EL PASO – On Labor Day I went to the Food Basket, bought a gunny sack full of hot green chile and had it roasted. This is an annual tradition. Looking to the winter and smelling the incomparable smell of roasting chiles today, it has to happen. Even when I think I will pass just this once, buy it when I need it. The smell curls up in your soul; it gets to you, the tradition. I have room in the freezer now.
Five hours later, fire-roasted fingers, and a mess in the kitchen, I now have 18 quart size bags of peeled chiles, a gallon bag stuffed with “I’m too tired to peel any more, this one didn’t want to slip its skin, too curly to contend with” and a large plastic container of chopped green.
On Tuesday, I pick tomatoes in the garden, gather up onions, jalapeños, serranos, garlic, cilantro, and limes. I put on my apron that announces El Paso/Cd. Juárez as the Mexican Food Capital of the World. Today I am learning to can salsa, from my neighbor Marion who, judging from her open shelf bookcase filled with Mason jars, appears to be an expert. I have purchased a giant canning pot and some new jars at a place called Do It in anticipation of this lesson. All this and my chopped green chile I take over to Marion’s.
First, we roast tomatoes in the oven to make them easy to peel, and get the water in the canning pot warming. While the tomatoes are roasting, we go out to her garden to cut basil because, after the salsa is done, we are going to make a batch of pesto, yum. The garden is more than a garden; it is an organic sculpture, carefully tended.
Next, I chop onions and garlic, and put the jalapeños and serranos on a comál to roast. We start putting everything together in a big pot, throwing some things into the Vitamix blender first. While the salsa is simmering, we wash the jars. I noticed that Marion had put the electric tea pot water on because I almost burned myself on it, but I didn’t know why until she put the lids and bands in a clean bowl and poured boiling water over them to make them sterile.
The aroma in her kitchen is incredible, and even though I have just finished lunch, I can feel the saliva starting to form in my mouth. The last things we add to the salsa are the cilantro and lime juice and salt. Then there’s the taste test. It’s good, really good. I have the urge to add more chile and salt; I resist.
Because Marion uses pint jars and I have brought half-pint jars, there is a discussion of how long to bathe the jars. That’s when I drag out two old books I also brought over: Stocking Up (Rodale Press, 1973) and Putting Food By (Stephen Green Press, 1975). We can’t find it. Marion knows and Stocking Up confirms that to safely can pint jars, the time at this altitude (6,000 feet) is 26 minutes. That’s twenty minutes for the pint jars plus a minute more for every thousand feet in elevation. We settle on twenty minutes for the half-pints. I thought eighteen minutes would work, but it’s probably better to be cautious, and Marion is the boss of this project.
Now it’s time to ladle the salsa into the jars, wipe the rims clean, and gingerly lift the lids and bands from the hot water with tongs and hand tighten them onto the jars. Next we place the jars in the ring inside the big pot of boiling water, making certain the jars themselves do not touch each other. The lids can touch, but not the glass. After the jars are arranged, the rack is lowered into the water, and we put the lid and the timer on almost simultaneously.
The timer goes tick tick tick. I am still looking in the old books, but then Marion reminds me we were going to make pesto. I almost forgot. Into the blender go the basil, olive oil, garlic, and romano cheese. Zip zip zip. Pesto is made. We spoon it into small plastic containers and clean up. Ding. Off goes the stove, off comes the lid, and out come the jars. I brought my own jar grabber that came in the canning kit, but I get to see and use Marion’s, which is an example of engineering elegance and simplicity. If I ever see one in a second hand store, I will be sure to buy it; I doubt if anyone still makes them like this. But then, how many people are still canning their own food?
As I am lifting out the jars and setting them on a rack, the lids go pop pop pop. And that’s the sound of safe salsa. “¡Con toda confianza!”