The fiery colors of autumn come to the garden a little early...in the form of peppers getting ripe. With the Labor Day holiday hitting America, many of us are going to be doing family feasts or cookouts, and the menu is sure to include chile peppers in some form. I have a mad, wild love for these giant berries, especially the hot variety. They are easy to grow, as colorful as flowers, fascinating to look at -- not to mention the adventure of eating them.
Did you know that people have been chowing down on chiles for 7000 years? Did you know that the hot pepper is multi-purpose -- staple, spice, disinfectant, preservative, health food, medicine, even a weapon? Neither did I, till a few years ago, when I was introduced to chile growing by Arizona writer/book reviewer Ken Furtado, who wrote for Echo Magazine for many years.
Around 8 or 9 years ago, I met Ken while on visit to Phoenix on book tour, Ken invited me to his home, where he had cooked a whole spread of traditional Hispanic dishes. It was one of the best meals I ever ate in my life. As we toured his herb garden, Ken proudly showed me his splendid jalapeño plant, which was big as a rosebush. He explained that it was five years old already. Every Southwest family -- including his own ancestors, who'd been there for a couple of centuries -- kept a collection of different pepper plants going in their home garden.
Back at my own L.A. home, I planted my first jalapeños and learned that pepper plants do indeed live for many years in milder climates. Today I have a dozen and a half varieties going -- more than I can eat or even give away. From the purple-brown of poblanos to the lemon-yellow of banana peppers, they're like an edible flower garden. Especially the sweet bell peppers, a group that evolved to the biggest size, but without the hot kick -- they come in literally every color of the rainbow.
In short, I grow chile peppers partly for the hell of it. I can't help myself.
Unique history of peppers
All varieties come from the genus Capsicum. Peppers are one of the Americas' greatest food gifts to the world...along with corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, pineapples, peanuts and two dozen other food plants that were domesticated by First Nation peoples of Central and South America. Archeologists have found traces of chile use going back nearly 7000 years.
From American shores, via the Spanish and Portuguese, peppers spread like culinary wildfire around the world, to be adopted hungrily into cuisines on every continent, from China to Western Europe. There, the local agronomists developed new varieties. In Hungary, meat stew becomes "goulash" with the addition of paprika, a spice made from a mix of bell peppers and wax peppers. In Italy, chili pepper seeds are sprinkled as a garnish. In Spain, cooks do all kinds of things with big red pimientos, like stuff them with bacalao (codfish).
A pepper's intensity can actually be measured by a scientific yardstick called Scoville heat units. According to Wikipedia, "Bell peppers rank at 0 SHU, jalapeños at 3,000-6,000 SHU, and habaneros at 300,000 SHU. The record for the hottest chili pepper was assigned by the Guinness Book of Records to the Naga Jolokia, measuring over 1,000,000 SHU." The near-lethal Naga was developed in Dorset, England, from a variety popular in Bangladesh.
That active ingredient, capsaicin, is what makes your eyes tear, your nose run, your heart pound and your body break an explosive sweat when you bite into a habanero. Which is why pure capsaicin, at 16 million SHU, is used in pepper spray and can incapacitate a a mugger instantly. It also kills bacteria...which is why cooks rub chile powder on meats.
Growing peppers is easy
In my space-conscious city garden, chiles do well in window boxes or big pots. They prefer full sun, but also thrive in bright dappled shade -- in fact, it's surprising how much shade they can tolerate. Requirements: a well-drained fertile soil. Regular watering when they need it. Don't let them sit in soggy soil, though, or they develop root rot. And they appreciate being fertilized.
Do I have a fave? It's a heirloom variety, the balloon pepper. I found it at my local garden center. The plant grows into a woody shrub about 3 feet tall, the size of a hybrid-tea rose. Every year, it stays so covered with deep-red peppers that visitors often mistake it for a rose-bush. The fruit is shaped like a little beanie about an inch or so wide. It has a bit more heat than wax peppers, but not much, and a mellow fruity flavor that I'd describe as kinda mango.
