Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa!!!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It's been a busy couple of weeks at the Bird Household. Busy at work and busy in the garden. The main tomato crop is starting to come on strong now, which means Venus and I will be washing, freezing and saving as much of the harvest as possible.

The latest project took place this past weekend and is located to your immediate right. That's a Baker's Dozen pints of the best salsa known to mankind. How do I know this? Because it's Bill Bird's own tried and true recipe. And -- after spending 18-years in Fresno (where they know how to make a mean salsa) -- Bill Bird knows how to make a really good salsa. There are heirloom tomatoes by the dozen in those jars. Heirloom peppers are also "in the mix," and the star of the show is actually the roasted garlic. It just completely changes the salsa equation in terms of taste.

Venus and I took efforts to start saving the harvest a few years ago when we were hit with a sudden desire for that heirloom taste in the dead of the winter. But there was just one problem with that. Heirloom tomatoes were not even close to being in season -- not in our backyard and certainly not in any nearby store.

After speaking with a UC Davis Master Food Preserver at a Farmer's Market that next spring and telling her I had no idea how to can tomatoes -- she suggested the following: "Throw a couple in a plastic bag, pop them in the freezer, and use them when you're ready."

This does work by the way. Venus and I threw bag after bag of late harvest tomatoes into the freezer last fall and feasted on home-grown tomato dishes during the cold of winter. And while freezing does have its advatanges, usage of the saved product is somewhat limited. Frozen tomatoes are mushy when defrosted. You can't use them in a salad. It's not advisable to snack on them either as they'll just slip through your fingers. You CAN use them in soups, sauces and other dishes -- but that's about it. Plus -- they take up a lot of room the freezer -- which is another big drawback.

After a couple of years of freezing our harvest, Venus and I were ready to take the next step: Canning. We'd never done it before. We've never seen anyone do it before. But we both knew it could be done and we both wanted to do it. And where there's a will . . . . there is a way.

Of course -- the first thing you need to make the canning process work is REAL home-grown, fresh of the vine heirloom tomatoes. As you can tell -- our garden is starting to produce with abundance now. This haul includes Watermelon Beefsteak, Pineapple Beefsteak, Pruden's Purple, Brandywine, Campbell's 1327, Celebrity and lip-smacking Lemon Boy tomatoes. Not pictured are the Black Cherry and Sungold Sweet Cherry tomatoes that were also used to make a rather zesty sauce.

You must be careful when canning a salsa like this. Most home-canned products need quite a bit of acid to be safe and ward off the formation of bacteria. Some heirloom tomatoes are not that high in acid content. And other ingredients such as peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro have absolutely no acidic content at all. If you get the PH levels wrong in these jars, someone is going to get one very bad case of botulism food poisoning. And botulism is nothing to screw around with. It can be -- and has been -- fatal.

That said, I was advised by other experienced canners to "stick with the tried and true salsa recipes" when it came to canning salsa. But I had my own special recipe that I'd honed from years of watching salsa preparation in various Fresno restaurants and homes, and I wasn't about to give it up. So -- I borrowed a tried and true salsa canning recipe found at GardenWeb called "Annie's Salsa," and married it to the tried and true Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa.

The results have been lip-smacking spectacular to say the least.

The recipe starts with the line in the title: Roasting garlic. I find this gives garlic an incredible, smoky flavor -- not to mention the aroma when it comes out of the oven. And garlic becomes the consistency of toothpaste when it's roasted for an hour or so -- so you just squeeze the bottom of the clove and out of comes. It's just like squeezing a tube of toothpaste.

We also roast the peppers on an outdoor grill until they are browned and the skins are somewhat loose. This makes for rather easy peeling and seed removal over a sink. And, like the garlic, peppers take on an entirely new taste and aroma once they've been roasted over a grill. There's absolutely nothing like it.

Oddly enough, Venus and I found the making of the salsa to be much more difficult than the canning process that followed. The creation of the salsa takes several hours and leaves an unimaginable mess in the kitchen (thank goodness I have a wife who loves to do dishes!).

The canning process is quite simple. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. Remove and fill each jar with salsa. Add top and screw cap and then process for another 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. VOILA!!! Salsa! 13 pints of the stuff.

And now -- the recipe for:

Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa

8 cups processed heirloom tomatoes
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped peppers -- green-yellow-red-anything from the garden will work (half roasted, half fresh)
3 – 5 chopped Habanero peppers or jalapenos (we prefer a HOT salsa -- so we used 6-7 Habanero peppers) 2011 UPDATE: Venus and I are now using a mix of jalapeno pepper varieties of regular jalapeno, Mucho Nacho Jalapeno and Purple jalapeno. 
2 heads garlic
3 tsp cumin
1 tablespoon liquid smoke
3 tsp pepper
1/8 cup canning salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup lemon juice (for BWB or 1/3 cup vinegar for PC)
16 oz. tomato sauce
8 oz tomato paste

Cut tops off heads of garlic revealing tops of garlic inside. Drizzle with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees for one hour. Remove cover after roasting and allow garlic to cool, as you will need to handle it.

Roast 10-12 green, red or yellow peppers on grill until skins are browned on each side. You may use a combination of peppers from the garden -- whatever you have or like. Place roasted peppers in paper shopping bag after roasting and close tightly. Allow peppers to cool for 30 minutes. This will result in 3/4 cup of peppers.

Boil tomatoes to remove skin or process tomatoes to remove skins and seed. Process well in a food processor -- add tomatoes to cooking pot.
Squeeze garlic into cooking pot, peel seed and process roasted peppers and add to pot -- add remaining fresh and hot peppers and all other ingredients. Bring to a boil -- boil for ten minutes.

