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How to grow a Mexican dinner.

A lively interest in international cuisines has led venturesome cooks and gardeners to discover some of the flavorful vegetables and herbs that are the basis of ethnic cooking. But few of these can be found in local markets, and until recently, it was difficult even to get seeds.

As more people travel and enjoy ethnic restaurants, demand for exotic vegetables has skyrocketed. Many catalogs (see "Ordering ethnic vegetable seeds" in this issue) now offer seeds of Asian, European, and Mexican kinds. Gardeners who love to cook can experiment in their own back yards, then use the results to re-create favorite ethnic dishes.

If water is short in your area, consider growing just a few vegetables this year. Use an efficient watering system, such as drip irrigation, and mulch to reduce water needs as much as possible.

What makes these vegetables different from their domestic counterparts? It might be subtle or dramatic differences in flavor (as with mild-tasting Asian eggplant or blistering-hot 'De Arbol' peppers). It might be variations in color or

shape (as with round, lavender-and-white 'Rosa Bianco' eggplant or ridged Chinese okra). Some ethnic vegetables-such as warty-looking bitter melon and zucchetta rampicante squash have no familiar equivalents.

The vegetables shown on these pages do well in the West, since they originate in areas with similar climates. After trying many of them, we found them just as easy to grow as their domestic cousins.

Here we show warm-season vegetables that you plant in mid- to late spring. Most must be mail-ordered, so you should send for seeds soon.

Vegetables for Mexican cuisine

Visits to Mexican produce stands in California piqued Rosalind Creasy's interest. "I wanted to see how many types I could grow myself, so I would always have fresh ingredients on hand. All but cumin were successful."

To give the garden an exuberant look, she plants masses of flowers in with her vegetables. "The Mexican gardens I've visited are always wild-looking and colorful."

Ms. Creasy suggests putting tall plants such as amaranth, corn, and sage in the back of the garden so they don't shade the rest. If you have room, grow several kinds of corn-for flour, cornmeal, and eating fresh. (To keep different corn varieties from cross-pollinating, grow them at opposite ends of the garden.) She also recommends fresh lima beans: "There's no comparison to the dried or frozen ones you buy."

A Chinese vegetable patch

You may be familiar with cool-season vegetables such as bok choy, napa cabbage, and snow peas, But unless you frequent Chinese markets or have experimented with ordering unusual dishes in Chinese restaurants, you probably haven't yet discovered the flavorful array of warm-season vegetables (shown on page 107) that are the basis of many soups and stir-fry dishes.

AI Lee produces more than 500 pounds of these vegetables in a 308-square-foot area--most of which, to increase growing space, is above ground level. "Since melons and gourds are rampant growers, I train their vines over a patio cover, on trellises, and along fences. Some of them also grow out of oak barrels."

Culture is the same as for any squash or bean. For harvest size, follow these guidelines: bird house gourd, 8 inches long for eating, 10 to 12 inches (or 5 pounds each) for decorative use; bitter melon, 6 inches; Chinese okra, 14 inches; fuzzy gourd and winter melon, 6 to 7 inches for use as summer squash, up to 30 inches long and 15 inches in diameter (or 35 pounds each) for use as a winter squash; and yard-long beans, 18 inches.

Growing Italian specialties

Fresh herbs and vegetables are at the heart of authentic Italian cooking. Vicki Sebastiani has been experimenting with and growing Italian vegetables since she was four years old. "I grow more than 120 different kinds." One of her favorites is zucchetta rampicante. "No matter how large it grows, the meat stays juicy and tender. And it's never seedy" She also suggests trying yellow romano beans: "They're so rich and tender, they melt in your mouth."

Since many of Mrs. Sebastiani's seeds come from Italy, she plans her garden well in advance (we list closer-to-home sources in "Ordering ethnic vegetable seeds"). She's also careful not to try too many untested varieties at once, in case some fail.
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Date:Apr 1, 1989
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