Documents: Special Interest: Herbs:

Fresh and Flavorful
by National Garden Bureau
July 22, 2012

It won't be all that long before those vegetable transplants are setting fruit and getting ready to be harvested. Nothing compares to the stand-alone taste of fresh picked vegetables eaten for their own sake, and many gardeners grow vegetables just to have raw, fresh, tasty vegetables to enjoy at harvest time. But, of course, no vegetable is truly a meal entirely unto itself. When vegetables are combined with other companions from the garden for a planned purpose, the resulting combination often has as much or greater appeal than the individual fruits that went into the recipe. While fresh vegetables enjoyed right from the garden and eaten au naturel are a worthy goal and accomplishment, preparing or using vegetables in recipes that bring out their best and combine them with other garden produce are also noteworthy. Here are a few favorites and suggestions from the National Garden Bureau. 

Saucy Salsa 

The growing popularity of Southwestern and Mexican cuisine has brought salsa to more tables than ever before. Americans now consume more salsa annually than they do ketchup, and since 1988 the Mexican sauce market (primarily picante and salsa) has grown at an annual rate of 13 percent. While you can purchase prepared salsa at almost any grocery store, there is always something special about salsa you grow and prepare yourself. One big advantage to homemade salsa is that you can include ingredients in the proportions that distinctively suit your taste. 

What's in a Salsa? 

What goes into a salsa? While individual recipes vary, the vegetable basics include ripe tomatoes, onions, cilantro, parsley, basil and a "secret" ingredient that really makes a salsa appealing - tomatillos. Tomatillos are small members of the tomato family. They are as easy as tomatoes to grow, and their special tart flavor and texture really "make" a salsa. Toma Verde is an excellent tomatillo variety to grow for salsa. The small, ping pong ball size fruits are formed inside a paper husk that splits when the fruit is ripe. Fully ripened tomatillos are yellow in color, but for salsa, however, you'll want to harvest tomatillos while they are still green and before the paper husk splits. Be sure to remove and discard the husk before chopping. 

Cilantro, another important ingredient in salsa, is also easily grown in the home garden. There is no substitute for the tangy flavor of cilantro, and like parsley it grows quickly to a usable stage. Grow some in a garden bed or in pots in a sunny location. If you aren't familiar with cilantro, use it sparingly in salsa or other recipes until you are comfortable with the taste it imparts. If you really like cilantro, sow successive crops a few weeks apart so that you will always have some available. 

Parsley, another easy plant to grow, has a much milder flavor than cilantro. Both cilantro and parsley add color as well as flavor to a dish. 

For additional color in a salsa, grow both green and purple varieties of basil. Pick mature leaves, you'll only need a few, and leave the rest for other dishes. 

Salsa Basics 

To create your own salsa, remove skins from several tomatoes (scalding them in boiling water makes it easier to peel them), and chop them finely. Put them in a colander to drain. Finely chop all the other ingredients except the herbs, and add them to the tomatoes. Sprinkle with a little salt, and let everything drain in the colander for an hour or so. Depending on your personal taste, assorted hot peppers can be chopped and added to the recipe, as well as several cloves of garlic. 

After draining, put all the ingredients in a large pot, add some olive oil, vinegar, the herbs that have been finely chopped, and cook over medium heat until the whole pot bubbles. If you plan to use it immediately on steaks or seafood, ladle the warm salsa directly onto the food. If you plan to use the salsa later, remove the pot from the heat and let everything cool off. Serve salsa with taco chips or other chips that can scoop up the medley. Salsa can also be canned and kept for later use or as a special holiday gift. 

In addition to use as a dip, salsa also makes a great topping on potatoes, grilled steaks, and seafood. 


Just as the popularity of Mexican cuisine has grown, so has the popularity of Southern Mediterranean dishes, most notably Italian. One all-time Italian favorite is Eggplant Parmesan, a popular choice with many diners because it is a tasty, meatless entree. 

In addition to more elaborate preparation, eggplant is also delicious when it is simply sliced, brushed with a little olive oil, and then broiled or roasted until tender (this takes only a few minutes, so you may want to watch the slices closely so that they don't burn). 

Another excellent way to prepare eggplant is to dip slices in a beaten egg, and then coat the slices with seasoned bread crumbs. Fry these in a pan with a little olive oil and serve as a hot, tasty side dish. 

Broiled or roasted eggplant slices are also excellent in sandwiches. Try some with or instead of a slice of cheese. Eggplant is also an interesting topping on pizza (try it, you'll like it!). 

Some gardeners like to peel eggplants before cooking, but this is generally unnecessary and the color of the peel adds, well, appeal. 

Eggplants like a hot, sunny location for growing. To get the maximum fruit production from eggplants, feed them with a well-balanced fertilizer about once a month, and mulch around the base of the plants so that the roots stay cool and moist. Eggplants shouldn't be transplanted to the garden until the soil has warmed and air temperatures are consistently warm both night and day. An important harvesting tip is to cut off the fruits rather than trying to pull them off when ripened. Ripened fruits will be glossy and firm. Over-ripened fruits start to soften and turn dull. 

Your Own Accent 

The National Garden Bureau encourages gardeners to explore different ethnic cuisines, and also suggests that gardeners be creative and add their own accent to vegetable dishes. All recipes started as experiments, and you never know what great dish might be created in your own kitchen (how about eggplant with salsa?). 

Since Mother Nature frequently provides more than enough produce in a home garden, home-grown vegetables are an encouragement to try new recipes and new cuisines. And don't forget -- because they come to you straight from the garden, home-grown vegetables often have a higher nutrient content than store-bought ones.



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