Of all the Solanaceae, Capsicums (the pepper family) are are neck in neck with Tomatoes for my affection.There are SO many peppers! Peppers of every flavor, every color,every shape and size, they are pretty plants, and they are generally really easy to grow, given a bit of warmth and sunshine, even in containers. They produce generously, and they are both delicious and very medicinal. You couldn’t ask for a better plant friend.
The heat of capsicums doesn’t register on a thermometer, but it isn’t just a flavor either. The “heat” comes from a rubefacient (reddening) effect on the tissues. It causes your capillary veins to open, pulling extra blood through the affected area, because your surface nerves think you are in contact with something chemically hot that needs to be repaired, although it isn’t actually damaging you.The combination of heat sensation and flavor creates synergy that is addictive to so-called chiliheads! But peppers are a medicinal herb as well: Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chile heat, doesn’t just affect your tongue and other mucus membranes(do NOT touch your eye!), but your external skin as well. This can be great for sore muscles, -and literally a life saver.
Medicinal Use: For Aches and Pains, wear it:
Even if you don’t eat hot peppers, you should grow them to make liniments and creams for sore muscles and stiff joints. If you can tolerate eating a little, it’s good for your heart! Some people even carry hot sauce or cayenne tincture with them in case of a heart attack. (I’m not a doctor; just a gardener who reads).
Make your own pain relief:
For sore muscles, you can tincture peppers in alcohol to make a liniment rub, or make an oil infusion as a heating massage oil.
To tincture in alcohol, fill a glass jar with dried cayenne peppers and top with cheap vodka or other 80 proof alcohol. In a few days you will find that the alcohol has turned orange and is very spicy. Rub it on stiff muscles and painful joints, a lot of it. The drawback is that alcohol feels cold, but it does penetrate better than oil.
To make an oil infusion, do the same thing but with oil. I have used fresh peppers as well as pepper flakes for this. It needs to stay warm for a week to ten days, which, since it doesn’t matter if it is affected by the sun, can be done in the back window of a parked car, or sitting on a radiator. You can then draw it off the top and leave the rest to get stronger if you like, or filter it. I use olive oil, but other oils, like jojoba, penetrate better, so that is my next trick. Rub it on achy muscles and cover.
Here’s what I do for back spasms, etc.: My DH hurts his back now and again, so I set up my massage table in front of the woodstove and lay out my materials. I actually combine some peppermint infused oil as well for good measure. Alcohol tinctures are great, but only if applied warm. I prepare some wet towels folded into squares, and heat them in the evil microwave (which I use for nothing else!). I have some warm quilts ready. I lay him out face down, covered with quilts except for the area I’m working on, and start rubbing spicy oils into his back, applying the oil gently all over the back and then massaging slowly from the least sore areas towards the worst. Of course my hands will get very hot, but I really hate working with gloves. If I ever get arthritis, I’ll benefit from these sessions even more. When it’s time to take a break, I put a thin cloth on the sore area, put the hot wet towel in a big ziploc bag, lay it on top, and cover with the quilts. He may well sleep by then. I replace the hot packs as they cool and let him rest. He feels the heat on his back for hours, even after he’s up and moving around. Capsaicin is a great painkiller!
Cardiac claims: Alternative healers say that warming herbs like ginger root and hot peppers warm the body, energize the heart, and thin the secretions. I certainly find a spicy soup can fend off a cold. Hot peppers can make your nose run, which can unblock it, and help you to feel better. Spicy food gets your digestion going as well, so you may feel a lot lighter afterwards…. But to decide if you think it is good for your heart is up to you. My husband says it makes him feel better, but he is a person who shuns pharmaceuticals in general. It is certainly part of many herbal heart remedies, and it is good for you in many ways, although a very few people are allergic. What it apparently, allegedly, (note me being careful) does for the heart is open up the capillaries, thereby helping circulation to the extremities and taking the load off the heart. Therefor some people carry cayenne tincture with them to guzzle in the event of a heart attack. My husband says should he ever keel over he wants me to dump it down his throat and into his eyes. Yee-ikes!