Process jars in a Boiling Water Bath (BWB) for ten minutes -- drain. Pour salsa into hot jars and process at 10 lbs of pressure for 30 minutes for pints. Or BWB 30 minutes** (see explanation below). Makes 6 1/2 pints.

NOTE: We used a food processor to do all of the chopping for tomatoes, peppers and onion. The picture above represents a doubling of this recipe, which is how we wound up with 13 pints of salsa.

**ADDITIONAL COMMENTS FROM SEPTEMBER 9, 2010: At the advice of a few canners that I know and respect -- I have re-checked the original recipe for Annie's Salsa, which is located on GardenWeb in many chat threads, including this one. The reccommended Boiling Water Bath (BWB) time for pint jars is 15 minutes in the original recipe. The comments below from the people I know and trust indicate this may not be enough time to get a good seal -- and they are reccommending at least 30 minutes in a BWB. Therefore -- I have changed and updated this recipe to reflect those concerns. However -- in my many years of canning this recipe -- I have used 15 minutes of BWB time -- and have never lost a single batch or jar. The finished product was submitted to Anresco Food Laboratories eight months after the canning process -- and the jars passed clinical lab pH and Standard Plate Count tests with flying colors.

The wife that is Venus and I graduated from a BWB canner to a pressure canner three years ago and we have not been disappointed with the results. In addition, while we are still using a mix of three different kinds of Jalapeno peppers, we just recently began to experiment with the Bhut Jolokia or "Ghost Pepper." We have found this pepper stands up very well to processing and pressure canning and delivers a spicy zip and heat to our salsa creations. It also allows us to increase the amount of the non-acidic ingredients as a much smaller number of Ghost Peppers are needed to establish the spice and heat content.

To further satisfy concerns -- I am also posting the lab test results from both jars below as .jpeg files. You may double-click on both to open and read. Finding a food science lab to run tests on home-canned products wasn't easy. Although these labs exist in nearly every county -- they are generally not open to the public. They also do not test home-canned products -- unless a home-canned product is suspected of killing someone (kinda creepy, I know, but this is a problem that I ran into).

The first .jpeg file is the pH count from a jar of Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa. These pH counts are VERY important. Sealed jars -- of any home-canned product -- must contain a pH of 4.6 or less. The jars I submitted had a pH of 3.81.

pH Count from Anresco Labs

The second -- and most important I might add -- is the test result called Standard Plate Count. This is a test that would reveal if any pathogens were growing in an oxygen-less environment like a sealed jar of salsa (or any other home-canned product). This test is routinely performed in commercial canning industries to test for food safety. These pathogens include -- but are not limited too -- Clostridium botulinum bacteria -- also known as Botulism. The SPC test resulted in a figure of <100 (less than 100). This was a hard number for me to understand -- as I'm not a scientist. However -- a number of food safety scientists employed by UC Davis assured me that this was the best test result possible -- and the numbers indicated that NO pathogens were discovered. Most -- if not all -- pathogens cannot grow in a properly sealed and canned product containing a pH of 4.6 or less.

Standard Plate Count Results from Anresco Labs

I hope this satisfies any and all concerns -- as it's all I have. In all of our years of canning -- from whole tomatoes to tomato sauce to salsa to pickles -- Venus and I have never become sick nor have we sickened others.

Here Come the Heirlooms!!!!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It's another late year for heirloom tomato production in the North Natomas garden of Bill and Venus Bird. My apologies for not updating the blog sooner -- it's been a rather busy month in the world of politics. And it's prevented me from sitting down to muse about one of my favorite outdoor activities -- the garden.

I would have to rate this year to be between the ranges of very good and outstanding. But the best is yet to come. For some strange reason, my heirloom plants are now just beginning to produce large amounts of fruit. About half of the garden has been giving me tomatoes since July, but the other half didn't even produce so much as a single solitary tomato -- up until about a month ago.

And boy, how things changed.

The Pineapple Beefsteak -- a six high foot plant with zero tomatoes on it developed its first tiny tomato in mid-August. Two days later there was another. Then two more. Then five. Then TEN!!!! Anyone for TWENTY!!!! THIRTY!!!!


And it just wasn't the Pineapple Beefsteak that suddenly erupted in this "fruity wonder." All of the non producers suddenly stood tall and performed a scene out of "Girls Gone Wild." All of a sudden I had tomatoes in extraordinary numbers on the Omar's Lebanese, Pruden's Purple, Brandywine, Kellogg's Breakfast, Rainbow Beefsteak, Cherokee Purple and more! And the August appearance of fruit held a promise of big harvests in September. A harvest that is now just beginning.

The wonderful looking tomato you see to your left was harvested just tonight. I could not wait any longer. I wanted to save it for the weekend -- when I plan to can some salsa -- but this thing was just getting a tad soft and had to come off right now! I was only too happy to oblige. This is a Pineapple Beefsteak -- about 1 lb. in weight and it's the second ripe tomato to come off the Pineapple Beef plant.

If this tomato is anything like the first, I know I'm in for a very sweet surprise. This isn't an especially tart or acidic tomato. It is, however, extremely sweet. Pineapple sweet, which is probably where this tomato got its name. This will be perfect chopped into spears and given a light dusting of salt, pepper and a little oregano.

The garden promises a lot of this in the next month. If the weather holds, I'll stretch heirloom season well into November. While I know we need the rain up north in California (and we really do), rain normally signals the end of tomato growing season in the North State. The tomatoes split with the excess moisture, and loose that fresh-off-the-vine zip.

So, for tonight -- a feast for heirloom tomato lovers. The second of what I hope will be many Pineapple Beefsteaks to come off the vine.

Heirloom season is in full swing. An heirloom gardener could not ask for more.