The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Heat Up with a Salsa Garden

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

For many people salsa is as commonly eaten as ketchup or mustard. Even though there are many different recipes for salsa, there are a few universal ingredients. Most of them can be grown successfully in our gardens.

This year plan a salsa corner in a sunny spot in your garden. The seeds and/or plants of these crops can be found at garden centers and through mail order seed companies. Some seed companies even sell a salsa seed collection.

Tomatoes are the basic ingredient in many salsa recipes. The best type of tomato for salsa are the paste tomatoes. Although these pear or plum shaped fruits are smaller than standard tomatoes, they are full of flavor and have a very meaty low moisture flesh. Paste tomatoes do tend to ripen all at once so have your recipe and pans ready to go.

Some paste tomato varieties are 'San Marzano,' 'Roma,' 'Viva Italia' (also good for fresh eating) and 'Veeroma.'

Every salsa recipe needs a "kick" from peppers. The degree of hotness in the salsa can be varied by the type, quantity and portion of the peppers used. The main source of the pungency in peppers is capsaicin, which is basically odorless and tasteless. It resides in the inside wall of the pod and the white lining, and is concentrated at the stem end. The pungency is measured in Scoville units, named after the pharmacist, Wilbur Scoville, who developed the measuring system. The range is from 0 for the bell pepper to 350,000 Scoville units for the Mexican habanero.

Some salsa recipes call for a combination of different types of peppers. The long, green Anaheim pepper is often used. It is not extremely hot, ranging from 250 to 1,400 Scoville units. The Jalapeno pepper is found in many salsa recipes. Although it is too hot for some palates, it is not extremely hot or pungent by pepper standards–ranging between 3,500 to 4,500 Scoville units.

For some fire in your salsa, grow the habanero pepper, the hottest peppers known, which are 200 to 300 times hotter than jalapenos (350,000 Scoville units). The mature fruit is orange to red in color and 1 1/2 inches long. Get out the rubber gloves when harvesting and handling the fruits, the plants and the seeds (maybe even the package of seeds).

Just in case you get too much culinary excitement, remember to eat bread, yogurt or drink milk. Do not drink water, it just shares the fun with all the other parts of your mouth. Hot hands can be washed in a dilute solution of bleach or ammonia.

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa), an ingredient in many salsa recipes, are used raw or cooked. The fruit is somewhat crunchy with a tart flavor. Tomatillos, like their cousins tomatoes and peppers, require a full-sun location. The plants may reach 3 feet tall and produce dozens of golf ball-sized fruit inside papery husks. Tomatillos are harvested as soon as the fruit changes color from green to beige.

Tomatillos are preferred for salsas over the similar but smaller plant, ground cherry or husk tomato (Physalis pruinosa). Keep in mind these reseed abundantly.

Another prime ingredient for salsa is fresh cilantro (Coriandrum sativum). It is an annual herb, also known as coriander when it is grown for its seed. The plants tend to bolt (go to seed) readily during warm summers. The varieties 'Slo Bolt,' 'Long Standing' or 'Santos' give a longer harvest before bolting. The Queen Anne's Lace looking leaves have a citrusy-spicy flavor.

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