University of Illinois Extension

Salsa from the Garden

“If overwhelmed with a bounty of tomatoes and vegetables from your garden, consider making salsa. While there are many types of salsa available commercially, this summer you might consider making garden-fresh tomato salsa,” said Jennifer Fishburn, Extension horticulture educator. “A basic tomato salsa recipe includes tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro, and tomatillos. The plants can flourish in your garden with little care in a full sun location.”

The type of tomato used will affect the thickness and the quality of the salsa, she explained. The best types of tomatoes for salsa are paste tomatoes, such as ‘Roma’ and ‘Viva Italia’, which are firmer, have less water, and produce a thicker sauce than slicing tomatoes. Slicing tomatoes such as ‘Big Boy’ and ‘Celebrity’ yield a watery, thinner salsa.

“Peppers give the kick to salsa,” she said. “The taste and degree of heat of the salsa will vary by the type of pepper, quantity, and part of the pepper used. Peppers from mildest to hottest are Bell, Jalapeno, Cayenne, Thai, and Habanero.

“The heat of the pepper is concentrated in the membranes, the white lining, of the fruit. Because the oils can cause skin irritation or burns, it’s best to wear gloves when handling hot peppers. A cooking tip--one type of pepper can be substituted for another type in a salsa recipe.”

Fishburn said it is important to select tomatoes and peppers with good color, free of insect damage, and with blemish-free skin. Tomatoes should have a plump shape with texture that is slightly soft to the touch. Avoid using fruit that is bruised, overripe, or on frost-killed vines.

“Onions are cool-season vegetables that prefer good fertility, adequate soil moisture, and cool temperatures,” she said. “Onions can be grown from set, seeds, or plant. Some varieties are more suited for harvesting as green onions while others dry and store well.

“There are red, white, and yellow varieties. ‘Super Star F1 Hybrid’ is a white, sweet onion suitable for salsa. Choose onions that are firm and free from cuts and bruises.”

To grow the largest garlic bulbs, plant individual garlic cloves in well-drained soil in the fall about six to eight weeks before the ground is expected to freeze. Plant cloves two inches deep and mulch to prevent heaving in the winter. Garlic varieties vary in taste, texture, and after-taste.

“Fresh cilantro is commonly added to salsa to give it a distinct flavor,” said Fishburn. “Cilantro is a sun-loving annual that is easy to grow from seed. Select varieties that are known for foliage rather than seed production. Consider a slow-bolting cultivar such as ‘Santo’.

“Successive plantings are necessary to maintain a supply of cilantro. Cilantro is referred to as coriander when grown for its seeds.”

Tomatillos, known as Mexican husk tomatoes, resemble small green tomatoes with a husk. Remove the dry outer husk before using. They do not need to be peeled or seeded. Tomatillos have a tart flavor similar to green apples.

For more information on growing and harvesting vegetables, visit the U of I Extension Watch Your Garden Grow ( website.