We gauge pepper heat in terms of Scoville Units. From Bell peppers to the deadly hot Bhut Jolokia , also known as the Naga Bhut Jolokia, there are about a million Scovilles. It’s sort of silly- Jalapenos are about 3000, Red Caribbean Habaneros are 300,000. Please. How do they get these numbers? Somebody explain this to me. But people who love hot peppers,- I call them chiliheads, are nerdy masochists. We delight in creating evil concoctions to drip onto our food, and try to one-up each other with the latest white-hot bullet from the wilds of Borneo, brought back by an expedition of which half the explorers were eaten by cannibals. Names of chili sauces read like death metal album covers: Lethal Ingestion, Trinidad Scorpion Ghost…but as I get older, not only do I get a stomach ache from overindulging in seriously hot peppers, but I’m sort of over the heat competition, and more into interesting flavors- like the bouguet of apricot and caramel you taste when biting into a habanero in the nanoseconds before the pain hits.
Sweet No Heat:
Perhaps I was a bit giddy, saying they come in every flavor. Peppers come sweet to hot, with lots of overtones and undertones, like wine. I didn’t mean to claim they come in mint or banana, -although there are both sweet and hot banana peppers; long, yellow, and ripening in generous bunches. In Spanish, the bell pepper that most Anglos think of as safe and friendly is known as Chile Agua. Water chile. Fleshy and full of water, and at least the green ones, compared to other peppers, taste like…water. Friends, there is more to peppers than water. But common sweet peppers include the Bells, the sweet bananas, the grilling peppers like cubanelles, although not all grilling peppers are absolutely sweet, the sweet cherry peppers, which are wonderful stuffed with cheese, and some sweet pickling peppers. There are lots of sweet peppers with rich, sweet, fruity flavors.
What Wimps can Grow: Packet descriptions are clear about heat. If you are one of those wimps who just can’t associate food pleasure with mouth pain, there are still plenty of choices. I grow California Wonder for my parents, and last year I tried a Burpee mix called Carnival Bells, which included purplish black bells that cooked up green but were pretty in a salad, green bells that ripened yellow, although there were supposed to be oranges and reds as well, and a compact plant that produced ivory mini-bells that ripened pale apricot. The sweet grilling peppers are about 6-8 inches long and usually 1/2-2 inches thick. I I love Jimmy Nardello, a gorgeous Italian sweet frying pepper that ripens rapidly and dramatically. The graceful waxy green fruits, 1/2 inch thick by 8 inches long, seem to catch on fire, the deep crimson streaks flickering up the sides before the whole fruit turns lipstick red. It is very pretty and delicious. I did get a few with a touch of heat though, and I am growing them with extra care this year not to confuse any because it distinctly says Jimmy Nardello is sweet. There are peppers that play pepper roulette, but I think the error may have been mine. Usually little peppers are viciously hot, but I have a pepper from the Amazon that looks like a red Habanero but is quite fruity-sweet except at the very center. It may be a rocotillo type, as it take forever to mature. A lot of South American peppers are low heat.
Medium Heat: But live a little. Get some medium hots. Jalapenos are being bred now to milder and milder heats- even a no heat (what a yawn). And pickling peppers brings the heat down- something about the vinegar. That’s for a summer post, but it is very easy to make semi-spicy pepper relish. But who can resist a good jalapeno popper?
A big medium Hatch pepper has just enough heat to make a thoroughly delicious relleno (pepper stuffed with potatoes and cheese. Hatch is an Anaheim type from Hatch County, New Mexico, so you can’t legally call what I grow in Maryland a Hatch pepper, but they are delicious. In Ft.Worth when I visited my sisters in law, they were selling huge bags of hot, medium or mild fresh Hatch peppers at the Whole Foods, and outside they had a man roasting them in a big revolving cage like a lotto machine. Hot peppers are a part of Texan culture! Love it. Big Jim is a popular Hatch type you can grow.
Ancho,which means wide in Spanish, are the big dark green triangular peppers you see in the store. They make awesome chiles rellenos! They vary in heat and size, but usually the ones in the store are milder and larger than what I grow. I love their smoky flavor, made smokier when I blister them on the stove and rub off the skins (will elaborate in another post this summer). Once semi-softened by this procedure, I can make a hole in them to rinse out the seeds, stick in some cheese and potato, dip them in egg, and fry them. So delicious. Live a little.
