The stifling heat of the Central Valley will damn near kill ya and if it doesn’t do that it’ll piss you off for sure. The oppressiveness eases a bit as you approach the Sierra foothills or meander your way toward the coast, but truth be told the anvil of Visalia is where the hammer of the California sun falls blow after blow and it’s not much fun to be at the convergence of the two. But there is hidden royalty here during the height of the summer growing season and it’s not located in the halls of power or within any abode made by humankind. In home gardens all along what was once called The Road of Kings, which runs north/south through the region, live the true bluebloods of the area. These lofty inhabitants hide on trellis and vine, passively yet earnestly awaiting the moment to reveal their true calling like a banished monarch returning to a stolen throne.
This is the great Central Valley pepper, of which there are more varieties than can be counted, although they all have one thing in common. As they wait in the anteroom of the season they conspire brattily with Mother Nature whether to be hot or sweet or both or neither. Their negotiation is a testament to the moment when sun hits water and plant collides with palate.
One of the great tributes to this venerated citizen is the wide array of homemade salsas purveyed by families throughout the region. They range from pungent and spicy to almost Midwest in their mildness but they all have a certain sense of being alive in the moment even if they are canned in the all-too-familiar mason jar. Every preacher of this condiment gospel has their own secrets and techniques, there is nothing new in the need to strut. So it is here with various concoctions being gifted during the grilling season, all given with deep graciousness coupled with just a dash of one-upmanship.
Now, it’s hardly a secret that the classic Central Coast dish Tri-Tip is meant to be slow-cooked over oak, sliced thin and served with charro beans, crusty bread and a version of this venerated accoutrement. One of the best ones I’ve ever had came via Frank Parlett and John Van Horn, both heralding from Paso Robles, and as handy as fixing a jeep as they are making wine or their salsa. Their version was the inspiration for this particular permutation intended to be slathered on slabs of meat.
To me a perfect salsa cruda intended for beef has three components. The first is fresh peppers, onions and tomato that come from a family garden somewhere and are at the peak of their suitability for the task. The next is just a bit of dried Anaheim Chile, toasted in a pan, very briefly steamed the crushed and added to the above mixture. The final ingredient is rustic olive oil, preferably infused with a bit of rosemary and garlic to give it some background flavor. In the end it should be a perfect blend of pico de gallo, chimichurri and salsa de acete. The oil helps coat the meat with flavor and keeps the ingredients from falling off.
I consider this an “aspirational’ recipe. If I could transport myself back in time to a Rancho during the Californio period I’d like to think there would have been one person that really had it figured out, making something along these lines as meat was grilled outdoors and families gathered. So here’s my contribution to the dance at hand, Salsa Cruda de Alta Baja.
3 medium Roma tomatoes – not too ripe
1 large red onion – sweet and pungent
2 medium Jalapeno peppers
2 dried Anaheim chiles
1 small bunch of cilantro
Hearty olive oil.
Fresh Lemon juice
Chop fine the onion and tomato and put in a bowl. Squeeze a bit of fresh lemon juice on it.
In a hot cast iron skillet add just a touch of olive oil. When smoking add the jalapeños and roast for 2 min. Add the dried chiles and toast for another minute or two. Turn off the stove and add just a tablespoon of water and lid quickly. Let the steam work into the dried chiles for a couple minutes.
Remove jalapeños from the pan and mince. Remove the dried chiles, put in a food processor and grind into small pieces but not a powder or paste.
Add jalapenos and dried chiles and mix. Add garlic to taste (but not too much). Salt to taste.
Add 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil (or more if you like) and stir. Finally, stir in the cilantro and let stand until ready to serve.