Drying Chilies

My husband and I like to travel a lot, and wherever we go, we find new varieties of peppers. In India alone we found Lal Mirc, Bili Mirc, Ganesh, a little fiery short pepper from Assam, and a long fruity red pepper with less heat. In Roswell, New Mexico, while my husband was checking out the UFOs, I was headfirst in the hardware store buying every chile seed they had. So what do we do with all that? Well, we chop them over eggs, we pickle them, we make lots and lots of fiery colorful hot sauce, we roast them, sweat them, peel and seed them and eat that, we stuff them with potatoes and cheese, we massage sore muscles with the infused oil of them, and we dry them.

String ‘Em Up

Stringing peppers to dry

Lal mirc

This is really easy. Choose thin-skinned chilies like cayenne for room-temperature drying. Pick only ripe, colorful ones. Get some thread- button thread is nice- and a big needle. Make a sloppy knot at the bottom. Run the needle through the hardest part of the green calyx at the top of the chile- not the stem as it will split, and not into the pepper. At the bottom of the stem where it is thick and the needle has a harder time getting through is where you want to be. For the first chile, go back around and run your needle through the knot at the bottom of the thread, where I told you to make it sloppy. That way the thread runs around the stem and it won’t pull through. Now just keep threading the chilies on, making sure the thread doesn’t tangle around the stems. Make it as short as you like but not more than 2 feet- that gets cumbersome. Hang it up in a decorative place where it won’t get knocked down.

Thicker Chilies

Stringing peppers to dry

Stringing peppers to dry

I noticed that some of my dried chilies tended to have mold inside them when I opened them.  I remembered that I had dried them in the greenhouse, which becomes an oven in summer, but gets cool and damp at night in the fall. Also, notice that chipotles, which are made from a ripened  jalapeno-like pepper, are smoke-dried. I got some amazing ones in Roswell- fantastic mole/fire-butter recipe to come eventually. Aha! So thicker peppers must be dehydrated in a really hot place, like my attic, or a smoker. The attic works perfectly as long as the weather is warm, but the improvised smoker -it remains to be seen. I smoked them with sassafrass leaves in my closed grill with a low heat, then slit them and put them in the dehydrator. We shall see. I did not string them because the last time I tried that the string burnt and the peppers fell in the fire….

To Trim or Not to Trim

At the top you may decide to tie some cornshucks for decoration. Get clean ones from the inside of the husk, tie the string around them, and shred, trim and fluff them so they make a nice top. I have sort of stopped bothering with that. I just hang them all over the house. They are pretty, and you can add them to food any time you want.

Make Your Own Chile Powder

toasting dried peppers

toasting dried peppers

Eventually I  take them down, dust them off, break them to release the seeds, toast them lightly by stirring in a dry cast iron pot, and throw them in the blender to create my own chile powder. I never have to buy it. The challenge is actually to grow chiles that are mild enough to get plenty of flavor before the heat becomes too much.

Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.

Equipment

Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.

Processing

I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.

 

Best Yummy Venison Curry, garam!

Delicious Venison Curry

Sorry about the photo- we ate so much of it!

Not that I was getting tired of making our deer meat into my Granny’s fabulous Chili con Carne or my mother’s velvety Hungarian Goulasch, but I just had a yen for curry- Curry Goat, Lamb Vindaloo- so why not try something like that with venison?  Having been to India twice and gotten a serious Aunty Manjula YouTube addiction I felt equal to winging it. It came out very well- looks like lamb vindaloo, with the slightly softer texture of venison, with a complex fragrance, just the right heat for us- just short of pain, and leaves a gentle warmth in your stomach, as if the ginger is helping your digestion.

In following this recipe don’t just dump the ingredients in the pot as you read them off. Do follow the traditional steps. It makes a world of difference in the flavor.

You will need:

A big heavy pot with a lid

1 quart-sized freezer bag of venison stewing chunks.

11/2 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon mustard seeds ( I have substituted any brassica seed)

2 tablespoons butter, coconut oil, or other healthy fat.

1 onion, chopped

4 carrots, peeled and chopped bite sized

3 potatoes, peeled and chopped bite sized

a knob of ginger root about the size of a walnut

4 big cloves of garlic

4 dried chilies, cayenne type (reduce if you can’t take heat)

1 tablespoon cardamom pods

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 inch of cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons turmeric powder

1 tomato or 4 tablespoons tomato sauce

Water to cover

salt to taste

OK, put the coriander seeds, which you can save from when your cilantro bolts, in the coffee grinder with the peppercorns, the cinnamon bark(break it up with your fingers first), the cardamon pods, and the dry chilies. If you feel the chilies are not really brittle, you should toast them briefly in your dry pot, without turning your back. (This is a nice extra step, and you should learn how fast chilies toast, because you can make your own chili powder. ) Powder your spices finely, and transfer them to your blender or small chopper. Add the garlic, ginger root, and turmeric, and whiz to a coarse paste. BTW if you don’t have dry chilies, I have added fresh ones to the garlic, ginger, etc. and it was great. Slightly different.

