Mexican food is hot. People from all regions of the United States are wild about the south-of-the-border taste of tacos, tamales, enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, and fajitas. Even Chihuahuas tout Mexican cuisine in television commercials.
We think every Mexican dish is better smothered in salsa—a sometimes mild, sometimes wild, endlessly variable mixture of tomatoes, chiles, onions, and herbs. The pleasures of fresh salsa (and gazpacho, picante sauce, pico de gallo, and all those other related concoctions) enliven our summer meals and add fire to our dinners even when frost first grips the autumn garden.
Store-bought salsa may serve well enough in winter, but no self-respecting cook will put up with salsa from New York City or anywhere else when fresh ingredients are on hand. These are available in many local markets these days, but growing your own can be easy and rewarding. You can cultivate whatever variety of chile pepper is most compatible with your own taste buds, from warm to five-alarm, as well as onions that suit your palate and color sense. And the tomatoes—well, there’s no substitute for a juicy, homegrown tomato.
The One-Pot Garden
You don’t need an enormous vegetable garden with rows and rows of tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, onions, peppers, and tomatillos to provide the makings of homemade salsa. An 18- to 20-inch terra-cotta pot or half whiskey barrel placed on a sunny deck or patio or elsewhere in the yard can yield enough fresh ingredients for several big batches. If space isn’t a problem, each component may be grown in a separate pot.
The potting mix for a salsa pot (or any other kind of container garden) should be porous and fast draining. Water and fertilize regularly but don’t go overboard on the nitrogen; too much results in an excess of tomato and pepper leaves and fewer fruits. Look for tomato varieties that have been bred for use in patio containers and hanging baskets. They don’t need staking and generally mature earlier than other types.
All peppers love heat. Don’t set plants out until the nights are warm, or they will be stunted and may never recover. Here in Denver, where nighttime temperatures can drop below 50°F any time of the year, we set container-grown peppers against a south-facing wall, which absorbs heat during the day and gives it back at night to keep the plants a little warmer than they might otherwise be.
Tomatillos, or husk tomatoes, are easily adapted to life in containers; grow them just like regular tomatoes. A single tomatillo adds a distinctive, somewhat sour taste to even a large batch of salsa. The papery husk is removed and the tomatillo chopped. To develop the best flavor, it is then simmered for 2 to 3 minutes and cooled before adding to the salsa.
Some people can’t stand cilantro; we can’t do without it, but we’re willing to substitute chopped flat-leaved parsley if we have guests who don’t share our enthusiasm for cilantro. Basil, chives, chervil, marjoram, and thyme are all easily added to the salsa pot and come in handy for all kinds of cooking.
If you have space, fill some pots with classic Mexican flowers to complete the fiesta theme. Marigolds, zinnias, and dahlias all originated in Mexico, despite some marigolds’ designation as “African” or “French.” Aztec sweet herb (Phyla scaberrima) grows well in our salsa pot. We crush a few leaves to sweeten iced tea, which is a fine accompaniment to a spicy meal.
Although we offer a basic recipe here, our salsa is different every time we make it, and the outcome is usually a matter of Rob’s protesting that it’s too hot while David sneaks in a few more hot peppers. However it turns out, we like salsa on just about everything. We attack a fresh batch with tortilla chips or ladle it over an otherwise cool summer salad of lettuce, avocado, and cold chicken.
Serrano, banana, Fresno, rocotillo, jalapeño, habanero, tabasco, Anaheim, poblano, Thai—there are dozens of different kinds of peppers. Generally, the smallest peppers are the hottest, with habaneros recognized as the most incendiary of all. Most of the heat in peppers (the compound capsaicin) is in the seeds and white membranes. Removing these will greatly reduce the heat, leaving the flavor behind. (Wear rubber gloves when handling hot peppers; capsaicin is very difficult to get off your hands and very painful when rubbed in your eyes or on other sensitive areas.) If the peppers are still too hot, chop them and soak them for an hour in a solution of 2 teaspoons of salt or vinegar per cup of water. If this doesn’t work, try a milder variety.
Salsa's First Cousins
Add a bush-type cucumber plant, and your salsa pot can provide most of the ingredients for gazpacho, the classic chilled Spanish soup. To our way of thinking, gazpacho is essentially salsa disguised as soup. Made from bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, it can be seasoned with chives, parsley, basil, chervil, oregano, and a cautious amount of hot peppers. It’s refreshing and nonfattening, which is a good thing after all the sour cream and cheese we can’t resist topping those burritos, flautas, and quesadillas with.
Pico de gallo is a popular condiment with Mexican food. David makes a special batch for himself, using the hottest of peppers. It’s amazing how much sweat can pour from one man’s brow. We set his place with a napkin and a headband.
Rob Proctor and David Macke grow chiles and anything else they can think of in Denver, Colorado. They are the authors of Herbs in the Garden (Interweave Press, 1997).