Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Planting a Salsa and Gazpacho Garden

Summer is that sultry garden time when the oozingly ripe tomatoes and cucumbers are hanging on the vine, when the hot and sweet peppers are bright with color and flavor, when garlic, onions and herbs are at their peak. In short, it is time to make your own homegrown salsa and gazpacho.

But if you want all of that garden bounty in August, you have to get started now. You can grow all the ingredients for these two summer favorites right in your own backyard. You can easily grow tomatoes, cucumbers, fiery jalapeno peppers, cilantro, onions and garlic. You can even grow the exotic tomatillos if you want to make salsa verde, the green sauce popular in parts of the American southwest and Mexico. The only ingredients you cannot grow are limes and olive oil. Not too bad!

Everybody knows what salsa is because we buy more salsa than ketchup in the United States. But store-bought salsa cannot compare to home-grown and home-made. Your own salsa will be fresher and the taste of the vegetables will be much more pronounced if you grow your own.
Gazpacho is a thick soup of uncooked raw vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and more. There are many different variations on gazpacho. In Sevilla it is more of a pureed bread soup with chopped vegetables sprinkled on top. but all gazpacho begins with garlic and olive oil spiked with vegetables. Since it is uncooked, only the freshest vegetables make the best soup.

Your salsa and gazpacho garden needs to be located in a spot that gets at least 8 hours of sunlight per day. It also needs to be a spot that is well-drained, where no water stays puddled up two to three hours after a rain storm. A 100 square foot spot (10 ft. X 10 ft.) is all the room you need to grow enough vegetables for all your salsa and gazpacho needs with some left over.
All of these vegetables need a deep fertile soil to thrive. Dig your soil to a depth of 8 inches. Spread a 2 to 4 inch thick layer of compost or other organic matter over the soil and dig that in, as well. Rake it all smooth and you are ready to plant.

Here’s a list of the vegetables for your salsa and gazpacho garden and how to grow them starting with the first to plant: Garlic. Fall is the preferred time to plant garlic here in the Northeast. But you can plant garlic this spring and you will get heads of garlic this summer. Gardeners in the Northeast grow stiff neck garlic. One to two heads of garlic separated into cloves will produce enough garlic four your small garden. Plant the cloves 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart. Green shoots will appear first followed by strong stems. Plant as soon as the ground can be worked and harvest in about 120 days.

Onion. Red, white or yellow onions are all good for salsa and gazpacho. Plant onion sets (they look like little bulbs) four inches apart with the sprouting end slightly below soil level as soon as the ground can be worked in early spring and begin harvesting in 80 to 90 days. It is very important to keep the weeds pulled where both garlic and onions are planted. They don’t like to be crowded or shaded.

Parsley. Both Italian flat leaf and curleyleaf parsley are good for these dishes. Both are biennial, which means they will produce edible leaves for two years before they die. But I plant new parsley every year because the second year never produces good leaves. Parsley seeds are way to difficult to start, so, buy parsley plants in flats and plant them about 8 inches apart in early spring.

Cilantro. Cilantro is the pungent feathery leaves of the coriander plant. They are easily grown from seed every year with seeds planted in late April till the first of June. Look for the slow bolting varieties such as “Santo” from Johnny’s Seeds ( to get more leaves for salsa than seeds for baking. Plant the seeds about 4 to 6 inches apart and cover with 1/4 inch of fine soil. Keep moist until germination in about 10 days. Harvest by pinching off the largest stems which will allow new stems to develop.

Tomato. Set transplants plants out in the garden in spring after all danger of frost has passed, usually between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. There are so many good tasting and robust growing varieties on the market that if you cannot start the seeds yourself indoors, you can easily buy wonderful tomato plants at farm markets and garden centers in May and June.
Any homegrown tomato will be good in these dishes, even cherry tomatoes or plum tomatoes. Rutgers and Celebrity varieties, a.k.a. Jersey tomatoes, are quite nice as are any variety of beefsteak tomato. Marmande, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter and other heirloom tomatoes have a particularly fine flavor. Yellow and orange tomatoes are just as flavorful as red and can give your recipe a certain accent.

