Melea Burke, The Triplicate

Fresh homemade salsa doesn't have to be reserved for late summer, when tomatoes, chilis and other traditional ingredients ripen for harvest. In fact, salsa can turn into a fiesta for the taste buds anytime of year - all an aspiring salsa-maker needs is access to local produce, as seven families proved Saturday in a salsa-making competition at the Crescent City Farmers Market.

The contest was part of the Champion Mom/Young Iron Chef program sponsored by the county health department and Rural Human Services. Health program organizer Sunny Baker said six families attended a June 24 nutrition class to learn about food and kitchen safety as well as get some tips on creating unique, flavorful salsa for the upcoming competition, and each team submitted their salsa ingredient list to Baker before the contest. Fresh produce complemented by cilantro, garlic and strawberries from Ocean Air Farms in Fort Dick was provided for all the contestants, she added.

At RHS's mobile kitchen, located at the farmers market's south end, local chef and educator Justin Hall kicked off thehow to choose fresh, local ingredients to make salsa. Then it was over to a commercial-sized fairgrounds kitchen, where families staked out counter space and the chopping began. Tangy onion and cilantro mingled with the scents of sweet melon and strawberry as each recipe quickly took shape.

Soon-to-be sixth-grader Kaleo Abasolo enlisted dad Jerry and mom Wendy for help making a cucumber and avocado salsa flavored with dill and cumin.

"He likes cucumber salad a lot, so he wanted to make it like that," Wendy said, adding that the family cooks together often, and Saturday's contest was the perfect venue to test their skills.

Young chef Kitt Haas opted for a ginger mango salsa featuring her own backyard-grown fava beans.

"I really enjoy cooking, and I've been looking forward to this competition for a long time," Haas said, smiling as she described her salsa for a growing crowd gathered around the mobile kitchen.

After a member of each culinary team gave a brief description of their salsa, the tasting began. Judges were local entrepreneur Suzy Hernandez ("Salsa Suzy"), chef Jamie Yarbrough and RHS food and family program manager Ron Phillips, who also manages the Saturday farmers market. The three experts spent over 20 minutes deliberating, Baker noted, eventually naming Haas the winner because of her originality and incorporation of her own homegrown ingredients.

The award netted the young cook a basket full of organic bounty from Ocean Air Farms, and she and the rest of the contestants received knife and cutting board sets for participating.

Judges weren't the only lucky ones around the salsa table; the public got to sample each concoction and vote for their favorites, too. Brian Baker's zesty fruit salsa with kiwi and strawberry won the public choice award.

"It's sweet and it just looks amazing," he said of the mixture.

Sunny, who also happens to be Brian's mom, was proud to see her son picking up knife skills and showing his appreciation for fresh local food.

"Building bonds and family tradition - that's the reason I'm highlighting local produce," she explained. "It's a key ingredient to our health."

She hopes events like Saturday's competition will encourage parents to make food preparation more of a family affair so that good eating habits will be passed from generation to generation.

"It was really fun," Baker added.

The Champion Mom/Young Iron Chef program continues through the summer, with the next nutrition class planned for July 8 on the topic of planning menus with healthy recipes. Another family cooking competition July 19 will require contestants to share a recipe featuring seasonal fruits and vegetables and locally grown whole foods.

For information on how to join the program, call Sunny Baker at 464-3191 ext. 2830.

Reach Melea Burke at