Right before Irene hit I went into the garden and preemptively picked all the ripe and semi-ripe tomatoes and peppers, figuring that the winds might bring down the trellises and damage the fragile fruit. It turned out to be prescient, since though the paste tomato trellis is still standing, the other one took the brunt of the tree’s impact and there’s not much left but a few bright cherry tomatoes visible through a tangle of busted-up vines. On the plus side, I had a big pile of beautiful nightshades just begging to be transformed into one of my late-summer specialties: smoked salsa.
I began by washing and trimming everything, removing any blemishes and the stem ends of all the tomatoes and cutting the jalapeños in half, seeding about half of them to allow for more control over the heat: without seeds and membranes they add lots of smoky pepper flavor without making the result paint-strippingly ferocious. These were Blue Beech tomatoes, which are hands down the best paste tomato I’ve ever eaten; they keep their sweetness even when cooked down with their skins and seeds, and have an excellent firm texture that makes for silky sauces.
They all went into the smoker in two batches, where they spent about an hour each getting a good flavor and enough heat so that the tomato skins slipped right off after I removed them to a big pyrex baking dish. After skinning, I threw them in a pot with some shallots, garlic, and coriander seeds–all of which are hanging up and drying out on the porch–plus fresh cilantro, salt, and a generous glug of homemade cider vinegar. I let this mixture bubble merrily for a while, adding jalapeños until I got the heat level I wanted, then put it all through the food mill and jarred it, and then put the jars in the big canning tub to boil.
It’s just a gorgeous salsa: smoky, sweet-sour, and insistently hot without being overpowering. I got seven pints. As good as it is, though, in some ways the byproduct was even better. The dish that the tomatoes and peppers sat in post-smoking collected a large amount of tomato water as I skinned them all. I took the liquid, strained it, and added salt, vinegar, and the remaining smoked jalapeños, puréed it with the immersion blender, and then strained it again. I got two bottles of seriously hot, smoky fabulousness that is seriously addictive. I can’t say enough good things about this method; if you don’t have a smoker just use your grill to put a little char on everything first; it works particularly well on the peppers. And of course since it’s mostly tomato and has no oil (and a healthy dose of vinegar) this salsa can be canned in boiling water without extra pressure. Come midwinter, these jars will be worth their weight in gold, containing as they do the full flavor of the sun’s summer splendor.