Sweet and Hot

July 30, 2012

Freshly picked, first pepper fruits of the season from the garden.

Appearances can be deceiving.

The pepper pictured on the left is not an Habanero. It’s an heirloom variety called Aji Dulce, a small sweet pepper commonly found in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Like the Habanero, it’s a variety of Capsicum chinense, possessing a similar fruity, smoky flavor, but without the heat. These flavorful sweet peppers are preferred for Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic and Cuban cuisines which typically do not call for hot peppers.

In Puerto Rico, the pepper is grown commercially and is an important ingredient for sauces such as Recaito, Sofrito or Mojito Isleno, a fish or meat sauce. In Brazil, this pepper is called Rubra or Biquinho, and is used to make a sweet jam. In Venezuela, this pepper is a key ingredient in preparing Hallaca, that country’s national holiday dish.

Because the pepper is a perennial, particularly in tropical countries, it can be brought indoors in winter in northern climates where it continues to produce if conditions are right. (I bought my plant from Bartram’s Garden in early Spring, where it was started from seed at an off-site greenhouse.) This pepper is often found in ethnic markets in northeast American cities.

In Philadelphia, landscape consultant Sam Jimenez often sources his ingredients for authentic Sofrito from Cousins Supermarket at 5th & Berks Streets. The Bronx native shares some excellent recipes on his blog Sofrito and the City. There you can find his recipe for Sofrito, which he describes as “a secret herb base used in many Latin dishes, like rice and beans, empanadas, soups and stews.”

The tiny one-inch oblong pepper next to the Aji Dulce is an ornamental hot pepper called Numex Twilight. Not an heirloom pepper, this Pequin hybrid – a  Bird Pepper – was developed by researchers at New Mexico State University in 1993. As the green peppers ripen they turn purple, then yellow and orange before darkening to a rich red. Although it’s an annual, as an indoor potted plant it often keeps producing throughout the winter months. It’s a wonderfully hardy species, resistant to most pests and plant viruses that can sometimes plague other pepper varieties.

The medium hot chile can be easily added to flavor many recipes. One small chile goes a long way. Try it in pickling, salsas and vinegars.

Here is a recipe for Brazilian-style preserved Biquinho Peppers using Aji Dulce peppers.

To learn more about Aji Dulce peppers see World Crops.org.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project



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