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Safe salsa

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Safe salsa

Everybody’s tomato crop is coming on like gangbusters, which means we are enjoying a nonstop diet of this wonderful summer-into-fall delight. One of the most popular treats cooks create with them is salsa. Particularly now that local peppers are also coming on. If you are planning to can your homemade salsa, you need to follow United States Department of Agriculture guidelines to ensure a safe salsa that won’t turn on you over the winter in your pantry. Following respected recipes that maintain a safe level of acid is imperative. Jan’s Hotsy Totsy Salsa addresses those issues. Plus, it’s pretty tasty.

I’ve spent some exasperating moments on the phone with readers who want me to send them some different recipes for canning salsa. For most, the frustration is that none of the safe-for-canning recipes that they try are "zippy enough." My frustration with them is that I know they are tuning out every piece of advice I’m relaying regarding the dangers of canning low-acid salsas. Most cooks are only interested in creating some really tasty salsas. Not that I don't sympathize with them.

Unfortunately, I know that such creativity usually takes the form of extra bell peppers, chiles, celery, onions and garlic. I also know that when such low-acid foods are added to a high acid tomato-based salsa, the overall acid level drops — possibly to the point where it's no longer safe to use the boiling-water bath method for preserving. Low-acid salsas would need to be processed in the same manner as a batch of green beans — i.e., in your pressure canner.

But just like all the preserving specialists at the United States Department of Agriculture who want you to follow their carefully researched canning guidelines, let me be perfectly clear: when searching for the perfect salsa recipe to can this season, hold on to two important thoughts: 1) consider the source, and 2) don't fiddle with the formula. In other words, when canning tomato-vegetable combinations, follow tested recipes found in the United States Department of Agriculture publications, or other books that comply with USDA's guidelines, including a current edition of the "Ball Blue Book" (those published AFTER 1988, when the new tomato processing procedures were introduced), and Oregon State University Extension Service brochures. If you decide to alter a tested recipe by increasing the vegetables, USDA's official statement is to plan on freezing the results or storing them in the refrigerator for immediate consumption.

So for those who want to enlist their sun-ripened tomatoes and chiles into shelf-stable salsa duty, but have yet to find a USDA-approved recipe they're proud to call their own, there is an option: follow the safe-but-boring recipes found in the USDA publications, or other books that comply with USDA's guidelines, then, address your inner need to improve upon the formulas in one or both of the recommended methods that follow.

How to Improve a home-canned salsa safely:

•Zip up the boring recipe before it hits the canning kettle by adding ingredients that won't significantly lower the level of acid. These include a few extra tablespoons of dried oregano, basil and cumin, for example, or other dried seasonings (but steer clear of fresh herbs).

•Consider your canned salsas as merely the first phase of salsa construction. Then address the dullness factor on an individual basis with each jar you open throughout the year. Before serving, add low-acid ingredients to your heart's content. Go crazy over roasted garlic and chiles, extra onions, and plenty of celery, corn and fresh, crunchy cucumbers. Stir in a sprinkling of pine nuts and olives, and a dash of olive oil.

HOTSY-TOTSY SALSA ALTERNATIVE — Several years back in an effort to can a batch of salsa from an extraordinary crop of tomatoes, I made my own attempt to alter a safe-but-boring salsa recipe. After the recipe was published in my column, I got a call from Carolyn Raab, who was the Oregon State University Extension Foods and Nutrition Specialist at that time. She was concerned that there was not a high enough ratio of tomatoes and vinegar to low acid vegetables, and even after I told her that my source for the basic recipe was a USDA recipe, she volunteered to run a pH test on a sample batch to determine the level of acid in the salsa. If it turned out the salsa had a pH of 4.6 or higher then it would be considered low-acid, and should be canned in a pressure canner. A pH below 4.6 meant that it was indeed an acid food and that the boiling water bath was a safe canning method.

Test results showed that the pH of Hotsy Totsy Salsa was 4.3, a safe level for boiling water canning. However, at 4.3, there's little leeway for further experimentation. Just a few more chiles, half a cup more onion, or tomatoes that have increased in pH due to over-ripeness, and chances are that your batch of Hotsy Totsy Salsa would be approaching the questionable zone, making it no longer a safe candidate for boiling water bath canning.

I'm sharing it with you now. But on your Scout's honor, you've got to promise not use over-ripe tomatoes, or to add any more of the really fun-but-low-acid ingredients until you're ready to pull a jar from your pantry and pass around the tortilla chips.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or find additional recipes, food tips and information about obtaining prints and originals of her watercolors at www.janrd.com.

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