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Fresh veggies make great salsa
Blonde executive chef Kyle Marrujo chops peppers for his salsa during the Cast Iron Chef of Gainesville Friday. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Roasted Tomato Salsa

5 large Roma tomatoes, whole, not cored or cut in any way
1 serrano or jalapeño chile
2 cloves garlic, skin on
1/4 cup minced white onion
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 bunch cilantro

Make sure your kitchen is well ventilated. Put a piece of aluminum foil in a heavy sauté pan (preferably cast iron) and set it over medium-high heat. Place the whole tomatoes, chile, and garlic cloves in the pan and dry-roast them on all sides until well charred and soft. The garlic and chiles will be done quickly; the tomatoes may take 10 minutes or longer to cook.

Peel the garlic and stem the chile. Place the tomatoes, garlic, and chile in a food processor with the onion, salt, and cilantro. Pulse until the salsa is smooth and taste for seasoning. The salsa will keep, refrigerated, for several days. Reseason before use.
Deborah Schneider,


Watermelon Salsa

1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar
3 cups chopped seeded watermelon
1 cup chopped seeded honeydew melon or cantaloupe
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, chopped
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 tablespoons minced seeded jalapeño chilies

Whisk lime juice and sugar in large bowl until sugar dissolves. Add watermelon and all remaining ingredients; toss gently. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Cover and chill.)
Steven Raichlen, Bon Apetit

With a squirt of lime, a rough chop given to a fresh avocado and local home-grown tomatoes from the farmers market, several local chefs turned fresh, local vegetables into works of salsa art.

A competition last Friday at the Historic Downtown Gainesville Market on the Square — inspired by the Food Network’s TV show “Iron Chef” — challenged several cooks to create salsa from produce available from the market such as tomatoes, onions and even watermelon. The market offers fresh fruits and veggies grown by local farmers from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. each Friday on the square. Other vendors offer cut flowers, breads, honey, jams and jellies.

Paco Rebollar of Luna’s Restaurant — who placed first in the competition — said he created a guacamole ranchero with basic ingredients for a punch of flavor: “Cilantro, tomatoes, lemon juice, avocado and tomatoes from the farmer’s market,” he said.
What can home cooks learn from the challenge? Basic salsa comes from a combination of tomatoes, chilis, onions and garlic. To make it your own, add banana peppers, avocado or cilantro — or, take a completely different direction and create a salsa from any of the fresh fruit now available, such as watermelon or peaches.

Being outside in the scorching heat brought a new set of challenges for the chefs; home cooks making the same dishes would, hopefully, be in a cooled kitchen.

“It is harder to make salsa outside. It’s so hot and you have to get the heat, boil the tomatoes,” said Rebollar as he whipped up four salsa flavors. “... I made tomatillo sauce, this is a traditional pico de gallo, where I’m from we call (this) guacamole ranchero and this one is a classic Mexican salsa — it has tomatoes and peppers and onions, garlic.”

After Luna’s, Mestizo Southwest Grill placed second and Scott’s on the Square finished third in the first Salsa on the Square competition. Other competitors included Re-Cess Gastro-pub, which made watermelon salsa, and Blonde, which made a tomato-based salsa.

Kyle Marrujo of Blonde prepared a mixed salsa with fresh “chili peppers, jalapeños, cilantro, garlic, onions, tomatoes (and) basil,” he said. “That’s pretty much it, (plus) salt, pepper, olive oil.”

But never mind the heat; Marrujo said the hardest part of the contest was making sure there was power.

Oscar Saenz, manager at Mestizo, said he was happy with his second-place finish; the chef made roasted tomato salsa and guacamole.

He said it wasn’t too difficult because they prepared some ingredients before the competition.

Preparation was also key for another contestant, Scott Dixon, who said he planned his recipe out before setting up his tent for the competition.

“I’ve got some yellow banana peppers, some jalapenos, onion, couple of different types of heirloom tomatoes from these guys over here, some tomatillo, some red wine vinegar, some garlic, lime juice,” he said. “It’s actually a little more difficult for me because I usually go by feel, but I had to actually write it down in case anybody asked me.”

Dixon said he typically creates fruit salsas at his restaurant.

“But they are all basically the same thing,” he said. “You’re kind of just going for different flavors to put together. With these tomatoes, it’s kind of amazing all the flavors that we are getting out of them.”

Steven Thomas, market manager, called the salsa competition a success. A peach competition is planned for Aug. 6.

“What we are going to do is switch it to chef against chef,” he said. “Say, three groups of two chefs competing. And then on Oct. 1 we will announce the 2010 Cast-Iron Chef winner.”