August is a great month for food. All of the peak-of-summer veggies are at their absolute prime, and if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a thriving farmers market scene, you’ll have access to the freshest, most delicious produce you’ll ever be able to get your hands on (unless you grow it yourself). Most supermarket vegetables, particularly the ones that are shipped in from hundreds or thousands of miles away, hit the shelves a minimum of several days after being harvested. This means that in order for them to reach your local produce section in anything resembling sellable condition, they need to be picked slightly before they’re entirely ripe, and finish ripening along the way. This isn’t such a big deal for some veggies (green peppers, for example, which aren’t actually ripe to begin with), but many are significantly less flavorful if they’re picked before they’ve ripened entirely.
Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of tomatoes. A fresh-picked, field-ripened tomato is miles – no, probably light years – away from the lackluster, reddish-orange tomatoes you’ll get in the supermarket. The taste difference is so remarkable that I don’t even bother with fresh supermarket/co-op tomatoes at all anymore – I usually just use canned, which are picked ripe and canned fresh. But for two wonderful, glorious months of the year, fresh, ripe, delicious, mouth-watering tomatoes are mine for the taking at my local farmers market – and I do my best to take full advantage of this fortunate fact by putting them in EVERYTHING. The more tomatoes a recipe calls for, the better.
And even more amazing (if you can believe it) is the fact that in my neck of the woods, said tomatoes are actually cheap to boot. “Fresh” supermarket tomatoes are something like $2 per pound on the low end, and fancy organic/heirloom varieties can cost $6/lb. or more. But not at a Twin Cities farmers market. Here, you can buy ’em by the bucket – and man, do I ever – and the more you buy, the cheaper they are per pound. I usually buy a smallish bucket of tomatoes per week (prompting me to designate a tomato drawer in my kitchen) – probably 10 lbs. or so, for around $6-8 – but people who are canning or making large batches of tomato sauce will often buy them by the box. Once my friend Jenny bought an entire garbage bag of roma tomatoes – seriously, a whole bag – for $20, and cooked them down into pasta sauce to freeze.
I LOVE that you can do this here, because this isn’t the case everywhere. In Denver, where I grew up, farmers market vendors tend to charge by the pound, just like the grocery store, and you definitely don’t get much of a discount for going straight to the source. It’s impossible to make any of the great end-of-summer dishes this way – a simple ratatouille would put you back $20, and a fresh tomato soup would be even more expensive. It’s not that I don’t think farmers are entitled to a fair price for their produce – they absolutely are – but buying (and selling) produce in bulk this way results in efficiencies for both sides. The buckets of tomatoes that I buy are not full of flawless, shiny, grocery-store-worthy tomatoes – those tomatoes probably actually get sold to the grocery store. Instead, I get a bucketful of tomatoes with flaws – a bruise here, some superficial spottiness there, which I am more than happy to trim out – and the vendor gets rid of a bunch of tomatoes that she wouldn’t have been able to sell otherwise. If this isn’t what’s supposed to happen at a farmers market, then I really don’t understand what they’re good for. (I’m looking at you, Denver.)
Anyhoo. I’ve been in tomato heaven, eating my weekly bucket of tomatoes. And this week I’ve been kind of obsessed with this salsa fresca recipe, so of course I had to share it. The recipe I’m giving below (based on a friend’s family recipe) is huge – it yields 10 cups of salsa, give or take depending on the size of your tomatoes – but it’s so good that you’ll want it all, I promise. Eat it with chips, put it on tacos or refried beans, take it to parties to impress your friends with your cooking (by which I mean blending) skills, or do what I did – devour it in two sittings with your significant other. But beware: this salsa is not for the faint of heart – people who want their garlic, their raw onions, or their cilantro in moderation. You may reek of garlic for several days afterwards. But hey, to many people, that’s just a sign of good taste.
- 8 good-sized, fresh, picked-ripe farmers market or homegrown tomatoes
- 1 onion
- 1 head of garlic (Twin Cities folks – the Gardens of Eagan garlic that the Wedge is currently selling is the most phenomenal garlic I have ever tasted; well worth the trip)
- 1 bunch of cilantro, leaves only
- Green chilies – 1 jalapeño for mild, 2-3 jalapeños for a medium salsa, or multiple hotter chilies (such as serranos) if you want to go all out
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
Roughly chop all vegetables. Combine in a blender or food processor. (You may have to do two batches if using a blender or a smaller food processor.) Blend, taste for salt and adjust if necessary, and devour!
(Alternately, if you would like an attractive, delicate-looking salsa fresca, then you can carefully chop all vegetables into uniform pieces. But keep in mind that it’ll taste the same regardless. :))
Cost of core ingredients: I’m not sure that I could really call this a “cheap” dish, considering it a) isn’t actually a meal, even though it’s been functioning as one in my house the past couple of days, and b) is so delicious that it gets devoured pretty much immediately. But my significant other and I did eat this for “dinner” two days in a row (hey, it’s only August once a year), so here we go:
- 8 farmers market tomatoes: $2?
- 1 farmers market onion: $0.50?
- 1 head of UTTERLY AMAZING garlic: ~$1
- 1 bunch cilantro: $1.79
- 2 jalapeños: $0.68
- 1 lime: $0.72
- Corn chips for eating: $3.49
Total cost for….well, what should have been more than four servings: $6.69 (plus salt) for the salsa only, or $10.18 total.