Patricia Nell Warren

Victory Garden: Delight and Danger with Peppers

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | September 05, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Mesoamerican food plants, Victory Gardens

The fiery colors of autumn come to the garden a little 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.

Getting Started

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.

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Just a few notes:

If you want to mitigate the heat in the hotter peppers, most of it is concentrated in the inner ribs. Cut those out if so desired.

Peppers are so expensive here in the winter. I slice and freeze all I can get my hands on in the summer and use them for winter sauces and other dishes where the appearance of the peppers are not that important. They freeze very well. While it may be easy to dry peppers in LA, it takes a lot more energy for me to do it right in my humid climate, so I prefer to freeze.

Great suggestion for those who live in the same climate as you do. Thanks! I've made a note to mention freezing in future posts on this subject.

My Partner and I having lived in Arizona miss the many Mexican dishes containing chile peppers.
Among these are the red or green tamales and
of course the chile relano. We remember times of the
years when the stores sold large bags of dried
chiles. The hottest chile peppers we ever had
were on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Patricia NW, as always I find you're musings so interesting. That you share your wit and wisdom with all of us in a non political way is refreshing to behold, Thank you. Further that you took the time to write to me privately is a blessing that I do cherish. Hot Peppers huh? Who'da thought of them as blooms and yes I have them in the garden but never had considered them as colorful flowers. Now I have something new to dream about as I take that proverbial bail of hay to bed for the feeding of my night-MARES!! I take delight in showing off to visitors of my own farm in the city my specialty. Dipping into a crock of fresh crunchy Pepper Dill Pickles hot as a fire cracker laced liberally many Peppers as are available at the time. To merrily laugh as their eyes water up usually with the second bite. Yes I love my peppers and even crock pickle them with garlic and onion for winter eating. Only the large old earthern crock makes the best tasting of any method that I have tried. Another salvage from my WASP turned RC grandmother when none of her 10 children or 76 grandchildren, she lived to hold all but 4 as infants, wanted any of her useful kitchen collection some of which she has gotten from her Prussian born mother. Bye the bye pickling was her method or preserving along with canning most everything from her large organic garden as I don't remember ever seeing a refrigerator in her home. As I grew to be the man that I am today we always had Organic Gardens long before it became the watchword of the modern world. Early Spring before planting at least 6 of the older 14 kids drew straws to see who would get the choicest spot of ground for their personal garden. So as the older siblings grew up and left for college or the military the younger kids took special delight in being the next to join the early spring ritual of drawing straws to have a garden of their own. As always they learned and we knew that everything grew better the closer to the barn that you planted it.

Thanks for the great granny stories, and mention of pepper dill pickles! Another great idea for anybody who has a home garden with a bumper crop of cucumbers and a yen to preserve stuff.

I have really enjoyed reading your article. Something that I would like to comment on is another form of using peppers. I just started doing it this year myself. I am using pepper plants as landscaping instead of flowers in the fron of my house. I did not really go all out, it was more of an experiment. It is amazing all the different ornamental pepper plants that exist. I think it just makes an AMAZING flower bed. Just want to stop by and say thank you for the article.

I agree with you 110 percent about what beautiful plants they are. Including the ones that have bronzy-purple foliage instead of the regular green. I should have added "decorative" to the list of uses at the top of the piece.

I love the idea of using peppers as ornamental landscaping. I'm going to do that next year. I always complain about our lack of room for a garden. This is a great solution to add some veggies to the mix.

If you live in too cold a place to leave your plants outside in the winter, bring them in and put them under a plant light. You can also freeze or pickle peppers in vinegar.

I love sweet peppers but I grow the hot ones too and give them to people at church you like those.

I have not heard of balloon peppers. Are they like bells?

No, the balloon pepper is not a sweet bell. It has some heat to it, and is much smaller, around 1 1/4 inches wide. It ripens to a rich orange-red, and the skin is fairly thin. The plant itself develops more of a shrub-like woody many-branched shape than bell peppers.

"bronzy-purple foliage" - Sounds like a black pearl pepper plant. One of my favorites. I think I have a pic of one on my blog if you have never seen one, or just google it.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 7, 2009 12:23 AM

Great post, Patricia!!!

I love peppers, and eat them extensively in a variety of ways. I've noticed when I cook with them sometimes, their essence diffuses into the air and cause me to cough. Be careful with the really hot ones.

Have you tried the dried spice for sale in various markets, "Pico de Gallo"? It usually contains peppers--along with a variety of other ingredients. It's great with butter on corn!

I am so grateful for all the wonderful "new world" fruits and vegies.

misswildthing | September 7, 2009 2:49 AM

This time of year in New Mexico is heavenly, not for the smell but the whole cultural exchange that happens with chiles roasting all over the place. Where did they come from, Hatch or Española? Do you peel them right away or just freeze them. And what is life without a breakfast burrito with green chile bacon and eggs wrapped up in cheese and a tortilla. Heart attack on a plate but dammit it is good. Now I have improved on it. I have Maui onions to go in my burrito in the AM.

For the guy who say the hottest pepper he got was in Santa Fe, I agree. My neighbor in Santa Fe brought over a local treat, calabacitas which is corn, green chile and squash all sauteed together in butter and garlic. I love calabacitas. I took a bite of her dish and my lips fell off. Very sad. I asked for a smaller version of Angelina Jolie's lips as a replacement, they work pretty goo.

I'm loving everybody's war stories about "the hottest chiles."

As a footnote to all this, I've caught my cat licking my plate when I'm done eating, and I've noticed that she doesn't flinch at hot peppers. She's gotten up to jalapeño SHU levels, without batting a whisker, and I wonder where she'll go from there.

Maybe animals experience capsaicin differently from us two-leggeds. I remember reading Frank Dobie's "The Longhorn" when I was a kid, and running across a story about a Southwest lady who had a pet Longhorn steer that loved to eat hot chile peppers.

Maybe the steer was liking the kind that made your lips fall off.