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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003 02:20 pm

Making America’s favorite condiment

All you need to know to create your own salsa (including an easy recipe)

art412

Tip of the week

Regular watering and mulching can help prevent blossom-end rot on tomatoes and peppers. Prevalent during periods of high humidity, blossom-end rot is revealed in small, sunken black areas near the end of the fruit.

Are you stuck with bushels of tomatoes and peppers? How about making salsa? One of my favorite summer snacks is garden-fresh vegetables with homemade salsa.

I'm not alone. In 1991, salsa surpassed ketchup to become America's leading condiment, with annual sales of nearly $1 billion. While there are many varieties of salsa in grocery stores, a basic recipe you can make at home includes tomatoes or tomatillos, peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro. These ingredients can all be grown successfully in a full-sun garden.

Start with the tomatoes. Paste tomatoes--such as Roma, Viva Italia, and Veeroma--are best. Firm and meaty, they produce a thicker sauce than slicing tomatoes. Select tomatoes with good color, plump shape, blemishfree skin, and a texture that's slightly soft to the touch. Avoid using tomatoes that are bruised, overripe, or on frost-killed vines.

Peppers provide the kick. They can be ranked from mildest to hottest: bell, jalapeno, cayenne, Thai, and habanero. Most of the heat is contained in the membranes and at the stem end. Water stressing the plants can increase the pungency of the peppers, and cooler temperatures can lower the heat. In many recipes hot peppers are referred to as chile peppers.

Bell peppers are often picked when green and immature, but they will become sweeter if they are allowed to ripen to a red color. Hot peppers are harvested at maturity, usually when red. Choose fresh peppers that are firm and free of disease and insect damage.

It's best to wear gloves when handling hot peppers, because the volatile oils can cause skin irritation. One type of pepper may easily be substituted for another type in most salsa recipes. But when canning, do not vary the total amount of peppers called for in a recipe.

Cilantro has a couple of popular names, including Chinese parsley and coriander. But cilantro refers to the green leaves, while coriander refers to the seed heads. The herb grows easily from seed and germinates quickly. Since cilantro bolts fast, successive plantings can be made every 2 to 3 weeks. Varieties that don't bolt as briskly include Santo, Leisure, Jantar, Slo Bolt, and Long Standing.

Select cilantro with crisp leaves and stems; it should be free of browning and decay. Cilantro (the leaves) and coriander (the seeds) are not interchangeable in recipes.

Sometimes called Mexican husk tomatoes, tomatillos--the main ingredient in salsa verde--resemble green tomatoes with a papery covering. They have a tart flavor. Before eating, remove the dry outer husk; they do not need to be peeled or seeded. Tomatillos are a tender, warm-season annual that requires the same care as tomatoes.

For more information on growing and harvesting the vegetables and herbs used in tomato salsa, log on to the North Dakota State University Extension Service's Web site, "From Garden to Table," at http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/yf/foods/fn584w.htm.

Easy Salsa Recipe

2 cups tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup green bell peppers, finely chopped
1 tablespoon green chili peppers, finely chopped, fresh or canned
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 fresh garlic clove, finely minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon lime or lemon juice (optional)
Salt to taste

Rinse all vegetables with water prior to peeling and chopping. Toss together in a medium size bowl. Chill for at least 30 minutes. This recipe can be adapted to your taste buds by increasing or decreasing the amount of hot pepper. Serve with crisp raw vegetable pieces, such as celery, carrot, summer squash sticks, or baked chips. Use within 1 to 2 days. Yields about 3 cups.

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