We humans like getting burned—on our taste buds, that is. While nearly all other animals avoid the spicy bite of hot peppers, we gobble it up. Some scientists have dubbed this unique human affection for tongue-searing heat "benign masochism." Maybe that's why spicy salsa is challenging ketchup as America's favorite condiment.
There are dozens of jarred varieties to choose from, but there's nothing quite like a homemade salsa, and certainly nothing as cool (or hot) to bring to a summertime potluck as a batch home made from ingredients fresh-picked from your own backyard salsa garden. David Whitinger, executive director of the National Gardening Association, offers some easy steps for a great family gardening project that yields delicious results. Get your green thumb on, and then keep the flavor going with any of these 20 Guacamole Recipes for the Avocado Obsessed!
PICK A SPOT
A 4 x 8-foot garden plot may be easiest if the area you live in has good soil, since you can start planting immediately after clearing a spot. Plant in beds with rich, well-drained soil. It's a good idea to turn finished compost into the top layer of soil. If you don't have the room for a garden, you can still get great yield from patio containers on a deck or balcony. You just need to make sure the pot soil is well fertilized and the plants get lots of sun. "Lack of full sunlight is a major reason for plants not bearing enough fruit," says Whitinger. Speaking of, do you know which fruits are low-carb or not? Take our quiz!
CHOOSE SEEDS VS. SEEDLINGS
If you haven't started seeds indoors six weeks before the last expected frost date (reference the planting calendar at allthingsplants.com/ apps/calendar/), you'll be better off purchasing seedlings to transplant.
KNOW WHAT TO PLANT
Ingredients for a basic salsa include tomatoes, green bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, cilantro and yellow onion. Since different varieties have different growing schedules, you'll need to do some investigation: find that info on the plant tag or in its catalog description. As a general guideline, tomatoes take about 3 months from transplant to harvest.
Plant bell peppers and hot peppers like jalapeños (or habaneros or serranos, depending on your particular taste) first, as they take longer to grow. You can circle them around your tomato plants or plant in a row in front in a garden, or in their own patio pot.
Psst! Did you know spicy foods can help your metabolism? Find out 50 More Ways to Speed Up Your Metabolism!
Italian Roma tomatoes or meaty hybrids work well because they create a less watery salsa. Since tomatoes take a while to bear fruit, get them in the ground early. They are the largest of your salsa plants, so position them in the center of the bed or on the edge as long as they don't shade out the other plants. Place them no closer than 2 feet from each other because they'll be gigantic in just a few months. Once they begin sprouting fruit, but before they ripen, try root pruning, suggests Whitinger. Use a knife or shovel to prune away some (not most!) of the roots. "That'll trick the plant into thinking it's dying and it'll push all resources into finishing up ripening the fruit," says Whitinger. "You'll get ripe fruits weeks before your neighbors."
Plant them as onion sets versus seeds to speed harvest. Green onions mature quicker, so they are a good choice, but you can also grow conventional yellow onions.
Essential to good salsa, this herb can be grown among the tomato and pepper plants. You might add in other herbs like parsley, oregano and basil. Plant on the edges of the bed or in pots.
Tomatoes need extra nutrients. Use a complete fertilizer, such as 5-10- 10 or 10-10-10, or organics such as bone meal and dried manure. Stay away from high-nitrogen fertilizers. And be sure to mulch to prevent weeds.
Learn to Salsa
Ready to harvest? Here's a basic construction plan for a delicious roasted salsa:
Step 1: Begin by quartering about 4 tomatoes and cutting small onions and 2 medium bell peppers; stemmed serranos and jalapeños can be left whole. One or two will do unless you like nuclear salsa.
Step 2: Place all the vegetables cut-side up on a baking sheet, drizzle with a healthy cooking oil like olive oil and sprinkle with salt and cracked black pepper.
Step 3: Grill the vegetables over an oak-wood fire for about 8 minutes or until they are blistered and charred to impart a nice smoky flavor.
Step 4: Chop the vegetables finely with a sharp knife or food processor fitted with a metal blade. Dump the chopped vegetables into a bowl and add 1/3 cup chopped cilantro leaves, 1 tablespoon of fresh lime juice, 1 teaspoon cumin and 2 teaspoons salt. Mix to combine and transfer to a serving bowl.
Optional Experiment with your tomato flavor base by adding pineapple, mango, black beans and corn.
Step 5: Serve warm or chilled.