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



Fight Dire With Fire

June 23, 2012

“What is eating my plants?” is a familiar lament for gardeners everywhere.

In leafy urban Philadelphia enclaves like Chestnut Hill and Roxborough, bordering the lesser-tamed sections of Fairmount Park, deer are a major nuisance. In West Philly, it’s squirrels possessed with a pathological need to dig, dig, dig newly planted flowers and young vegetable plants out of pots and garden beds. Bird feeder stations are also popular targets.

Fortunately, there are some non-toxic remedies and the best ones involve hot peppers.

Hot pepper sprays such as Mace®, formulated with oleoresin capsicum, the hot stuff in hot peppers, have been used for years as non-lethal defense weapons. While hot pepper sprays might not be lethal they can be powerful irritants and the oils from peppers can cause burns to the skin and eyes.

Birds are completely unaffected by the hottest of hot peppers because they lack the genetic neurons that trigger any reaction to the  capsaicinoids in chiles. Many mammals, however, are not so gifted. Growing chiles to protect farm crops in Africa and India has proved to be more effective than electronic fences, traps and noise machines. Plus, the resourceful farmer gets to harvest a lucrative secondary crop of fresh chiles.

For birders, many garden centers offer hot pepper suet balls and bird feed laced with hot pepper seeds. Other garden blogs recommend hot pepper sprays that can be appliedHot Pepper wild bird Suet Cake - Hot Pepper - 12 Ounce to the leaves and soil of garden plants. Not sure how effective these tactics are against bugs, but they sure repel critters. Commercial pepper sprays and powders are also available from garden centers.

The US Environmental Protection Agency considers capsaicin a biochemical pesticide, since it’s a naturally occurring compound that acts as a repellant, yet does not harm pests that come into contact with it. Interestingly, the EPA cautions against using high concentrations of capsaicin near waterways or koi ponds since its effect on aquatic life has never been studied.

It’s very easy to make your own pepper spray. Be as careful using your homemade product as you would with Mace® or commercial garden sprays. Use gloves and goggles when applying the sprays to your garden plants. After heavy watering or rains, you will most likely need to reapply the pepper spray.

Now, what to do if “something” is eating your pepper plants!  There are at least 35 types of insects and mites that attack pepper plants.

If you don’t want to use chemicals of any kind, caterpillars can be picked off and a mild non-ammonia soap solution works on getting rid of many other insect infestations. For a last bit of protection, try some hot pepper spray on your hot peppers.

Here’s a recipe for hot pepper spray from Green Living, provided by University of Florida Extension: Home Remedies for Insect and Disease Control on Plants:

“Soak 2 tablespoons ground red pepper overnight in a gallon of water. Add 6 drops of dish soap – a natural vegetable-based soap like castile soap, not an anti-bacterial soap – and place the mixture in a spray bottle.

To make pepper spray using fresh peppers, chop one half pound hot peppers and soak overnight in a gallon of water. Add 6 drops of dish soap and put the mixture in a spray bottle. Thoroughly spray the plants, wearing goggles and gloves.”

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Portia’s Peppers

May 31, 2012

Get in the conversation. A new on-line forum, FacePlant, is social media for gardeners says its founder, Louisa. “I started this site because I love growing stuff, documenting my efforts, and reading about and exploring other people’s gardens.”  Photo courtesy of FacePlant.

Above: Peppers growing gangbusters at a community garden.


Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

More Pepper Trails

May 7, 2012

Seems there are quite a few pepper projects around the world!

Here’s a review of some non-profits with missions to revive hot pepper crops and to create sustainable markets that support rural farming communities.

Lambrineu Foundation Chilli Pepper Project. Located in Jakarta, this project is one of three economic projects that were created by the Lambrineu Foundation to restart this country’s social and economic development programs after the devastating 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Before the tsunami, one local area, the Lhok Nga Sub district, once counted 120 chile farmers. After the tsunami, only 85 chile farmers were still alive. The Foundation, which operates from a community home in Lampaya Village, has aided production for local chile farmers. Funding has cleared land of rubble from the tsunami and purchased seed, fertilizers and pesticides. Efforts are also underway to create a Chile Farmers Association.

• A chile pepper project in Nicaragua is sponsored by Agros International, which aims to break the cycle of poverty for rural families in Central America and Mexico by enabling landless communities to achieve land ownership and economic stability.

