Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Summer Salsa – Mild or Spicy?

It's never too early to plan!

Day dreaming about salsa and the full savor of the summer garden is almost as cheering as a sunny day. The warm colors and flavors of tomatoes and peppers, the rich pungency of fresh herbs can easily be imagined while studying cook books and seed catalogs. Among the listings of heirloom varieties, brand new hybrids, and award winning selections are the perfect ingredients for summer salsa. If you’re like me, you want to try them all. But time, space, energy, and budget always bring us down to reality. Besides, there is a limit to how much time we want to spend chopping spicy peppers and processing jars of salsa.

You may want to make a list of your favorite varieties and map out where each will live. Next you will have to decide how to steal the time to get it all in the ground. (I manage by starting a few seeds at a time – so only a few plants are ready to go in the ground at any one time.) Our wet cool season weather can be forgotten for long moments while planing for summer salsa. If you have never grown a salsa garden before; you may be wondering which tomatoes are best, what herbs are traditional, and which peppers to choose for mild, rich, or spicy appeal.

Tomatoes are the backbone of most salsa recipes. My favorite are the medium sized, pear shaped, red Romas. They are a full flavored, old-fashioned, Italian tomato. They are equally good fresh, cooked, or canned. Romas are meaty and firm with a nice balance between acidic and sweet flavors. They process quickly for salsa, sauce, or catsup, unlike other juicier tomatoes. Whether you blanch or mill to remove the skins (or just pop them whole into the food processor) you will appreciate the time and energy savings gained by using Romas. They make a nice thick sauce with little or no cooking down. Romas are very reliable producers. They are also more tolerant of  the Pacific North West’s cool nighttime temperatures than many other varieties. Six plants should provide all but the serious salsa addicts with plenty to play with. They are generally available in six packs at nurseries and garden centers, once the weather warms up. Few pests bother tomatoes, save the dreaded tomato hornworm. Children can be hired to pluck these caterpillars from your plants should you notice leaves disappearing practically before your eyes. Tomatoes actually discourage gophers, particularly if staked or grown in cages. (While they don’t like the roots and the green parts are down right toxic, they will plow up the ground for a nice ripe tomato.)

Hot peppers tend to deter gophers also. And this aversion can be used to your benefit. Consider inter-cropping your hot, sweet, and bell peppers. This will help protect the less robust peppers from the gophers. Peppers add spice, color, and complexity to a salsa’s flavor. Sweet, bell, and hot types can all be found in green, yellow, orange, and purple varieties. The very best salsas use a mix of types, blended according to taste. Thai Dragons and Chili Tepins are some of the very hottest peppers available. They do not add much meat or flavor, but they really pour on the heat. Some folks prefer the meaty spicy flavor of Jalapeno peppers. But if having your mouth on fire doesn’t seem like fun, look for the much milder Poblana chili. Poblanas lend them selves to smoking or fire roasting. If you like the authentic mildly spicy flavor of roasted chilies in your salsa this is the one for you. One or two Thai Dragons and / or Tepin plants ought to give you all the hot chilies you need, if they are planted in a sunny spot and receive plenty of water. Poblanas are not as productive, if you like a mild salsa and plenty of it, you may find that 3 – 6 plants are needed. Don’t forget to save some room for a few bell pepper and sweet pepper plants in a variety of colors. Not only do the colors dress up your salsa, they add to the rich complexity of flavors.

Nothing enhances fresh and home caned salsa like just picked herbs. Basil, oregano, cilantro, chives, and parsley are all easy to grow, attractive in the garden, and oh so flavorful. Basil is considered a tender annual. It definitely won’t take any frost, and it finishes its life cycle in a single summer. It can be started indoors under lights, or purchased as small plants after all danger of frost is past. For salsa I prefer the bush or sweet varieties. However, if you seek them out, basil varieties abound. Just for fun you may want to plant several varieties, replanting your favorites at mid and late summer for a full season of flavor.

