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8/21/2006

Salsa

For The Heirloom Gardener magazine
Copyright© 2006 Jim Long

Did you know that salsa is now more popular than catsup in terms of sales nationally? Or that most restaurants now offer patrons hot sauce just as often as catsup and mustard?

Our food preferences have changed considerably over the past twenty years. If you're old enough, think back to the 1960s and what typical American food consisted of. T.v. dinners. Pot roast. Fried chicken. It wasn't until Shakey's Pizza opened the first national franchise of pizza restaurants around 1962 that pizza came onto the national table. Then, in the 1970s, Julia Child introduced us to French cooking in the first ever nationally televised cooking shows.

Before Shakeys and Julia, most people in the heartland wouldn't have known what to do with oregano or French tarragon, much less sorrel, rosemary or a dozen other herbs that these two made famous.

In the 1980s and'90s we saw a new wave of immigrants to our shores and with them came new foods. Ten years ago you could have driven across Missouri or Arkansas and probably not encountered a single Asian or Mexican restaurant. Drive those same roads today and it's virtually impossible not to encounter both, in most every little town you pass through.

With salsa on the top of the condiment list, it's worthy to note that salsa isn't just tomatoes any more. While tomato salsa is the primary kind you will find on the grocery store shelf, just like any food there, you can make it fresher and more tasty by making it yourself. You can make salsa from lots of other fruits and vegetables than from the standard tomato.

For some years now I've been encouraging visitors to my gardens to grow their own cilantro. And not just the standard spring and fall cilantro, but to grow some summer varieties, as well. I especially like Vietnamese cilantro (Polygonum odoratum), a plant that works perfectly in salsas if you remember to keep harvesting the leaves and tips (let it get leggy and the older leaves taste awful; keep it cut and use only new growth and it's delicious). Vietnamese cilantro loves summer heat and will grow best in damp soil, even in pots floating in the water garden.

Mexican cilantro (Eryngium foetidum), also known as culantro, thorny coriander, Ngo gai and stinkweed, is another cilantro flavored plant that works great for salsa. It's grown from seed and needs to be grown in the shade with plenty of moisture. The first year I grew this plant I put it in the full sun in my same herb beds where I grow basil (it is, after all, "Mexican" cilantro. Mexico means hot and dry in my mind. I was wrong. Cool temperatures and moisture are necessary).

It didn't totally realize how to grow this plant until I was in Thailand for cooking classes. My hosts were growing culantro (they call it stinkweed there) in full shade in moist beds next to our outdoor cooking classroom. While the plant looks kind of thorny, the name, "thorny coriander" comes from the thorny seed clusters. To keep it producing its tasty leaves, the flowering stalks must be kept cut away.

With choices of several kinds of cilantro, from Mexican and Vietnamese in the summer to Santo (Coriandrum sativum) grown in early spring and late fall, you have plenty of choices to grow and make your own salsas. And the seed can be harvested and kept for the following year, except for Vietnamese cilantro which must be grown from cuttings.

One of my favorite salsas to make in summer is fresh peach. Here's the recipe.

Fresh Peach Salsa

4-5 fresh, ripe peaches, peeled, seeded and diced 1-2 green onions, diced fine 1-2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, any variety, chopped 1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced fine 2 tablespoons (or more) sweet bell pepper, diced 1 teaspoon honey Juice of 1/2 fresh lime

Mix everything together and refrigerate for at least an hour for the flavors to blend. Serve with chips.

White Grape Salsa This is an easy salsa and has surprising, pleasant flavor.

4 cups fresh, seedless white grapes 3 green onions, cut in pieces, tops, too 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped 1 tablespoon mild honey or 1/2 tablespoon sugar 2-3 jalapeno peppers, seeds removed unless you want more heat 1 small or 1/2 large sweet bell pepper, seeded, diced Juice of 1 whole lime

Put everything in a food processor (or chop by hand) and pulse process until the salsa is coarsely chopped. Chill for an hour before serving.

Guatemalan Tomato Salsa

I learned this from a neighbor who has her own cooking show on Guatelaman cable television. The ingredients aren't unusual, but the method of preparing them is a bit different.

In advance, heat a skillet to medium hot. On it, without any oil or water, lay 2 whole green tomatilas, 1 large garlic clove, 1 large slice of onion, 2 jalapeno peppers and 3 roma tomatoes. Blacken all of these until they are totally charred on each side of each vegetable (garlic, too!). As soon as these are totally blackened, remove from heat and let cool. Meanwhile, mix the rest of the ingredients: 2-3 large, ripe tomatoes, diced 1 sweet bell pepper, seeded and diced 3-4 green onions, diced 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro Juice of 2 fresh limes 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt, optional

Then remove the stem and seed from the roasted jalapenos, dice them and add to the mixture. Dice the remaining roasted vegetables and add them to the salsa. Mix and let stand at room temperature for at least an hour before serving.

More of my salsa recipes can be found in my book, Sensational Salsas.

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