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PRAIRIE COUNTRY: Minto, N.D., salsa makes taste buds dance

MINTO, N.D. - For years Nichole Larson's friends told her she should sell her homemade salsa. A confident cook, she thought so, too, and now "Nicki's Salsa" is for sale in grocery stores across eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, inc...

MINTO, N.D. - For years Nichole Larson's friends told her she should sell her homemade salsa.

A confident cook, she thought so, too, and now "Nicki's Salsa" is for sale in grocery stores across eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, including the cities of Grand Forks, Fargo and Thief River Falls.

Larson, a "from scratch" cook, first started making fresh salsa about 20 years ago because she believed she could make it better than anything she could buy. She developed her recipe by "mixing and matching and trial and error."

"It just kind of came together by trying stuff," she says. Her recipe for the chunky salsa includes vinegar, seasonings, tomatoes, onions and jalapeno peppers. Larson strives to produce a medium-hot salsa that will please most taste buds.

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Six years ago Larson, satisfied with her recipe, started selling her salsa in Grafton grocery stores. Then two years ago when she was making as much selling it as she was at her day job at UND, she quit and started making salsa full time.

When she expanded her territory to include cities such as Grand Forks, Fargo and Devils Lake, she had to adjust her salsa recipe to make it work for larger quantities.

"I'd make a batch, then I'd make twice as much, and then I'd add four times as much" until she had the right proportions. Now, she's made the recipe so many times she doesn't even need to follow a recipe and just adds this and that until it is just right.

Larson makes 20 batches of salsa - which makes 500 pints - every Sunday in the federally inspected, commercial kitchen in her home. She chops the jalapeno peppers and more than 50 pounds of onions by hand. Just peeling the onions takes about an hour and a half.

It takes about six hours to make the salsa if the onions are already peeled and the labels are on the plastic salsa containers.

Helping outLarson usually distributes the salsa herself, but for the last couple of months she has received help from her family. On Dec. 13, her husband Scott, who owns a carpet cleaning business, was in a car accident and severely injured. When Nichole was visiting him at the Hennepin County (Minn.) Medical Center she slipped on the ice and broke her ankle.

Now Scott is using a wheel chair and Nichole is on crutches, so her brother Tony Amico and mother Nancy Kosobud are making the rounds to grocery stores and delivering the salsa. The stores are within a two-hour radius of Minto.

Freshness is one of the things Larson's customers appreciate about her salsa product, she said.

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Good taste"I don't put any preservatives in it. It just tastes better. All the comments I hear, 'There's nothing like it on the shelves.'"

Larson hasn't yet advertised her salsa, but relies on word-of-mouth. Getting it in grocery store coolers has been easy, she said. She just drops off some chips and a container of salsa with the manager of the grocery store section where it will be located and tells him or her to try some.

Once they taste it, they're sold, she said. The salsa retails for $3.69 to $3.99, depending on the grocery store.

One of the things she enjoys most about her job, besides being her own boss and having flexible hours, is hearing the positive comments from her customers.

". . . When people tell me they like it and that 'It's the best on the shelf.'"

Ann Bailey writes for Prairie Country. Reach her by phone at (701) 787-6753, (800) 477-6572, ext. 753 or e-mail her at abailey@gfherald.com

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