Pepper. Salsa needs some type of spicy pepper to add zip to the recipe. Jalapeno is easy to grow and very productive but the smaller Serrano chile and the exceptionally hot habanero are good, too. Both salsa and gazpacho need a sweet bell pepper to add body and flavor. If you really want to make your dishes different form your friends, use chile ancho, a.k.a. chile poblano. This mildly hot green pepper has a uniquely smoky flavor that is indescribable.

Tomatillo. Sometimes called Mexican green tomatoes, these tangy little fruits do resemble tomatoes albeit they come wrapped in their own papery little husks. You grow them just like tomatoes and they will be ready for harvest 60 days after you set them out in late May. You can chop them and add their tart fruity flavor them to any tomato or fruit salsa or leave out the tomatoes and make the delicious salsa verde with them.

Plant your tomato, pepper and tomatillo plants after all danger of frost has passed, usually after Mother’s day because a frost at night will kill these tender tropical plants. Dig a hole large enough to hold the root ball of the plant. Sprinkle ½ cup of natural organic fertilizer in the hole, stir it in with some of the dirt and set the plant in the hole and cover the root ball with soil. Firmly press the soil around the plant and water. Spread mulch around the plant to keep the weeds down and water weekly.

Cucumber. This is one of the key ingredients for gazpacho. Cucumbers grow on long trailing vines that make growing them in small spaces more difficult. But not if you grow them vertically. Train your cucumber vines to grow up on a trellis, a flat fence or in a cucumber cage, a 3 to 4 foot long length of fencing wire formed into a cylinder.
Cucumber seeds will not germinate in cold soil. Plant the seeds in the ground at the base of the fence, cage or trellis between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Plant seeds or transplants that you know are resistant to anthracnose, wilt and other cucumber diseases.

Making your own fresh garden salsa and gazpacho is really quite easy. The very best versions of both of these dishes are made with vegetables that you finely mince by hand with a very sharp knife. This is a little more time consuming, but if you are handy with a knife and your knife is sharp, this yields a slightly chunky product that is even more authentic. The other option is to whir everything up in a blender, not a food processor if you can avoid it. A food processor beats up the vegetables too much for my liking, while the blender leaves them a little more chunky.

Fresh Garden Salsa 2 cups chopped fresh tomato 1 cup seeded and chopped red, green, yellow or orange bell pepper or poblano pepper ½ cup seeded and chopped jalapeno pepper 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped 1 to 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and chopped The juice of one lime 1/4 cup washed cilantro or parsley leaves or a combination 1 teaspoon sugar ½ teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely mince by hand or whir all the ingredients in a blender. Let the salsa sit covered in the refrigerator for two hours for the flavors to mingle. Stir every 15 minutes, taste and adjust the seasonings as necessary. To make a truly unique salsa, substitute tomatillo, watermelon, peaches or cantaloupe for all or part of the tomato. Serve as a dip for chips or spoon over broiled fish or shrimp.

Gazpacho 3 large tomatoes, peeled and seeded 2 medium sweet bell peppers, seeded and chopped 3 medium cucumbers, peeled and seeded 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped 2 large cloves garlic, smashed and peeled 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon sherry or red wine vinegar ½ teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely mince by hand all the vegetables or whir them coarsely in a blender. Add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, Stir to blend well. Let the soup rest, covered, at room temperature for 60 minutes for the flavors to mingle. If you must refrigerate it, bring it back to room temperature before you serve.

Serve with crusty, country-style white bread that is rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil and lightly toasted on your outdoor barbecue grill. Add a glass of cold fino sherry, a bowl of olives, a platter of dry sausage and you have a complete Mediterranean feast right in your own backyard.


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