The Mexican basics: tomatillos, chiles, epazote and cilantro.
If you're like me, you love Mexican food. Yet often when you eat out, you sense that something's missing. subtlety or variety, perhaps. Even the absence of a healthy zing should remind you that what you're eating has been Americanized and is miles removed from the authentic cuisine.
Want to leave those imitative eateries behind? Then come walk with me down the paths of a true Mexican café, one whose menu is as varied as the seasons. Those tiny paper lanterns you see guiding your footsteps aren't simply decorations; they hold the emerald secrets to genuine salsa verde. The vining tropical arbor overhead conceals both smooth-flavored fruits and underground hors d'oeuvres. Gaily strung chile peppers are bordered by an exotic, frilly-leaved herb on the left and an intriguing, if weedy-looking, bush on the right.
Nice atmosphere, ¿no? I told you this place was different. And best of all, it's right at home—just outside the door. Al fresco meals are always available in the Mexican Garden Café. Your ticket: a seed catalog; your passport: a hoe. After all, if you can't dip below the border at the drop of a sombrero, you can do the next best thing: Bring those authentic ingredients to maturity in your own backyard.
Those papery green lanterns along the Garden Cafe footpath are as unusual as they are ornamental. Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) have sticky, walnut-sized, pale green fruits that turn yellow just as their husks become dry and attractively lacy. Their sweet-acid flavor is indispensable for many green Mexican sauces, from the popular salsa verde (uncooked Tomatillo sauce) to less-offered salsade Suegra ("mother-in-law sauce"; she serves it to her daughter's spouse because le pica mucho, "it bites him a lot").
You can start tomatillo seeds outdoors if you have at least 12 weeks of warm weather. In short-summer areas, start them indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost, and set plants out 10 to 12 inches apart after all danger of frost is past. Those feeble-looking seedlings will soon grow at an astonishing rate. As they mature, their stems will bend over and rest on the ground. just let them sprawl and create a living mulch.
The fruits do best with even moisture; if the soil dries out and is then heavily watered or rained on, they may split. But be sure to take a good-sized basket when you go tomatillo picking: They're as prolific as hamsters.
If you're going to try only one Mexican garden plant this year, make it cilantro (Coriandrum sativum). This leafy herb is a cinch to grow and adds a bite no salsa should go without. (Yet many do, for cilantro is best fresh; it loses all flavor when dried.)
There's only one hitch with cilantro: It's quick to go to seed. Actually, it's been bred to do so because the seeds themselves are the valuable spice coriander. One way to counter this quick-seeding tendency is to sow successive plantings every three weeks. You can also try one of the slow-bolting varieties now available.
C. sativum does best in the cool weather of spring and fall. Its first leaves are fan-shaped, much like a cross between Italian parsley and maidenhair fern. They're the ones used in cooking. (Subsequent leaves are more fennel-like.)
If you can't tell young plants from surrounding weeds, just crush a leaf here and there. You'll find the cilantro, pronto. (Don't judge it by this strong come-on; it mellows considerably in cooking.) And if you'll want its zip come winter, try freezing leaves in ice cube trays filled with water. It's really the only alternative to fresh.
Most Americans have never heard of epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), an important Mexican herb—even though it may be growing wild where they live. A bushy-looking perennial, epazote (eh-pah-SO-tay) can reach four feet or higher when well cared for. Although its family name means ambrosia, "food of the gods" is hardly what comes to mind when you take your first whiff of this strong-scented herb. Assertive is more like it-and that's putting it politely. Luckily, the flavor is milder than the scent. More honored as well, it's considered absolutely essential to the cuisine of central and southern Mexico.
One or two plants will be all you'll need. You can start them outdoors in a warm climate, or indoors a month before the last frost if you garden up North. Or purchase plants from a nursery.
Your most difficult caretaking task will be keeping family and friends from weeding it out: Epazote simply does not look like a legitimate member of the garden. Otherwise it needs little tending and only occasional watering to supply fresh leaves all season long.
The potent herb will overwinter in areas with mild climates. In colder regions, try cutting it back to a foot high and covering with mulch. Or save seeds from one plant to start seedlings in midsummer for growing indoors. You can also freeze leaves, as with cilantro, for winter use.
Prolific? I once grew chayote (Sechium edule) in south Florida, where this heat-loving perennial can really strut its stuff, and found that it raced headlong up and over anything in its path. One plant can bear up to 100 fruits in a season—each with smooth, pale green skin and firm, nut-flavored flesh. The fruit averages five inches in length and three inches in width and is shaped like a wide-lobed pear. Spring and early summer shoots can be cut and cooked like asparagus, while the large tubers, which taste like potatoes, are used as a main dish.
The only problem with raising chayote (chah-YOH-tay) is that it's very sensitive to frost. Still, many an adventurous gardener has stretched its range northward by sprouting it indoors over the winter. Since the whole fruit is needed for germination, you can't order seeds but need to locate starts at a good produce market. Get at least three fruits (nature sometimes forgets to put both male and female flowers on the same plant). Let these sprout in a cool, moist place, then set out as soon as all danger of frost is past.
Chayote likes full sun and plenty of water. Bury each fruit at about a 45º angle in a well-fertilized mound, with the small (possibly sprouted) end just sticking out of the soil.
