“Salsa Garden”

“Salsa Garden”

Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce, but the food predates the Spaniards by many centuries. We’ll learn about that history, as well as the history of tomatoes (Why was the tomato was considered poisonous by Europeans and not eaten for 200 years following its discovery?) and the domestication of the chile. We’ll even do a little salsa dance! After harvesting our tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, onions and garlic, we’ll learn how to measure the pungency of chile peppers (in Scoville units, named for the chemist Wilbur Scoville) using liquid chromatography. We’ll use mortar and pestle to grind corn and make fresh, hot corn tortillas to serve with our salsa — as well growing beans to sprinkle on top. In addition to all this, your students will learn about the anatomy of the tongue, how gustatory receptor cells interact with our brains, and perform several taste experiments.

Spring Lessons

Introduction to Spring Planting:

Have you ever planted something in the gardens at Atkinson? What did you plant? We are going to plant a garden soon. We will plant seeds. We will also plant starts. What is a start? Why might we plant a start instead of a seed? What do you think will be the needs of these seeds/starts over the summer (sun, water, weeding)? What do you think will be the needs of these seeds over the summer (sun, water, weeding)? How will this happen (discuss irrigation system, volunteers)? What are some of the problems that our plants might encounter (pests, drought) over the summer?

Introduction to the Legacy Idea and the Theme:

The garden we are going to plant will have a theme. In the fall, you will have moved on to another class, so you won’t harvest these plants. This garden will provide a gift to your teacher’s incoming fall class. It will be a surprise for them. Likely, someone will plant a surprise garden for your class to harvest in the fall, too. The garden we plant will have the theme of … what will it be? Put the salsa CD on and listen to it for a moment. What does this music make you think of? Dramatically open the mystery envelope, pull out the slip of paper and read the theme out loud (or have a student or the teacher read it.) The theme is “Salsa Garden.”

Discussion of the Salsa Theme:

What do you think we might plant for this garden? Let’s look at our starts and recipes. What is salsa? Do you like spicy foods? Have you ever tasted salsa? Why do you think salsa (the food) and salsa (the music and dance) have the same name? Which do you think came first?


Half the class should go out to the garden and plant half the seeds and starts. They should record on a map of the garden where they have planted the various seeds and starts. Meanwhile, the other half of the class should listen to “Celia Cruz Queen of Salsa,” Listen to some salsa music, and taste some cilantro. Then the two halves should switch roles.

Once all the students have returned to classroom, they should write a letter about the garden/theme to the incoming class.

Sample Letter:

Dear New 4th and 5th graders,

We have a surprise for you. We have planted a garden for you to harvest. All the plants growing in this garden are used to make a certain kind of food. Can you guess what kind of food you are going to make? Listen to the CD in the envelope. The music will give you a hint. Here’s a map of where we planted the vegetables. Happy Harvesting!

The 4th-5th Graders From Last Year

Materials for Spring

  • A mystery envelope that contains a paper on which is written “Salsa Garden”
  • Blank map of garden plot
  • Books, CD of “Salsa Music”
  • Recipe for Mexican Black Beans, Salsa Fresca, and Tortillas
  • Some fresh cilantro and limes for tasting
  • Sample letter and materials for letter writing (wax, envelopes, etc.)
  • To Plant:
    • 2 Onions big giant yellow/red onions are best (Walla Walla have the perfect harvest time. I am not sure what we will find in starts. Bunching onions will do in a pinch.)
    • 1 evergreen bunching onion (comes in a cluster or bunch)
    • 1 Rombocole garlic (latest to ripen of garlic varieties)
    • 1 Jalapeno plant
    • 2 Roma tomatoes (spaced 2 ft apart)
    • 1 Cilantro
    • Black Valentine beans (Bush type bean 2 ft. tall) plant as many will fit in your box after everything else is in.

Fall Lessons

Begin the year’s garden lesson by asking the class if they planted a garden last spring. What did they plant? What have they eaten from the garden in the past? This fall, we are going to harvest a garden that another class planted for us last spring. If there are letters available from the previous year’s class, now is the time to read them. What kind of garden has been planted for you? Visit the garden. Make your garden visits in small groups. Don’t pick anything yet, but do ask the students to point out and discuss what is growing. If you have a garden map left from the class who planted the garden, use it to identify the plants. Walk around the gardens and look around at the other garden boxes. What other plants are growing in the garden? What plants do you recognize? What is new to you? Be sure not to harvest from any boxes (yet.)

Your box contains a number of herbs and highly flavorful plants. There’s a little tid-bit of information about these plants below, but consider having the students work in groups to research and prepare a presentation/poster/power point about the history of the following vegetables:

  • Onions: The ancient Egyptians worshipped the onion, believing that its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternity. Of all the vegetables that had their images created from precious metals by Egyptian artists, only the onion was made out of gold.
  • Garlic: Because of its pungent odor, garlic is sometimes called the ‘stinking rose’.
  • Chili peppers are native to South and Central America. They were introduced to South Asia in the 1500s and have come to dominate the world spice trade. Few could have imagined the impact of Columbus’ discovery of a spice so pungent that it rivaled the better known black pepper native to South Asia. India is now the largest producer of chilies in the world. Although the exact origin of the word Capsicum is somewhat a mystery, it is assumed to be derived from the Greek word kapto, which means to bite. Some peppers are so pungent that the farmer needs to wear gloves to avoid the skin on their hands from becoming blistered.
  • Tomatoes: During Colonial Times, we wouldn’t put a tomato near our mouths, let alone try to eat one. Folklore had it that if you ate a tomato, its poison would turn your blood into acid.
  • Cilantro (fresh coriander): The word coriander comes from koris, the Greek word for bedbug. It was so named because the unripened seeds as well as the leaves are said to smell like bedbugs.
  • Beans: Peas carbon dated back to 9750 BC have been found by archaeologists in Thailand. Evidence also exists that suggests people native to Mexico and Peru were cultivating bean crops as far back as 7000 BC.
  • Corn: Corn as we know it today would not exist if it weren’t for the humans that cultivated and developed it. Corn originated from a wild grass that was “tamed” by humans. After its domestication in Mexico, its use spread quickly across the Americas.

