Salsa Dishes from the Garden

Mexican food is hot

| August/September 1998


Basic Fresh Salsa
Pico de Gallo 

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.

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