Oregano and chives are considered herbaceous perennials. That means they live longer than three years, dying back to the ground in winter and emerging in spring. Unlike basil, which can be cut within a few months of planting – it can take nearly a full season for both the oregano and chives to be ready to cut. If you start with seeds it can take even longer. Keep your eye out for young plants at the nursery, or start seeds soon. You don’t need to be worried about frost with oregano, chives, cilantro, or even parsley. So there is no need to wait for warm weather.

Green and Gold Oregano are nice additions to any garden.

Parsley is considered a biennial. That means that it generally takes two years to complete its life cycle. The first summer it will concentrate on making leaves, and the next summer it will flower and set seed. Parsley should be planted every year for continuous production. The best types for salsa are the Italian, flat, or plain leafed varieties. They also have the least problems with pests. Once the plants have reached at least 6 inches high, you can begin cutting leaves for kitchen use. Once your herbs begin flowering pinching out the flower heads before opening will keep the plants bushy and productive.

Your salsa garden should be planted out in as sunny a spot as you can spare. Raised beds or containers will work, especially if you want to get started while the soil is still cold and soggy. However, anything planted in raised beds or containers will need extra attention and watering in the heat of summer. Tomatoes, peppers, and herbs can also be tucked into the landscaping or planted out in a garden patch. In my yard, it is hard to tell where the landscaping ends and the garden begins. Which may be why I am attracted to vegetables and herbs with visual appeal.

For tomatoes and peppers (as well as many other plants) I use a modified British gardening technique. It can be used in established raised beds, garden plots, or when tucking edibles into the landscaping. Start by digging a 12 – 18 inch planting hole. Six to eight inches of organic matter is layered into the bottom of the hole. The organic matter is then covered with four to six inches of a mix of garden dirt and screened or purchased compost. Young plants are then nestled in, leaving a depression for summer watering. (Don’t forget to provide them with a fortress of sticks to keep the birds and cats from digging in the fresh soil.) After the weather dries and the soil firms up, mulch thickly with a layer of newspaper covered with grass clippings, wood chips, or other mulch. This helps hold down the weeds, reduces water loss from the soil, and provides more organic matter for the worms and microorganisms to utilize in the soil nutrient cycle.

If you would like to give this easy technique a try, just don’t bury anything that is going to smell like food to a hungry animal. They will dig it back up and ruin all your hard work. You will also have to keep an eye on your plants. If you’re earthworms are on vacation, occasionally the organic matter may utilize more nitrogen than it provides as it breaks down. If this is the case your plants will not look as bright green as they should. But this is a problem that is easy to remedy.

A good population of earthworms will make quick work of any buried organic matter. Worm activity increases the nitrogen and other nutrients available to plants. It improves the tilth and texture of the soil. Worms also improve water retention, penetration, and drainage. All they ask in return is to be fed plenty of organic matter. If your soil seems to be deficient in earthworms you can always purchase small containers anywhere they sell live bait for fishing. Night-crawlers and red-wigglers are the main workhorses of healthy garden soil.

While you are waiting for the worms to get busy, if your plants look a little pale, you might want to provide them with some extra nitrogen. Top dress the soil with a goodly handful of coffee grounds, compost enriched with chicken manure, any other composted manure, or a big pinch of bat guano. Any of these will increase the available nitrogen as well as other important nutrients. The results of your labors will provide the spice of summer life and next falls glorious salsas.

Seed Source: I found one catalog that has all my favorite salsa ingredients! If you have some favorite salsa recipes, be sure to look them over before you complete your list of plants or seeds. Then if you’re local nursery (or your favorite seed saving auntie) doesn’t have what you need check out http://www.thompson-morgan.com (800) 274-7333. (They list the cilantro as coriander.)

Stay tuned! Next week we will take a look at 5 free sources of organic matter that can easily be used to improve soil, feed worms, and contribute to our health and the health of our Eco-systems.

1,657 words
Copyright 2006, Harvest McCampbell
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper 4/18/06
Posted here with permission.

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