Put the cumin seed and mustard seed in the pot dry and toast them on a medium flame until the mustard seeds start popping.  Add the paste and 2 tablespoons butter or oil. I have used half and half coconut oil and butter. Stir over medium heat until it smells delicious- maybe 3-4 minutes. Compliments will be pouring in. Add onions and carrots and continue to stir so the mixture doesn’t burn but the onions are softened and the sugars are caramelizing a little. Add the meat and stir until the juices that come out of the meat have evaporated and the meat is brown- you won’t really be able to get it brown without burning so- well, gray is fine. Just don’t let it burn. Add a lot of water to cover, tomato, and maybe a 1/2 tsp salt to start with. Simmer covered 30-40 minutes -until the meat is tender, add the potatoes- just sort of tuck them in and submerge them well, then remove the lid and let it cook down until the broth turns into a thick gravy. Be especially careful towards the end that it doesn’t scorch on the bottom. Check the seasonings at this stage. It should be nice and spicy. See if it needs another pinch of garam masala. Many Indian recipes use garam masala at the end, and it is a nice, sweet/spicy rich flavor which adds to the complexity.

It goes well with with Basmati rice, a creamy sour element (raita), a sweet fruity element( chutney), and in our house, steamed greens. Last time I put some very thick Kefir on the table, which substituted nicely for raita. I should have taken a flashlight to the garden for cilantro but I got lazy. Fresh mango or peach or melon chutney is great, but it is winter and I didn’t have any. I think we need to try something with watermelon pickle.

And of course Kingfisher beer!

Abandon the Pernicious Use of Paper Products!

hanging laundry How much money do you spend on paper products every month? How much paper do you throw away, after it has been through the energy consuming process of production, transportation to a store, etc.? Trees may be a renewable resource, but the environmental impact of paper products is huge. You don’t have to use that much paper every day. There are easy, convenient, reusable substitutes right in front of you.

Paper napkins:

cloth napkinsMy sister and I have used cloth napkins for many years, and if you look at the time and money we would spend buying, storing, laying out and throwing away paper napkins, I’m sure it’s less than we spend tossing them in the wash, hanging out, and folding with the laundry we already do. Also, cloth napkins are more attractive. Mine don’t all match, but for daily use, it actually makes sense to know which one you used at breakfast.

cleaning cloths, napkins, placemats sanitizing in the sun

cleaning cloths, napkins, placemats sanitizing in the sun

Paper Towels

I keep a roll in my kitchen because visitors are so lost and confused if I don’t, and once in a while there is something truly horrible on the floor- dog vomit or something- that I just want sent to the landfill. But basically I have a bucket of cloth squares under my sink; clean, dry, and folded, ready for use. Many of them are old washcloths, but you can actually buy reusable cleaning cloths. They clean better than paper towels, and don’t take up much space in the wash.

Windows

Newspaper works well, but I read the news on the Net, whenever I yank my head out of the sand, so there isn’t much at our house. When sheets get too worn I keep them for cleaning, straining fruit juice, or even a drop cloth, and they work well for windows, using a vinegar solution. I do use one piece of paper towel to buff away the little bits of lint on bathroom mirrors. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”- Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Swiffer Nonsense

When I had a linoleum floor that needed wiping after mopping, I sewed a pocket out of a piece of worn out bath towel, fit that over my long handled floor brush, and wiped everything spotless without opening a plastic package or squirting a chemical. Now that I have saltillo tiles, I just scrub and mop, but I do keep old towels for big spills.

drying socks

lonely socks can be used to dust household surfaces

I also have a bag that is like a singles bar for socks. Sometimes they are reunited with their partners; sometimes not, but if I am on the phone, or walking through the house doing something that doesn’t require one of my hands, I slip on a clean stray sock and run it over things I pass. Makes me look a little like Vanna White (what ever happened to her?) but it picks up dust and dirt easily, and then I toss it in the wash. Things with more complicated profiles are best flicked at with a feather duster- yes, those antiquated things work great.