What is salsa? What does salsa mean? Salsa means “sauce” in the Spanish language, and carries connotations of the spiciness common in Latin and Caribbean cuisine. More recently, “salsa” has acquired a musical meaning in both English and Spanish. Salsa is also a style of dance.

Salsa Dancing

  • Invite a parent, teacher or other member of the school community (or greater community) to teach the class how to salsa dance. Google either Salsa World Congress or World Salsa Championships to see some amazing dancing! I like this one.
  • There are also a number of “learn how to salsa” lessons on-line that could be previewed before the in-person lesson.

Salsa, the sauce

  • What’s in salsa? You’ve learned about the individual ingredients, now we’re going make some. We’re also going to grind corn to make corn meal for our fresh corn tortillas.

What is a mortar and pestle? The mortar and pestle has an interesting place in culinary and medicinal history. They are tools that span many cultures. A cross-cultural and historical look at the mortar and pestle would be a great research project for 4th/5th graders. There is much information available on-line and in books.

Have a pepper party! Peppers vary immensely in flavor and spiciness. The heat of a pepper is measured in Scoville Heat Units, named after the pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. The history of Mr Scoville’s testing is here.

The Scoville Scale

 We don’t recommend actually having a pepper tasting in the classroom, as some peppers are dangerously spicy. However, students can study “taste” and the tongue in a more general way.

This web page is chock-full of information and experiments around “taste.”

Supertasters have been in the news lately. A supertaster is a person who experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average. You can read an article about them here. Are there any super tasters in your class?

Here‘s a great video about supertasters.

And don’t miss the fabulous song by They Might Be Giants, “John Lee Supertaster.”


Chicks and Salsa by Aaron Reynolds
Salsa Stories by Lulu Delacre
Celia Cruz Queen of Salsa by Veronica Chambers
Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn and Beans by Sylvia A. Johnson (really excellent chapter on the history of corn)
CD of Salsa music
Multiple books about the tongue and the sense of taste


Mexican black beans (from Heather Galvez)

Allow 2-3 hours in a crockpot
Put 2 lbs beans, rinsed into a lg. stockpot, with lots of water to cover.
Soak over night.
Next day: Start beans and fresh water in crockpot on high. Water level should be well above line of beans.
You can add these ingredients at the beginning or later, I usually boil for one hour then add:

1-2 onions peeled, cut in half.
5-6 cloves of garlic, smashed.
garlic powder
onion powder
1-2 mexican bullion cubes (veggie or tomato for u guys, but the mexican ones have chicken ingredients probably)
1-3 bay leaves
chili powder
mexican oregano (This is not true oregano)
add or omit whatever seasoning you like/dislike

Boil for about 1 more hour & start tasting to see if beans are softened up (2 hours total). Add water as needed to keep them from boiling dry. If they are fairly soft, then you add SALT. I don’t measure but you have to add more than you would normally think would be ok, like a palm full of kosher or sea salt. You don’t end up ingesting all of the salt, some soaks into the beans, and some is in the liquids you don’t eat.
Switch Crock pot to low, and start tortillas!

Simple Salsa Fresca: (From Amy of VegCookingBlog)

Make salsa right after beans start cooking to give the flavors a chance to marry before using.

12 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 bunch of evergreen bunching onions, diced
1 jalapeño, minced
2 clove garlic, minced
3 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. cilantro
Pepper, to taste

Combine all the ingredients, except the pepper, stir vigorously. Kids can adjust the seasonings, maybe it is not spicy enough, maybe you want more vinegar… Season with pepper to taste. Makes about 3 cups


6 cups Masa Harina
4 cups warm water
Confirm this with your package of Masa Harina!

  1. Hand each child two pieces of wax paper about 9” x 9”.
  2. Mix the Masa Harina and the water, but don’t add all the water right away, you want to make sure mixture is firm, but not sticky; knead to form your masa (dough).
  3. Pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of masa for each child, they should roll them into a ball, if they play with them too long, they masa will dry out and crumble.
  4. Have each child roll it into a ball, and place it between the wax papers, and lightly flatten.
  5. Kids should come up and press the masa in the tortilla press.
  6. Transfer the tortilla to a hot, dry skillet (adult) Cook for about 30 seconds on one side; gently turn. Cook for about 60 seconds (it should puff slightly); turn back to the first side, have child add cheese and scoop of beans, and cook 30 sec. Remove and add salsa. Enjoy the harvest.

Fall shopping list:

  • Any veggies that didn’t grow in the garden (especially two yellow or red onions, and a clove of garlic)
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Mexican bullion cubes (or vegetarian bullion cubes if this applies)
  • Bay leaves
  • Chili powder
  • Mexican Oregano (not the same as oregano)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Sugar
  • Masa Harina (type of corn flour for making tortillas)
  • Cheese-cheddar or jack

Also need:

  • Stockpot
  • Measuring utensils
  • Knives and cutting boards
  • Cheese graters
  • Crockpot
  • Large dry electric skillet, extension cord
  • Spoons and bowls for prepping serving
  • vinyl table cloths
  • saran wrap
  • tortilla presses
  • mortars and pestles
  • dried corn
  • tongs