At least once a year I buy the first crop of supermarket tomatoes that look even vaguely ripe. They are never anything but a total letdown, which means I end up regretting my purchase — and resenting those subpar tomatoes for suckering me in.
Fortunately, even bland, watery tomatoes have their uses. I strongly believe that the only reason you should char, cook, or otherwise heat a ripe tomato is to preserve a bumper crop — but shitty winter tomatoes are a different story.
Heat brings out the best in a bland tomato: roasting, grilling, or sautéing them kickstarts the flavour-boosting Maillard reaction, but it also cooks off some of their liquid, concentrating the paltry flavour they already have.
Plus, the overly firm, cardboard-like texture of an underripe winter tomato holds up to heat, rather than instantly collapsing into a pile of hot tomato mush. For these reasons, I think that the mediocre winter tomato’s highest calling is a smoky, roasted salsa.
Try as you might to avoid it, you will — at some point — find yourself with either too many tomatoes, some bland, flavourless tomatoes, or too many bland, flavourless tomatoes. The solution, my friends, is to make pasta sauce.
Unlike pico de gallo, which really needs the intensity of peak-season tomatoes to taste great, cooked salsas build flavour by roasting or charring the ingredients before puréeing them with other seasonings.
It’s super simple to make: Thoroughly blacken tomatoes, peppers, and onions under the broiler — or on the grill if you have one, you lucky duck—roughly purée them, and “sear” the mixture in a skillet slicked with smoking-hot oil. After a quick simmer and a bit of seasoning, you’ll end up with a thick, luscious salsa ready for any application you can dream up.
On top of being dead simple, cooked salsas are also easily tweaked to suit your specific tastes. Literally any combination of any variety of chiles will work — fresh, dried, or some of each — and the proportions are very forgiving. Depending on your spice tolerance, you can adjust the ratio of tomatoes to fresh chiles up or down to achieve the result you want.
Best of all, since the salsa is cooked, there’s no need to soak dried chiles: Just toast ‘em up and chuck ‘em in. Between the heat from the charred vegetables, the searing process, and the long rest in the fridge, they’ll rehydrate just fine.
Whip up a batch of salsa and park yourself in front of your sunniest window with a bag of chips, a cold beer, or a margarita — spring may feel a long - long - way off, but there’s no need to suffer in the meantime.
Roasted Winter Tomato Salsa
The chiles I used here make for a flavorful but quite mild salsa. I chose serranos for their heat and fresh, grassy flavour, and guajillos for that sweet fruitiness you just can’t expect from tomatoes this time of year. For a hotter salsa, increase the amounts of fresh or dried chiles, or just use hotter varieties—fruity, fiery habaneros make delicious roasted salsas, and I think they’d be fantastic here.
1 large white onion
Juice of 2 limes, plus extra to taste
Salt, to taste
1/4 cup olive oil, or neutral cooking oil
600 grams of disappointing March tomatoes, any variety (I used plum)
1 or more large fresh hot chiles, any variety (I used serrano)
4 or more large, mild dried chiles, any variety (I used guajillo)
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
Adobo seasoning, to taste (optional)
Quarter and peel your onion. Finely mince one of the quarters. Transfer the minced onion to a small bowl, stir in the juice of 2 limes, and season with salt to taste — 1/2 teaspoon of table salt was just about right. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
Heat your broiler to high and pour two tablespoons of the oil on a sheet pan. Slice each of the remaining onion quarters in half again lengthwise, so you have six wedges of roughly equal size. Trim off any remaining roots and scatter the onion wedges on the oiled sheet pan.
Halve the tomatoes and chile pepper(s) lengthwise through the stem, then add those to the pan, too. Mix the vegetables around with your hands to lightly coat with the oil, arranging everything with the cut sides down.
Transfer the pan to the oven and broil for 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the strength of your broiler. The goal is to totally blacken the exposed tomato and pepper skin and develop a nice char on the onions; check on them frequently to gauge their progress.
When they’re done, carefully transfer the veg to a heatproof bowl and pour a quarter cup of water into the pan to deglaze it. Scrape up any browned bits with a spatula or wooden spoon, pour the deglazing liquid into the bowl with the vegetables, and set aside to cool.
While the vegetables rest, use kitchen shears to trim the ends off your dried chiles and cut a slit down the long sides. Remove and discard the seeds and ribs: I like to shake the seeds into a bowl and peel the ribs out with my fingertips.
Heat a dry 30cm skillet over medium-low heat, then gently toast the dried chiles until pliable and fragrant, no more than 30 seconds each side. A little blackening is OK, but don’t let them burn or catch fire; burnt dried chiles are unpleasantly bitter. Immediately stir the toasted chiles into the bowl with the other vegetables—which should still be warm—and purée to your desired smoothness with an immersion blender.
Finally, wipe out the skillet you used to toast the chiles, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and heat over medium-high. When the oil is shimmering hot and nearly smoking, pour in the puréed vegetables all at once; it will spit and sputter, so be careful.
Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for just a couple of minutes, until the oil is emulsified and the salsa has thickened slightly. Transfer to a clean storage bowl.
Stir in the marinated onions and cilantro while the salsa is still warm, then adjust the seasoning as needed with additional salt, adobo seasoning, and/or lime juice. (The adobo is optional, but I strongly recommend it—it adds an addictive hit of garlic and MSG.)
Cover with plastic and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.
Serve with tortilla chips for a rounded, complete meal best consumed from the comfort of your couch — but if you’re feeling fancy, there are plenty of other ways to eat your homemade salsa. Use it as a base for chilli or other stews, fold it into quesadillas and tacos, dollop it on nachos, or — my personal favourite — serve with crispy fried eggs, black beans, and tortillas for a killer plate of huevos rancheros.