Vines may not flower until late summer or even fall. About a month later, the fruits will start ripening. Young fruits are a delicacy when cooked skin, seed and all, but you'll need to peel mature fruits before using them. Do this under running water, since the fruit releases a slippery juice that bothers some people with sensitive skin (it is entirely harmless when cooked).
The tomato (Lycopersicon lycopersicum) that takes center stage in American seed catalogs actually comes from the natives of Mexico and South America. And do they ever know how to use it: Crudo (raw), cocido (boiled), asado (charred or grilled), stofado (stewed), and even enterrado (buried) are just a few of the ways Mexicans transform what we know as only a "salad and sauce" vegetable. Try Arroz a la Mexicana (Mexican Rice), HuevosRancheros (Ranch Eggs), Salsa Ranchera (Ranch Sauce), Salsa para Barbacoa (Pit Barbecue Sauce) and Salsa X-Ni-Pek (Hot-As-a-Dog's-Nose Sauce) for some culinary eye-openers.
It's hard to find a Mexican dish that doesn't have at least a touch of chile (Capsicum annuum). Since they're also used as medicine, dye, ritual object and defensive weapon, it's no wonder that Mexicans consume more (and more types of) chiles than any other people in the world. The palate accustomed to capsaicin's sting goes on to detect a wide range of flavor distinctions and degrees of fleshiness. Add to that the cook's choice of preparation (peeled, unpeeled, dry, charred, fresh, pickled, crushed, seeded or veined) and you have a very eclectic vegetable.
There are more chiles out there than there are taste buds on your tongue. Some common ones:
Chile Serrano: A slim one-to-two-inch-long pepper that's very popular and very hot. Known as the salsa chile, serrano is used in many other dishes including guacamole and chile con carne. It can also be dried and ground into chile powder.
Chile Jalapeño: The best known chile outside Mexico, this thick-walled jalapeño is from two to three inches long and an inch across. Ranging from hot to very hot, it's commonly pickled or used in appetizers, salsas, and meat or vegetable dishes.
Chile Poblano: These wedge-shaped peppers range from mild to hot, are from three to five inches long and average three inches across at the shoulders. The poblano's distinctive flavor is specifically called for in a variety of dishes, including chiles rellenos.
Chile Piquin: A little of these very small (1/2- to 1/4-inch long), fiery hot chiles goes a long way. They need a long growing season, turning a golden red at maturity.
One word of caution: Wear gloves and take full precautions when handling hot peppers. They can sting you painfully for up to 14 hours. Don't answer the telephone, pick up a child or touch any part of your body when processing hot peppers.
The garlic of Mexico is most often the strong, small, purple-skinned varieties rather than the larger white cloves most of us are used to. South-of-the-border natives coax subtle flavoring from this pungent corm with gentle sautéing, charring, and grinding. Unlike some American garlic lovers (including yours truly), they never let it overpower other flavors.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is raised like onions or most other alliums, with one hitch: In the majority of areas, the biggest bulbs come from crops planted the fall before harvesting. The hardy plants overwinter well and then have much more time to put on leaf growth before the long days of late spring trigger bulb formation.
One of the rewards the home garden cafe offers is unending variety. So if you can't make up your mind what to try first, relax. You could eat Mexican cuisine from your garden all season long and never enjoy the same dish twice.
Susan's First Annual Salsa Celebration
It was mid-afternoon last summer and the sun had found every inch of my exposed skin. Every last inch—I could even hear the burned back of my knees crackle each time I knelt. Across the garden, sombrero-topped Mr. Scarecrow stood guard over my little Mexican patch. Suddenly I could have sworn I saw him pull a margarita from underneath his poncho and sneak a sip. Good idea, I thought. Let's party.
As you see, it doesn't take much of an excuse for my friends and me to get together. Throw in the challenge to see who weeps last, and you've got a sure thing. Thus, our First Annual Tongue-Tormenter's Salsa Tasting was born We lured a gang of neighbors over and warned each one. Everyone from wimp lips to flame swallowers participated, and a hot time was had by all.
Want to join the fun this year? Invite some friends over and try the recipes, Salsa Verde and Salsa Cruda, below. I suggest a broad range of Chile peppers so you can adjust the flame to your own preference or that of the less courageous of your invitees. But if you go for the high numbers, I'll wager both you and your guests will be smiling through your tears.
1 pound (approximately 20) fresh tomatillos
1 large clove garlic
1/2 small white onion
1 tablespoon to 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
Dashes of vinegar or lemon juice to taste
Zero (foul!) to 4 (fool!) hot green chiles
Wash and remove husks from tomatillos, then simmer in very little water for a few minutes until tender. In a blender or food processor, combine 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid with the garlic, onion, cilantro, salt and vinegar or lemon juice and blend until almost smooth. Add drained tomatillos and chiles and pulse process until the ingredients are broken up but still chunky.
4 large ripe tomatoes
1 medium white onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
Up to 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 large clove garlic
Pinch of black pepper
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 to 4 fresh green chiles
Pinch of sugar (optional)
1 small stalk celery (optional)
The tomatoes and chiles can be used processed raw in the same order as for the salsa verde above. However, to give the dip a lingering, smoky flavor, first roast the tomatoes and chiles over an open fire (or under a broiler oven unit) until the skins blister and char. Let cool and remove the skins before processing.
Susan Sides, former gardener for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, lives in western North Carolina, raising kids and a great variety of vegetables.