Salsa Contest

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on September 7, 2005

Electrified with the fiery, fruity heat of fresh chiles, tempered by the sweetness of ripe tomatoes and the pungent edge of cilantro – a classic salsa cruda gladdens your mouth and sends your heart racing. Salsas may be close to being my favorite food – an endless opportunity for combining some of the best tastes and textures in the world.

Not surprising, then, that I have found myself writing about salsas often in this column – and not surprising that I am doing it again now. It is the end of summer, after all, when the tomatoes are heavy on the vine and the chiles have ripened to vibrant hues and another salsa contest has rolled around, sponsored by Bloomingfoods and the Bloomington Community Farmers Market.

Food writing has brought no end of fun experiences into my life, and the opportunity to be a judge at the salsa contest is one of the most fun of all. Imagine a lazy summer morning at the Market with nothing to do but sample salsas, sipping them from spoons, scooping them up with chips, savoring them slowly. That’s exactly where I was a couple of Saturdays ago, on Aug. 27.

I’ve been doing this now for three salsa seasons, so I am finally getting the knack. We evaluate the salsas on four criteria: appearance, aroma, texture and taste, giving each salsa up to five points for each. The salsa prizes are divided into raw and cooked categories, and as the number of entries to the contest has grown (52 this year!), the judges are specialized too. This year, I judged the 26 raw salsas, my favorites by far for their fresher tastes and crunchier textures.

Each salsa comes to us in a little plastic cup. The first thing we check is appearance. I look primarily for rich colors, and for a chunky salsa. Aroma is a little tricky, as a deep whiff of some salsas can blow out your sensory capabilities for the morning. I look for the pungency of chiles, but try to stay alert for notes of fruitiness. Garlic, onions and herbs like cilantro and oregano can add to the aroma, but can also overwhelm it, especially if they’ve been steeping in the salsa for a long time. Texture is pretty straightforward for me; I sum it up with the question: does it have some crunch or substance?

Taste is the most important criteria of all. A good salsa is all about balance between heat, sweet, acid, salt, and the odd bitterness of herbs. One salsa I tasted this year was so harshly hot it hit me across the taste buds like an inferno and I did something I’ve never done before – gave it a zero. One we were hard put to find any chiles in at all. Another used canned tomatoes (why, in an Indiana August?). One was oversalted, another not salty enough.

Overall, though, this year’s entries were superb – I have to say, there were some really excellent ones, at least five of which I’d have liked to see in the top three. The first prize winner was my first choice by far, and it was the last one we tasted – number 26 – which is something since I would have thought our palates would have been jaded by then. It was fragrant with chiles, but not ravagingly hot, with a complexity and fruitiness that came from the peppers, not from a zillion ingredients. In fact, winner Bill Adam says his salsas get simpler every year; this one has only tomatoes, cilantro, peppers and onion. Now that’s the salsa spirit.

The Winners

Since all of the winners were so fine this year, I’m offering you all the recipes, along with one from Gregg “Rags” Rago, who can normally be found cooking at Nick’s English Hut but who gave a salsa making demonstration during the judging Aug. 27.

I am passing these recipes on as they were given to Bloomingfoods. If you can’t re-create these exactly, use them as a guide and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! (Note: Many of the more exotic chiles are available at the Saturday market from the Chilewoman, aka Susan Welsand.)

First Place, Raw, Bill Adam 


Use organic veggies. Peel and seed six medium tomatoes, coarsely chop. Dice 1 medium onion. Chop 1/2 cup cilantro leaves. Chop five to six chile peppers: serrano, guajillo, jalapeno, aji-serrano. (Seed them for a milder salsa.) Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl and let blend for two-plus hours. Makes about 2 cups.

Second place, Raw, Harold Adkisson 

1 pound each: black brandywine and yellow tomatoes, peeled and rough diced
12 green onions, tops sliced thin
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 pasillia peppers, seeded, cored and minced
Juice of one lime
1 cup loose-packed cilantro
2 teaspoons lemongrass paste
4 yellow hot lemon peppers
Salt to taste

Combine all ingredients, mix well, adjust salt and heat level. The lemon peppers can be replaced by jalapenos or any other peppers such as Thai or serrano.