Through a series of agricultural loans and technical training and support from Agros, families in El Eden and San Jose started a pepper project in March 2006. Since then, 115 families in six Agros communities have harvested 18 acres – nearly 70,000 pounds – of chile peppers! These villages have contracts with Chiles of Nicaragua which guarantees an export market for their chile peppers. In this case, it provides a large share of those chiles to US-based Original Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce.

The Pepper Eater Project  was started in 2009 by four Stanford University engineering and business grad students.


The Pepper Eater… photo from Compatible Technology International website.

The project originated in the university’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. After completing a successful feasibility study, two of the students, Sam Hamner and Scott Sadlon, continued with the project with the goal of implementing the Pepper Eater in Ethiopia and other developing markets. They’ve since partnered with Compatible Technology International to achieve that goal.

Dried red pepper is the most widely consumed spice in the world. In Ethiopia, it’s estimated that some 400,000 women process hot peppers by hand. This laborious process turns fresh peppers into higher-value products, like dried flakes, seeds and powder.

What is the Pepper Eater? It’s an affordable, hand-cranked device that mills dried peppers much quicker than flaking by hand. It allows for continuous processing and easy seed preparation while limiting direct human contact with caustic pepper dust and oils. This simple device provides these enterprising women with safer and more efficient tools.

Animals on the Edge began in 2008 as a non-profit program of Living Earth. “The goal is to conserve and protect wildlife by bringing together local communities and decision makers, and proposing economy-based solutions that provide people with a financial and social incentive to conserve wildlife.”

One of its programs is a chile pepper project in India that aims to minimize the impact on forest habitat and wildlife caused by farming communities living at the edge of the protective buffer zone with Kanha National Park. Animals from the Park often wander beyond this buffer zone onto agricultural land, destroying crops and impacting livelihoods.

The pepper project in India mimics one used successfully in Africa. It involves planting chile peppers around core crops to form a natural barrier to protect farmers’ crops. The animals go out of their way to avoid the unpleasant pepper plants. What’s more, the chiles can later be harvested and sold, providing a secondary income to farmers.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Last month, a reader asked if the Landreth Seed Company was the earliest garden seed company in Philadelphia. He also wanted to know if Landreth sold hot pepper seeds in those early years.

What triggered the query was this advertisement published in 1792 in Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser, one of dozens of Philadelphia newspapers published at that time.

Garden historian Barbara Wells Sarudy writes about the origins of such seed dealers and nursery owners like David Landreth on her blog Early American Gardens as well as in her book Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake 1700-1805.

David Landreth

David Landreth

She writes: “The method of selling seeds and plants changed dramatically in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper South after the Revolutionary War. The growth of urban economies gave rise to new commercial gardening ventures, nurseries and seed stores, operated by professional gardeners who initially imported and then grew their own seed and plant stock.”

David Landreth was one of dozens of seed men in America in the early 1800s. But seeds and all varieties of plants and trees were grown, traded or sold by a number of garden suppliers long before Landreth. The most famous of those collectors and suppliers were Philadelphia botanists John Bartram and his son William Bartram from their Kingsessing farm. Another early gardener was James Alexander, who sold vegetable and herb seeds imported from London in Philadelphia in 1751. But the most successful seed merchant of all was a Welsh woman, Hannah Davis Dubre of Northern Liberties, who kept the business going and expanded it after her husband’s death in 1768. To accommodate customers who didn’t want to trudge out to her remote plantation, she introduced the idea of relying on agents in town to sell and supply to retail and wholesale customers, including international traders.

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 182...

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 1823) was an American naturalist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Shakers too built a substantial business selling seeds in the 18th Century, and were the creators of a most important innovation in seed trading, the seed packet!

Seed merchants often supplied wealthy landowners like William Hamilton of the Woodlands, whose mansion still stands in West Philadelphia, and Robert Morris, who owned a large estate on the Schuylkill, today’s historic Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park. Both men had huge gardens and greenhouses. The breadth and exoticism of their botanic collections rivaled those in Europe. They also supplied seeds and plants from their working estates to agents like Landreth and others.

However, it’s Irish immigrant Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia, trained by Landreth, who is credited with printing the first seed catalog in 1804 and making it widely available to the public. Just two years later, in 1806, he would publish the first-ever book on gardening in the US. The America Gardener’s Calendar is still a very useful guide to planting, caring for and harvesting one’s garden and can be read in its entirety online.

