Mexican Garden Cuisine: Grow Your Own Ingredients

Grow south-of-the-border food up north, and use the produce to mix up some salsa verde or salsa cruda with these recipes.

| May/June 1990

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    The Mexican basics: tomatillos, chiles, epazote and cilantro.
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    Though probably unable yet to count to diez, this youngster knows what a chile pepper is.

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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 ixocarpahave 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.


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