Third Place Raw, John Galuska

10 roma tomatoes
5 purple tomatillos
12-24 cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup cilantro
1 red onion
dash of aged paprika
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 small green pepper
1 sweet plum
1-2 habanera peppers (wild Brazil or Belize are best)
2 tablespoons wildflower honey
1 large clove fresh garlic 1-2 tablespoons sea salt

Finely chop all tomatoes and tomatillos. Mix and dice again. Finely dice onion, cilantro, plum, and garlic. Mix all chopped ingredients. Add paprika, vinegar, salt; mix again. Chop and dice green and hot peppers. Mix and stir. Add salt to taste. Add honey to taste. Let salsa ripen 2-3 hours before serving.

First Place, Cooked, Thomas Neal 

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 organic medium yellow onions
10 organic roma tomatoes
2 large beefsteak tomatoes
4 dried chipotle chilies
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon anise seed
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons sucanat (evaporated sugar cane juice)
coarse sea salt to taste

Reconstitute dried chipotles by boiling them 5 minutes in water. Meanwhile, dice onions and tomatoes. Heat vegetable oil in heavy sauce pan. Add onions and cook until translucent. In mortar, grind coriander, sea salt, anise seeds, and cinnamon with pestle. Add spices to saucepan with onion and cook 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, white pepper, and 1/2 cup of the boiling water (from the chipotles). Cover and cook for 30 minutes low heat. Remove cover. Add sucanat and vinegar; cook an additional 20 minutes. Puree coarsely in blender.

Second Place, Cooked, Jose Espericueta 

30 medium roma tomatoes, boiled, peeled, and chopped
5 medium green chilies, roasted and diced
6 jalapenos, roasted and diced
3 small dried serranos plus 1 chile de arbol, reconstituted in hot water and chopped
2 large green onions, finely chopped
Juice of 1 small lime
3-4 cloves garlic, pressed
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano
5/8 to 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
4 dried, crushed “chile tepin” for extra heat (a sonoran dried chile that looks like a berry)
Salt and pepper to taste

Add chopped tomatoes, green chiles, jalapenos and reconstituted chiles to large saucepan. Heat over low-med heat to cook out some of the water. Let cool. Add garlic, oregano, cilantro, and onion. Stir well. Add lime juice, salt and pepper to taste. Grind and add chile tepin for extra heat (optional). Cool in refrigerator 1-2 days for maximum flavor.

Third Place, Cooked, Harold Adkisson 

1 3/4 lbs. oven dried cherry tomatoes
1 large white onion, minced
2 green bell peppers, minced
4-8 jalapeno peppers, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced. Juice and pulp of 2 limes
Salt to taste
1 cup loose packed cilantro
olive oil

Dry 3 1/2 lbs. cherry tomatoes, cut in half, at 200 degrees, for 3-4 hours on a foil-lined baking sheet. Tomatoes will still be wet, but more intense in flavor. Saute the other four elements in 1 Tbs. oil until tender. Cool before adding to tomatoes. Add lime juice and cilantro. Let stand for 30 minutes before serving.

Fourth Place, Cooked, Lily Ibarra 

12 green tomatillos
2 jalapeno peppers
3-4 dried chile de arbol (red hot peppers)
1/2 cup white or yellow diced onions
3/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 clove chopped garlic

Roast tomatillos and jalapeños in the oven, place in aluminum foil wrap, for 40-50 minutes. (Well done tomatillos will appear light green and become tender Jalapeños will also become tender.) Roast dried chiles de arbol over an open flame. Chop chiles de arbol and garlic in the blender. Mix in roasted tomatillos, cut out stems with small knife, and the jalapeños into the blender and blend into a thick, soup-like sauce. Mix in chopped fresh onion and cilantro, along with salt.

Gregg “Rags” Rago 

3 cups diced tomatoes
1 cup diced onion ( the sweeter the better)
1/2 cup chopped garlic
1 lime juiced and zested
1 cup diced hot chiles (anaheim, jalapeno, habenero, etc.)
1 cup chopped cilantro (be generous with this )
dash of kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Combine all ingredients, allow your salsa to set and chill for at least an hour to meld the flavors. Use it as a dip, or as a condiment for meats, vegetables, eggs, salads, etc. Let the imagination flow.

Gregg “Rags” Rago 

4 avocados ( pitted and scooped )
1/2 cup chopped garlic
1 cup chopped cilantro (be generous )
1 lime juiced and zested
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

In a large, sturdy bowl (wooden if available ) put kosher salt. With a spoon, crush garlic into salt using the salt as an abrasive. Mash the avocados into this mash.

Add cilantro, lime juice and zest Combine the ingredients until a desired texture results; i.e. some like it chunky, some like it smooth. If you like it whipped, use a food processor. It works quite well.

Let the guacamole rest and chill for at least an hour.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s