In a mild climate like California, peppers will live through the winter outdoors. My oldest sweet bells and hot chiles are five-six years old and going strong. In spring, I just prune them like rosebushes, and give them a big shot of steer manure, and off they go. Once they start popping those distinctive star-like flowers, they continue fruiting for the rest of the season...which is well into winter in California. At Thanksgiving, I harvest the last of the balloon peppers for a favorite stuffing recipe.
In a more frigid climate, you can try bringing your chile plants indoors for the winter, and keep them in a sunny window. They don't transplant well, so start them in the pots that you plan to bring indoors.
Health Do's and Don'ts
Chile peppers are loaded with Vitamins A & C. These helped ancient American peoples with good eyesight, as well as scurvy prevention in a part of the world where citrus-fruit culture was unknown. Capsaicin was also known to be a natural anesthetic, and is still used that way today. A gay male friend of mine who was living with AIDS told me how he managed the intense pain of neuropathy in his feet by using a salve containing capsaicin. His doctor felt this was a better choice than the standard painkillers like codeine, which are addicting.
But a word of caution: when you clean the hot ones, wear kitchen gloves. The insides of the hot peppers -- juices, pulp, seeds -- can actually burn your hands. And once you cut a hot pepper open, that capsaicin vaporizes into the air, so it can make your eyes and lungs burn if you bend over the peppers and breathe that air. Wash your hands right after handling them.
And don't ask me what a thousand generations of Indian cooks did before they had rubber gloves. But they must have had a technique for protecting their hands from burning.
Once peppers are cleaned for cooking, I never discard the seeds -- just throw them back into the garden, and get quite a few volunteers the next spring.
Cooking with peppers
An encyclopedia can be written on this subject. Peppers go into everything -- soups, stews, salads, garnishes, cheese spreads, appetizers, even desserts. Dessert? Oh yeah. In my favorite recipe for old-fashioned gingerbread, a teaspoonful of cayenne goes into the batter along with the ginger and other spices. Kicks it up a notch, as Emeril says.
Peppers have spawned a global trade in hot sauces -- from the "fire oil" of China and Thailand, to the jerk sauces of Jamaica. And there's America's own Tabasco Sauce -- invented in 1868 by the McIlhenny family of Louisiana and made from tabasco peppers that they grew locally. Anyone with a love of culinary risk can find websites where these bottled sauces from all over the world can be purchased -- thousands of them, mostly made by small family-owned companies. Just search the Web under "hot sauce."
In my last Victory Garden episode, I talked about preserving fruit. Well, peppers are fruits. To keep your surplus through the winter, you can do what families have done for centuries -- get a big needle and some stout string, and make strings of peppers, and hang them in a cool shady place to dry. They reconstitute easily when you soak them in water or throw them into soup.
I've also made a type of confit with Hungarian wax peppers. They need to be ripe and bright red. Take a couple dozen peppers, cut them in half, and clean these strips of their inner pulp and seeds. Put a couple cups of good olive oil into a deep skillet, and sautee the halves very gently in the oil, together with 2 cups of pearl onions and a little salt and garlic. Move the vegetables around constantly and don't let them brown. When they're just tender, cool them and pack them in a clean jar or plastic container with all the oil. Store them in the refrigerator.
These strips of red pepper confit make a wonderful garnish for steaks, burgers, potato salads, etc.
For the post-millennial gardener who wants to get acquainted with this amazing family of plants, here are seven that I'd suggest. They can be found in most garden centers as small starter plants:
bell peppers -- the garden isn't complete without them
banana pepper and Hungarian wax pepper (pretty mild)
anaheim and chili de arbol (medium hot)
jalapeños and habaneros (very hot to blow-your-head-off hot)
Once you fall in love with peppers, there are specialty seed companies that you can find online, where you can buy seed of just about any variety that is available. Even the Dorset Naga, if you want to live that dangerously.
As America moves deeper into an age of environmental stress, when victory gardening will be ever more vital for individual Americans, one of the most important plant groups in our backyards will be those eternal, irrepressible pepper plants.
Check out a good article in Wikipedia for lots of chile information.