Jody's not-quite-sweet salsa

I emailed Jody in my typical frantic, brusque way a few days ago, wondering if he could jot down the ingredients for that lovely salsa he made for a group of my friends a few years ago. I'm fairly certain that it was three years ago, but I could be wrong about the date; it was the night that Heather and Jody played dueling Iron Chefs in Thomas' kitchen, and a lot of food resulted. I remembered nothing but the salsa, which was unlike any salsa I'd ever had before.

I remember not knowing Jody well enough to feel comfortable asking him for a recipe, but I promised myself that I'd eventually get it for myself. Fast-forward a few years, and now I know that while Jody has a high respect for recipes, his respect for them often means throwing them entirely out the window when the situation warrants. Salsa is one of those situations.

Part 1: Plan ahead

First, let's play like engineers (I should know - I'm married to one) and talk about design choices. You can vary several elements of the salsa to create a dish that is uniquely your own, but that means you have to step beyond blind recipe-following and into the far scarier realm of decision-making.

First question: the corn.

Canned corn is easier and quicker - just drain, dump, and stir. Roasted corn requires more work: roasting, cooling, husking, silking, then cutting off the kernels. Roasted corn will give your salsa a slightly different taste, but Jody says (and I agree) that it's just a matter of personal preference. Think about what your time constraints are, and make your decision.

Second question: bell peppers.

Not all colors are alike! Green peppers will be spicier and less sweet than ripe (yellow, orange, or red) peppers. If you want a little more zing, go for green; more sweet and mild, go for ripe peppers. For even more of a flavor variation, you could roast one or more of the peppers. (It's really easy. More on that later.)

Third question: heat.

Are you looking for a sweet salsa or a spicy salsa? I would recommend having at least a little bit of heat in the salsa, because it will sharpen flavors a bit, but I'll admit that I liked this salsa very well when it was still on the sweet side. I used three seeded serrano peppers the first time I made this recipe, and the people who ate it commented that they couldn't feel any heat at all. (My hands beg to differ; I can still feel a good bit of capsaicin sting under my fingernails even as I write this.) Tailor the heat to your audience's taste but remember one cardinal rule: you can always add more pepper later, but you cannot take it back out. Add it in pieces, as you're building the salsa, and taste regularly. You'll know when you've got it right. Use a guide, such as this one, to determine what kind of hot pepper you might want to use in your salsa.

Part 2: Purchases and acquisitions

Now that you've made your decisions, go to the store. Come home with these ingredients:

  • 1-4 hot peppers of your choice
  • 1 can of black beans
  • 1 can of corn or two ears of good corn
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 lime
  • 1 red onion
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 3 medium or 2 large tomatoes
  • 1-2 bell peppers (color is up to you)
  • cumin, if you don't already have some

Part 3: Assembly

Now the fun begins. Keep in mind that you're looking for smallish, even pieces; you want each bite of salsa to have a little bit of everything in it. Smaller pieces mean that the salsa's flavors will blend a little more quickly, but there's no need to show off your finest knife skills here. What you want to do is start assembling your vegetables together, then use cumin, cilantro, and hot peppers to accentuate their taste and turn the mixture from a plain vegetable mixture into salsa.

Are you going to roast the corn? If so, you should probably do that first. Yank off all but the last layer of husk, wrap the corn in aluminum foil, and use what I jokingly call the Rule Of Four method: roast it somewhere around 400°F for about 40 minutes. If the temp is higher, go a few minutes shorter, if lower, go a few minutes longer.

(Exact science? Bah, that's for baking, not salsa-making.)

So, either the corn is in the oven, or you're not roasting it. Grab your colander and drain the black beans well. Dump them into the large bowl that will hold the finished salsa. If you're using canned corn, drain it and add it to the beans. Juice the lemon and the lime, make sure there are no seeds, then add them to the baby salsa. Stir. (Every time you add an ingredient, stir the mixture and take a taste. See how it's developing. You'll begin to get your own ideas of what the salsa needs next.)

