Never too early to think salsa

Start planning next summer's salsa garden now for best success
Tomatillos, a key ingredient in many salsas, need room to grow at least three feet

CORVALLIS — If the thought of green chile salsa makes your mouth water, consider designing a salsa garden for next summer.

Kimberly Culbertson, who volunteers in dual roles as a Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver trained by the Oregon State University Extension Service, dishes up suggestions for a garden blueprint starring short-season tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos. The three are cousins in the same family.

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Culbertson, who cultivates a front-yard garden at her Hillsboro home, is passionate about teaching people how to safely preserve their harvest.

"Before I took the Master Food Preserver class, I was scared to use a pressure canner," Culbertson said. "But the class taught me the principles of how to use it and gave me hands-on experience. I was able to do demonstrations for the public and offered hands-on classes on making your own salsa, jams and jellies. I give people recipes that have been tested to be safe on the shelf for a couple of years. That's so important because every couple of years you hear about cases of botulism on the rise."

Botulism is a preventable but sometimes-fatal illness caused by toxins from a bacterium that can live in improperly canned or preserved foods. On average, 145 cases annually are reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For tomatoes — that salsa luminary — Culbertson recommends sauce- and paste-style varieties, especially Italian plum types and Romas. Her best bets include San Marzano, Grande Marzano, Cordova, Nova, Principe Borghese and Oregon Star. Choose tomatoes with firmer flesh and low water content; watery beefsteaks tend to lose flavor when cooked and produce thin salsa.

"When buying seeds or starts, look at how many days the tomatoes take to reach maturity," Culbertson said. "We only have an 85- to 90-day season here, especially west of the Cascades. You need something that sets up soon enough in the season. You can make green tomato salsa, and some people have a taste for that, but it's not everybody's taste."

Oregon's clay soil tends to contain too much acidity and too little calcium to make tomatoes happy, so Culbertson advises adding about a tablespoon or two of lime to the soil around the roots when you plant the tomatoes and later in the growing season if it rains. Be sure to train tomatoes to a stake or cage for proper air circulation. They should be planted in a location that gets at least 10 hours of full sun.

As for peppers, Culbertson suggests a short-season Thai pepper called Ascent that is spicy and productive. Other pepper possibilities include Planet, Jimmy Nardello, Early Jalapeño and Anaheim. Early bell peppers such as California Wonder also have robust flavor. Selecting different peppers or a combination of peppers, as long as the quantity called for in the recipe is followed, can modify the heat of the salsa. It is good to wear gloves when handling hot peppers.

For tomatillos, Culbertson enjoys the Miltomate and Mexican Strain. These bushy plants need room to grow, at least three feet. The fruit of tomatillos is encased in a papery husk. Native to Mexico, this ancient vegetable, a must for many traditional salsas, was cultivated by the Aztecs around 800 B.C.

When your harvest is ready, Culbertson urges salsa aficionados to rely on a tested recipe and follow all ingredient proportions. The vinegar or lemon juice listed in the recipe is key to maintaining the appropriate acidity level. These precautions will keep you safe.



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