add salt and lime juice, by squeezing the limes over the salsa, to taste. Pour the salsa into a large serving bowl, cover, and chill in a refrigerator at least one (1) hour. Stir, sample, and serve.
Chunky--Although salsa is served as a purée on the border, it is also possible to prepare it chunky, as is popular in other regions of the country. To prepare chunky, dice or chunk the tomatoes instead of blending them with the other ingredients. Then mix the puréed ingredients and the cut tomatoes in the serving bowl before adding salt and lime juice to taste.
Green Chile Salsa--El Paso's proximity to New Mexico makes Long Green Chiles (a.k.a. Anaheim Chiles or California Chiles) a popular ingredient in many dishes. For Green Chile Salsa, substitute 8-10 long green chiles for the tomatoes and omit the red pepper (mostly used brighten the color of the tomato salsa).