Next: the 'fine mincing'part of the program. I mince the garlic, hot peppers, and the onion pretty finely, just because I'm not overly fond of getting a mouthful of any of those. I usually only mince half of an onion, though. (I am not a fan of raw onion, which should be noted. Salsa is one of the few exceptions to the rule.) Add all of the garlic and the onion to the mixture. Add some, not all, of the hot peppers. Stir. Start on the next chopping task, and taste again in a few minutes. If you taste immediately, all you're going to get is a blast of raw onion, garlic, and peppers. I don't know about you, but I'm not terribly fond of that.

Now for the fun part - chopping tomatoes. You'll want to do something that is often done in professional kitchens, but not so often in home kitchens - removing the juice and the seeds. For most tomatoes, all you'll have to do is cut them into quarters and use your thumbs to dislodge the seeds and the extra juice. Most of the taste is going to be in the fleshy part of the tomato, and removing the extra water now means a less soupy salsa later.

Chop the seeded tomatoes, and add them to the mixture. Stir and taste. Need more heat? Add more of the hot peppers.

By now, your corn, if you're roasting it, is probably done. Take it out, let it cool a bit, and then husk and silk it. Cut off the kernels with a sharp knife, and add them to the mixture. Stir, taste. (Starting to get the hang of this now?)

If you're going to roast one of your bell peppers, now is the time. (You'll need a paper bag.) Turn your oven on to broil, and get out a small pan or cookie sheet. Put the bell pepper(s) on the pan and roast them in the oven for about ten minutes. You're looking for the outer skin to bubble, char, and get large black spots. Once it does, use tongs to turn the pepper over and roast for another 8-10 minutes. Once the second side looks like the first, take the peppers out of the oven, plop them in a paper bag, and fold up the edge of the paper bag to keep the steam from escaping. Leave the peppers to steam in the bag on the counter for about ten minutes, while you work on the next part.

Now go back and turn off your oven. Surely I'm not the only person who always forgets to do that.

Chop the cilantro. At this point, you've got most of the ingredients in the salsa. Go easy - try a quarter of a cup of chopped cilantro, a teaspoon of cumin, and a pinch of salt. Stir and taste. Cilantro adds a specific taste I can only describe as 'herbal' and 'spicy,' and the cumin is that indefinable something that makes it taste like salsa. Add more of each, gradually, tasting and stirring until it tastes right to you. I know that I used somewhere between 2tsp. and 1Tbsp. of cumin, and an unknown quantity of cilantro.

Now you can turn your attention back to the bell peppers. If they were roasted, they're probably cool enough to handle now; if you didn't roast them, then it's just like chopping any of the other vegetables.

If you did not roast the peppers, remove the stem and the seeds, and cut open the pepper. Use your knife to get rid of the white membrane between sections; it doesn't have a lot of taste. Chop and add to the salsa.

For roasted peppers, use your fingers to remove and discard the skin. You should be able to pull the stem out, and a lot of seeds should come with it. Slice open the pepper, remove the remaining seeds, and get rid of the membranes if necessary. Chop, and add to the salsa.

Part 4: Wait! No, really!

Congratulations! You've gotten it all done. Stir and taste one more time. Make whatever corrections are necessary, then cover up the salsa and stick it in the fridge for a couple of hours. Stir it and taste it again - it will taste different, because the vegetables are releasing juice and the flavors are mingling. Continue to make corrections as needed. Try to give the salsa a few hours to mellow out and get its act together before you serve it.

If you're inviting some of my friends over, bring a trough. You'll need it.

Jody - the great Oompa - rocks my world. :)

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I think this is the first time I've ever heard of green bell peppers being spicier than red/yellow/orange bell peppers. Heck, this is the first time I've ever heard of green bell peppers being spicy.

Oh my gosh, that sounds so good. *throws on sneakers and runs to trader joes for some peppers*

This, and all, salsa is all about the harmony of food. Find things that go together and see what happens. the watusi. Just don't settle for boring.