George Costanza of the show Seinfeld has no doubt what belongs on every dinner table. "Salsa," he states flatly, "is now the number one condiment in America." Mark Viette agrees. He doesn't live in Manhattan but in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, outside Fishersville. With his parents, André and Claire, he runs a well-known perennials nursery that bears his father's name. Mark is just as much an artist in the kitchen as he is in the garden. That's where salsa comes in.
At home, he tends a backyard vegetable garden designed for one purpose--to supply the heirloom tomatoes and fiery peppers that flavor his legendary salsa. I ask Claire how a guy who has devoted his life to planting, grooming, and hybridizing flowers finds utter fulfillment dicing tomatoes.
"Mark loves to cook. From the time he was little, he was always in the kitchen. Of course," she adds with a laugh, "when he was really young, some of the things he fixed didn't always turn out edible." Obviously, Mark has come a long way. Around Fishersville, his salsa is more than a dish--it's an event.
Variety--The Spice of Salsa
Mark grows more than 40 selections of both tomatoes and peppers, some rare and some common. To find them, he canvasses local nurseries and scours mail-order catalogs. Such a wide assortment furnishes the rainbow of colors, flavors, and degrees of heat on which a good salsa depends.
"Plant 20 selections of something rather than 3," he urges. "By using one or two plants of each, you can extend the harvest and minimize pest problems. Besides, one big plant can provide all the fruit of a particular kind you'll ever need."
Salsa That Satisfies
Mark's salsa changes each time he makes it, according to what he puts in or decides to leave out. But the essential building blocks remain--onions, tomatoes, and peppers.
A good salsa needs bright color like a surgeon needs insurance. To get it for the salsa shown here, Mark harvests red ('Jersey Devil'), orange ('Persimmon'), purple ('Cherokee Purple'), yellow ('Lemon Boy'), and green ('Green Zebra') tomatoes. He uses only firm fruit. Soft, overripe tomatoes don't slice well.
Now comes the big question: Sweet or hot peppers? Mild salsa calls for sweet peppers, such as 'Sweet Banana.' But Mark likes his salsa spicy enough to take the paint off a car. So he typically employs habanero, Thai, jalapeño, and other sizzling types, which he first grills to add a little smoky flavor.
Not everyone is like Mark, who doesn't mind having his tongue blistered. Adding a cup of brown sugar lets you have your hot salsa and eat it too. "Brown sugar takes the bite away," Mark explains. "It lets you use peppers with more heat and flavor."
This evening, friends and family gather around the table at Mark's house. No eyebrows are singed; people are smiling. America's favorite condiment is a hit once more. The only person missing is George Costanza. George is very upset.
More Tips From the Master
How do you grow plants as productive as Mark's? Follow this advice.
- Build good soil. Mark's was originally hard clay, but you'd never know it now. Tilling in large amounts of composted pine bark has resulted in soil that's as soft as a baby's tush.
- Give plants room. Mark puts tomatoes 4 feet apart with rows 5 to 6 feet apart. He spaces peppers at about half these distances. "You're much better off using fewer plants and placing them farther apart," he says. This way, they get better light and air circulation, resulting in bigger yields and fewer pest problems.
- Control weeds. Mark puts down a weed barrier, such as landscape fabric, between plants. This lets in water and air but inhibits weeds. He hides the barrier under a more attractive layer of pine straw mulch.
- Grow tomatoes inside sturdy wire cages. "The fruit never gets dirty, and it's easy to pick," he points out.
- Extend the harvest by planting successive crops. Mark's first plants go in on May 15; the second crop is planted in mid- to late-June. He harvests in both summer and fall.
- Spread a handful of gypsum around each plant. This provides calcium without changing the soil's pH.