I have zero Latinx blood in me. I come from Russian stock that glow in the dark, but I am a serious Mexican food snob. I spent thirty years in Arizona, where we understood Mexican food as a whole culinary ecosystem beyond tacos. Appreciating Silvana Salcido Esparza’s gourmet Gran Reserva can be balanced with 2 a.m. burritos from any Berto’s drive thru. I weep for people who will never get to experience some of the posole and elote available in the Valley, and after dining in some very fancy places, I would still call a midnight Sonoran Dog, procured from a tent in a parking lot, a uniquely perfect meal.
So it’s not surprising that I still discover new aspects of Mexican food all the time–five years ago I found La Santisma—a disarming spot in Central Phoenix with a menu that makes your head swirl. The salsa bar is like a magnificent acid trip—a rainbow of traditional tomato and tomatillo based options, supplemented with jicama salsa and pecan salsa and strawberry salsa and 20 other options that will send you back to the bar every five minutes to try something new. I’ve been thinking about that strawberry salsa for years.
My adopted home, Portland, is not a mecca of great Mexican food, which is where my snobbery comes in, but we have something Phoenix doesn’t: Hood strawberries. These small, sugary June-bearing jewels have a very finite lifespan. Blink and you’ll miss the three week harvest season, and they only last about 24 hours in your fridge before molding. Hoods are legendary here in PDX (I wish that were unintentional), and news of their arrival floods Reddit, Twitter and text messages: “THE HOODS ARE IN.”
Picking strawberries is exhausting, and processing them is a pain in the ass that I often let go on just a little too long. Last year I stared at the last of the berries. They were a little too far gone for freezing, but I was adamantly not going to make jam on a 115-degree day. So I grabbed my pastry cutter and smushed the berries with some homemade Huy Fong sauce, let it ferment overnight and arrived at the most delicious salsa I’ve ever made. But since it relied on fresh strawberries, it was fleeting. As Lifehacker’s Senior Food Editor Claire Lower and I picked in the strawberry field this year, staining our fingers with juice, I mentioned the salsa to Claire, who immediately asked, “Wanna write about it?” This recipe isn’t fermented, but it is glorious.
- 1 red onion
- 2 red bell peppers
- 1 orange bell pepper
- 5 banana peppers
- 3/4 cup strawberry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 splash of Worcestershire sauce
This recipe makes about 4 cups of salsa. To make it reproducible, and because I accidentally made this year’s Huy Fong sauce inedibly spicy, I started with a sweet pepper base instead. You’ll also need ripe strawberries. If you’re buying grocery store strawberries, leave them on the counter, in the sun long enough to let them get a nice red, which usually takes about a day. Then trim off all the white parts. You want just the red part of the berry. Break up the rest of the produce just enough to get into the food processor. Pulse the peppers and onion together to a rough chop. Add half the strawberries and pulse again, until it comes together. The strawberries are going to become a pink froth. Add the salt, Worcestershire, vinegar, and the last of the berries and pulse once or twice quickly. The second batch of berries will still have some body to them. Now, let it chill in the fridge at least overnight.
Some notes: You don’t need strawberry vinegar—any vinegar will do. But since you now have a lot of strawberry tops, make some strawberry vinegar by throwing them in a bottle with some white wine vinegar, and you’ll have it for next year. You don’t have to use the exact same pepper mix every time either—adjust it for your level of spice. Try to stay within the red/orange color array (a red jalapeño, for example) to keep that glorious color. If you’re a wuss, skip the Huy Fong sauce and stay with bell peppers. The Worcestershire sauce may seem suss, but it adds that bit of umami kick that really brings it all together.
And now, the best news of all: It freezes gloriously. On a lark, I threw a half cup of my precious salsa into a Tupperware and in the freezer and this morning, left it to defrost on my countertop. At room temperature, it was still magnificent. Which means I’ll be eating Hood Berry Salsa in January, while sipping a margarita from under 12 blankets in front of my heater, dreaming about strawberry season.