I don’t know about you, but when I think of snacks, I inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) cringe, thinking about the non nutritional calories I’m about to consume. Salsa to the rescue! Although most of us enjoy our salsa with chips, if there were a few veggie sticks or slices available, the calorie count would go way down and the health benefits would go up dramatically. Assuming, of course that we ate the veggies instead of the chips! And, all too often, salsa is thought of only as a dip for chips, an appetizer at Mexican restaurants. But it is very versatile, adding a good dose of flavor without adding many calories. Salsa gives you a good dose of vitamin C, it’s hydrating, it’s low fat, it’s low sodium, it contains potassium and it tastes fresh and clean.

Salsa has been around for a while. It seems to have originated with the Inca people in South America. When the Spaniards first encountered tomatoes after their conquest of Mexico, they discovered a condiment made for the Aztec lords, a combination of tomatoes, Chile peppers and ground squash seeds to be served over meat and fish. Proving that cooks have been experimenting long before Food TV existed, salsa was soon being added to other food and modified to make use of what was fresh from the garden and fields. Salsa will brighten the flavor of a pot of beans, add spice and zest to all sorts of tortilla based meals and up the nutritional level of anything it’s used in. At the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market, Curt and Susan Crooks, owners of Papa Curt’s Homemade Salsa, customers are grabbing up one pound tubs of fresh salsa every Saturday, choosing from four heat levels. Mild and medium need no introduction. Habanero and Scorpion are more exciting to the taste buds, but Papa Curt does not aim to sear your mouth, instead the goal is to give you a blast of flavor with moderate heat.

All the ingredients are fresh, with the exception of the dried Scorpion peppers, which are imported from Trinidad, and are among the hottest peppers in the world. The salsa is prepared in a licensed commercial kitchen in Roseburg. One day a week, Curt and Susan, along with one helper, chop around 500 pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes in a specially modified machine that gives the consistent texture they insist on. Onions are also chopped in this machine, but the cilantro is chopped by hand and peppers are chopped in a food processor. All these different methods ensure that the texture is just the way Curt wants it and give the customers a consistent product. The next day, the salsa is tubbed and distributed to Sherms and Nickabobs in Roseburg and sold at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market, and Coos Bay and Canyonville farmers markets. It is also served at Backside Brewery in Roseburg.

Curt and Susan source as many ingredients locally as possible, even having a local grower produce a type of Roma tomato that is especially good for salsa, with less juice and seeds and more flesh. That grower cannot produce the ton of tomatoes to meet their weekly needs, so Charley’s Produce and Sherms provide the balance. When you stop to think about it, the volume of ingredients is mind boggling! 18 to 20 boxes of tomatoes, at 25 pounds each, plus all the onions, cilantro, chilies and spices… wow!

Papa Curt’s Homemade Salsa was quite well known to Curt and Susan’s friends before it ever became a business. He had been making salsa and passing it around for years, occasionally selling a few tubs to friends. One night at a dinner party, one of the guests, Shaun Konopaski, a graphic designer, presented them with a template for their label and said “There. Now you have to do it!” They are not planning any exotic additions to the four varieties they currently offer, although serious thought is being given to the addition of a green salsa, not made with the traditional tomatillo “greenery” but with green zebra tomatoes.

Enthusiastic customers come back for their weekly supply of Papa Curt’s. Recent comments like “That’s not salsa! That’s crack cocaine!” encourage other shoppers to step up to the table full of samples and partake, usually leaving with a tub or two tucked into their shopping totes. Papa Curt’s always offers samples with chips, so you’re assured of getting the heat level that’s just right for you. Curt is happy to have the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market as the home court for his business. “We are having a great experience at UVFM. The other vendors are very supportive of us and the manager, Amanda, is terrific. We plan to be at this market, year round!”

Maryjean Anderson is proof that you can take the gal out of the farm, but you’ll never take the farm out of the gal. Contact her at meanmaryjean769@gmail.com.

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