Do you like Mexican food? Then maybe you should grow the fixings this summer. Just think of having everything you need for a fiesta right there in the garden.
Of course, the first consideration should be tomatoes, with two main types necessary for those recipes.
Roma is the solid, meaty kind generally used for salsa and as soup base. They have less water than other types and hold their shape well when diced, but are not too flavorful in salads. For those dishes, heirloom tomatoes such as Brandywine are the best. Both are easy to grow in this area and can be used in any recipe that calls for tomatoes.
Plus, there is nothing better for lunch than a Brandywine sliced onto Italian bread with butter and a sprinkling of basil.
Then comes lettuce for your salads, tacos and even lettuce soup. Boston, bibb or buttercrunch are the varieties most often suggested in Mexican recipes, and if your garden features these varieties, along with some mesclun, you will have tasty salads all summer long.
Onions and garlic will be needed for your Mexican dishes, and they vary in color, size and flavor. Include some shallots in your planting, and plan to harvest scallions as the small bulbs begin to form.
It is the herbs and spices that distinguish Mexican cuisine from some similar Mediterranean dishes, and one of the most characteristic is oregano.
There are many varieties, and fresh leaves are so much better than that little tin of dried stuff. Oregano is a perennial; once established in the garden, it will provide you with flavoring for many years.
Plant seeds in a sunny spot in the spring and mark the spot, as oregano is slow to germinate. Use this generous herb all summer, and cut it back by two thirds before it dies down for winter.
Chili powder is a mixture of different chiles along with some additional spices and is used in many dishes, salsa, poultry and meat recipes. There are hundreds of chili varieties available, ranging from sweet to fiery hot, and these peppers are easy to grow with your preferences in mind. They are rich in vitamin C, and can be frozen, dried or used fresh.
The heat in a pepper is capsaicin, an oily substance, which is very painful if it comes into contact with eyes or other sensitive areas. Capsaicin is measured in Scoville units, with the mild yellow banana pepper at 0 and the hottest habanero at an alarming 300,000 units.
Peppers need very warm temperatures to ripen and mature, and in some cool summers it seems as though the plants just sit there and demand frequent watering, with no action. In late summer, however the fruits grow fast and ripen and turn color seemingly overnight. They are well worth the wait.
Cilantro, with its seeds (known as coriander), is a pretty plant, and would look good in a flower bed if space in the herb plot runs out. The leaves are best used fresh, and the flavor does not last long in the dried form. They can be frozen in ice cube trays for winter usage. Grow cilantro in full sun. It is a hardy annual.
There are many other spices called for in Mexican recipes, including cumin, epazote, annatto and thyme, which is known as tomillo in Mexico. And then, of course, you will need corn and beans to complete your Mexican cuisine.