OK, now we get to the heart of chile love. There are reasonable chiles with reasonable heat, like a normal Jalapeno, cayenne, chile negro, chile japones, chile pasilla. By the way, I thought chipotles were smoked, red-ripened jalapenos, but Phillipe Reyes, a friend from Mexico, who grows a lot of chiles in Bristol, VA says they are not; and that they are a specialized pepper (more on this later). They are too fleshy to dry without smoking them. Chile guajillo is kind of medium, with a lot of caramelized flavor and a dark, smooth, shiny appearance when ripened and dried. Then there are chiles that hurt, like chiltepins that grow on wild perennial plants in the Southwest, chile pequins, chile arbol (not too bad). Then there are the rock ‘n roll legends: The habaneros, african bird peppers, Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Pepper, and most recently, the Trinidad Scorpion. The Indian government is using Bhut Jolokia to make a non-lethal bomb to flush out terrorists. They also put it on food. The theory is that you break a sweat and feel cooler. Hm.
Growing the Legends:
Most of these you need to start early, and you are best off overwintering them indoors and growing them as perennials. (Phillipe Reyes suggests putting a chunk of Tilapia fish under the plant in a pot to give it the extra nutrition it will need to tolerate groing in a container. He reports people keeping chile de arbol in pots for 25 years.) We travel a lot, so I am always on the lookout for new varieties to try. When we were in the Peruvian jungle I got a few in Pucallpa, and one in upriver Yarinacocha, that I treasure. But the Aji Rojo, which just means hot red pepper, that I got from my friend Rosaura’s garden behind La Perla, a jungle B&B in Ucayali, takes forever. I start it in January and I’m lucky to get fruit by November. So now I grow some in pots. They are tiny C.Frutescens, I believe, a brilliant red pepper the size of a wren’s beak, which is dried and powdered, added to food while cooking, or crushed with salt and vinegar into a very hot, slightly citrussy paste which is spread on small flat river fish. You see the attraction?
Easy to grow hots:
Some of the peppers I met in India, such as the lal mirc, the bili mirc, and a long curving skinny pepper from Rajasthan called Ganesh, are entirely convenient and easy to grow. One pepper I got from Assam, which is small, wrinkly,citrussy and pretty lethal, about an inch long, was presented to me as Bhut Jolokia. I think the dear man was trying to be nice. Bhut Jolokia is bigger than that, and an Indian friend told me he ate one and cried for his mother. (India is a wonderful, incredible, enormous place where everything may definitely certainly be possible, but 95% is illusion. That is also worthy of another post.) Most of the peppers I found in India are cayenne types that dry well and make excellent spices and condiments. This means you can just use a bit, if you aren’t gung ho, for a gentle warmth and to experience the subflavors. These peppers are also great for external applications to sore muscles and arthritis, and make nice gifts dried on a string.
A Trick for the Cheapsters:
Yes, we want to support our seedsmen, but here’s a secret for the flat broke or just curious you may not have thought of. When you come across dried peppers, the only reason they wouldn’t sprout just as easily as seeds in a package is if they weren’t ripe when they were dried, or if they were heated by more than the sun. I am presently trying to see if there are any survivors in some extra nice chipotles I bought at Krogers. (seeded, soaked, chopped, fried with onions, garlic and olive oil they were DIVINE on eggs) Probably not but I’m just curious how much heat destroys viability. I have also started seedlings from fresh ripe peppers. If the fruit is ripe, you’re good. Of course you may not know the variety name, but you know what you ate, so even if it was a hybrid and you get sketchy parent strains, in a pinch, you can at least get free pepper plants.
How to Start Pepper Plants
Just go back to my post on how to sprout tomatoes. The same procedure works just fine for all solanaceae- that includes eggplants as well. This post will give you illustrated steps for how to start seeds using organic potting soil and recycled pots. Plastic plant pots account for a distressing amount of landfill garbage, and they are made from oil as well, so get other people to save them for you and clean and reuse. Sometimes if you have a good relationship with your recycling center they will even save them for you there. Our Midshore Regional Recycling Center actually called me!
You can count on lots more pepper articles here. Recipes, condiments, varieties, yum yum. I actually have been thinking about starting a tour club for chili heads. We know so many great places where chiles grow. Wouldn’t it be fun to ride elephants through a tea plantation in Assam and then go to the pepper gardens? Let me know. We can do it. On this nasty February night, however, it’s enough for me to open up some glowing red powdered peppers from my summer garden and shake them into in my venison chili. Piquante! Hallelujah!