Nestled high in Kirkland House, above the noise and traffic of JFK Street, is a bit of an agrarian oasis created by Joseph M. Whitchurch ’04 and his “apprentice farming protégé,” roommate James R. Griswald ’04. Since moving into school this semester, the guys have been growing a variety of vegetables and herbs such as peppermint, chamomile, lavender and both sweet and hot peppers. The main objective, in addition to providing friends with herbal remedies for a cold or the minty part of a mint julep, is to make batch after batch of incredible edible salsa by Super Bowl time. And in order to craft a salsa good enough to go along with the Super Bowl, Master Farmer Whitchurch is also growing the one make-or-break ingredient key to any self-respecting melange of spicy veggies: cilantro.
Cilantro’s full-grown feathery, flat green leaves give a kick to Asian, Indian, Caribbean and Latin American cuisine. Most people either love or hate cilantro for its distinct flavor. The taste is sort of bright, sharp, almost citrus-y, and a good bite of it hits the roof of one’s mouth. It is the green garnish on top of many Indian and Thai dishes as well as the herb that flavors pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes and onions often served as a Mexican or Tex-Mex condiment). Detractors might call it soapy or grassy, but cilantrophiles are addicted to the lusty spice it adds to just about any recipe, especially salsa.
Whitchurch, who inherited his green thumb from his mother and spent last summer working on his grandparents’ 3,000-acre farm, has a simple approach to growing. For each plant he has created a “tailor-made growing environment,” he says. “We pride ourselves on treating each plant as an individual.” Plants that prefer a great deal of sunlight are placed under a sunlamp, and those that need lots of water are specially treated with frequent waterings. Whitchurch takes no chances with watering his plants—an ordinary cupful just won’t do. “It’s a light mist, not a harsh watering-can type of water, so as not to disturb the root base.”
It is particularly important to pay close attention to the cilantro, according to self-declared salsa aficionado Whitchurch. “Because cilantro is an annual, you’ve got to plant a new crop each month or so to keep it going,” he says. One must also be constantly sensitive to how the plant is growing. “The cilantro got kind of leggy when it first sprouted because it wasn’t getting enough light. Now it’s under a sunlamp, and its leaves are starting to fill in.”
While the plants have not yet reached maturity, an early taste of one of only a few delicate cilantro leaves satisfies the cilantro-craving worked up during the tour of the dorm room herb garden.
The little plant yielded its sweetly spicy flavor to the mortar and pestle of a discerning visitor’s teeth. Good things are in store for game day. “Nothing beats football and homegrown salsa,” Whitchurch says.
Joe Whitchurch’s Explosive Salsa
6 medium tomatoes
1 sweet bell pepper (any color)
2 medium Spanish onions
4 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Grill tomato, onion, peppers and garlic until the skin of each is slightly charred. Combine the grilled mixture and the remaining ingredients in a blender. Blend to desired consistency (Whitchurch likes it thin and runny). Let flavors mingle in the fridge overnight. Enjoy with chips, over salad, or in other favorite recipes.