A note not for the faint of heart:

People cleaned before the invention of disposable paper products. They also answered the various calls of nature. Men, close your eyes. Women, you can save a lot of waste and money by using a menstrual cup, also sold as a moon cup or diva cup. It is actually easier and less messy than tampons or pads. OK men, you can open your eyes; it’s over.

Now, you may not want to hear this, but if you are a hard core prepper, tremble as you imagine a time without toilet paper. I remember someone told me once some 17th century French writer said there was “nothing so nice as the neck of a goose.”  People talk about using Mullein leaves, moss, etc., but it’s really not so crazy to use a wash cloth if you have running water to rinse it with afterwards. Most of us have wiped babies’ behinds, and that is a lot messier. OK, honestly, I’m not there yet. I may be comfortable knee deep in deer guts but…butt rags, not so much. And in a post-apocalyptic world, I’m sure I’d be the one trading a basket of radioactive chestnuts for a roll of toilet paper. OK, never mind, I’ll go take a picture of a Mullein plant.

 

My Grandmother’s Easy Authentic Texas Chili con Carne (with deer meat)

Venison chili

Greenhouse broccoli with venison chili on turmeric rice

My grandmother, born Crystal Ray Ross, grew up in Lockhart, Texas, but spent a lot of time on a ranch in New Mexico. I don’t think she ever told me the name of whoever taught her to cook chili, but she did say she was allowed to go on roundups, because, as she proudly said, the hands said she knew how to keep out of the way. She had 3 horses; Poindexter, a tall Eastern horse she didn’t like, Negro, a black Mexican cow pony trained to rear and gallop off madly the minute you put your foot in the stirrup, and Old Blue, a gentle grey horse the cowboys called Old Glue because of his age. It was Old Blue she rode on cattle drives, and perhaps that is where she learned to make this chili.

I have changed it a little of course- I use deer meat, and I add more tomatoes and beans than she did. She served beans separately. She served her chili with grits, to which she added garlic, canned milk, and butter.

CRD’s Chili

2 onions, chopped

2 tablespoons healthy oil -or bacon grease, which was on hand….

1 quart bag defrosted ground venison

3-4 tablespoons chili powder

4-6 cloves garlic,chopped

1 tsp. dried oregano

11/2 tablespoons cumin seeds

1 quart canned tomatoes (mason jar)

1 1/2 cups cooked black beans (a can)

salt to taste

Brown the onions and meat well in a big heavy pot, add garlic, oregano, cumin seeds and chili powder. 3-4 tablespoons of chili powder just means a whole bunch. Brown it a bit more to bring out the flavor, then add your tomatoes and beans. Simmer on medium until well combined, salt to taste, then leave it on very low heat until ready to serve, or set it somewhere for the flavors to develop.  It is better every day and freezes well. I have sometimes added beer, but that’s not what Granny did. I also have my own home raised and toasted chili powders, with which I can crank up the heat in this otherwise mellow and savory chili.

It is delicious with grits or rice, some guacamole, a salad and some warm hand patted corn tortillas. A splash of hot sauce and a few bottles of cold beer pair nicely.

@Glory Garden

 

 

Peppers Hot and Sweet: Growing food and medicine from Chile Agua to Bhut Jolokia

Jimmy Nardello pepper plant

Jimmy Nardello is a sweet Italian pepper that is pretty and prolific.

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.

 Temperature:

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. For a post on tincturing and othe nice things like making liqueurs, click here.

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!

the only thing we didn't harvest was the quinoaCulinary Use: Eat the Heat- and the Sweet

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.

Last year I went to Roswell, New Mexico, where the UFO museum is. I hit the hardware store and this year I will be trying Sandia, Santa Fe Improved, and Lumbre, which did not germinate well. I may give it another try as the man said they were a favorite. I am also growing Chimayo, billed as a landrace pepper, which means people just grew them and saved the seed of what grew well, not worrying too much about isolation. Check back with me in the fall of 2014 for results on those.

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.

 Real Heat:

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,  7 Pot (one peppers heats 7 pots of food), Bhut Jolokia the Ghost Pepper, also known as teh Naga (Bhut means ghost, Naga means deadly snake) 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, like the Mirasol Amarillo de Pucallpa, which is  neither yellow nor upward pointing, but makes sublime, perfumey, white hot ceviche. 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:

Bili mirc pepper seedlings just coming up

Bili mirc pepper seedlings just coming up

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.dried peppers hanging

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

little pepper seedlings

Little pepper sprouts waving their pale leaves at the sun

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!

Last Word

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. Here is the recipe for the chili. Piquante! Hallelujah!

ps If you like that try my venison curry which has met approval from serious people- it is bahut garam and is a good easy introduction to making really authentic tasting Indian food.