M’Mahon, also spelled McMahon, says in the preface of his book that “he is constantly supplied, at his Seed Warehouse in Philadelphia, with a general assortment of Garden Seeds, suitable for cultivation, in the United States, and in the West Indies; Grass seeds of every important and valuable kind; an immense variety of Tree, Shrub and Flower seeds and roots, procured from various parts of the world, with which the enterprize of American commerce has any connection, as well as from the different State and Territories of the Union….”

He adds that he supplies “at the most moderate terms every convenience for gardening, from spades and shovels to bulb glasses and glass suitable for hot-bed lights and other forcing department.”

So, did Landreth or others also sell hot peppers in those early years? They most certainly did!

Cayenne pepper was a popular spice and was often brought into Philadelphia ports from the Caribbean and is even noted in a merchant shippers ad from a 1723 edition of the American Weekly Mercury newspaper.

M’Mahon’s 1806 catalog notes three classic Central and South American hot pepper varieties  – capsicum baccatum, a South American sweet hot that resembles a Bishops Crown; capsicum frutescens, a small chile like the Bird Pepper, and capsicum sinesen, probably an early Habanero variety.

Landreth and other seed merchants would soon follow with their own catalogs.

Additional Reference:
The 225th Anniversary Commemorative Newsletter Series, “A History of American Vegetables, Herbs and Flowers, From the Landreth Perspective 1784-1950,” Volume 5, Issue 2, February 2009.
Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

A Chile Spring

February 28, 2012

It might be February, but dozens of honey bees are feasting on blooming crocuses in West Philly gardens.

Clearly, it’s not too early to start planning and planting seeds for the summer garden.

Landreth Seed Company’s 2012 Special Edition seed catalog arrived in the mail in January and its 78 illustrated pages of photos and folk wisdom beckon.

Landreth's Special Edition 2012 Collector's Catalog

Landreth’s Special Edition 2012 Collector’s Catalog

Just three pages in is a Children’s Garden Collection of old-fashioned vegetable and flower favorites, including the Chervena Chujski, a Bulgarian variety heirloom pepper which ripens from green to brown to shiny red. “The fruits taper to 6 in. and resemble hot peppers, but they are incredibly sweet,” reads the caption.

An entire page is devoted to hot peppers (p. 39) starting with Anaheim Chiles, and featuring other hot pepper varieties with names from around the globe – Caribbean Red, plus the mildly hot Black Hungarian Pepper, as well as the Bolivian Rainbow, with purplish-green leaves, that will produce tiny cone-shaped hot peppers of many colors on fully grown plants within about 80 days.

The Fish Pepper, featured before on this blog, is also represented. Other long-time favorites include Cayenne, Habanero, Jalapeño, Poblano, Scotch Bonnet, Thai Hot, Serrano, and Tabasco. For those who prefer white-hot to red-hot, there’s even a White Habanero.

Sweet pepper offerings are available further along in the catalog. These include the imperfectly shaped Bullnose pepper, introduced into the US in 1759, possibly from India. This bell pepper was originally used for stuffing and pickling. (See Mrs. Emlen’s Pickled Mangos) Another old standby is the Red Cherry Sweet, introduced before 1860, that produces small round, very sweet fruits, and excellent also for pickling or canning. Miniature Bells, perfect for container gardening, are available in three colors – chocolate, red and yellow. These sweet peppers are family heirlooms shared with Seed Savers Exchange, says Landreth.

Founder David Landreth originally started his company in Montreal Canada in 1780, but its harsh climate induced him to relocate to Philadelphia in 1784. His first garden center was located on former High Street, now 1210 Market Street, very near where the Loews Hotel resides within the former PSFS Tower. Landreth’s loyal customers included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Bonaparte.

Like William and John Bartram, the Landreths introduced a number of botanic firsts to Philadelphia – the Zinnia from Mexico in 1798; the first truly white potato in 1810, and Bloomsdale Spinach in 1826. And for a city that markets itself “with Love,” Landreth introduced the tomato, aka the Love Apple, in 1820.

•    •    •   •   •   •

Jeffrey C. Nekola from the University of New Mexico publishes a terrific website, the “Heirloom Vegetable Archive,” that depicts a broad array of heirloom vegetables along with great photos and descriptive captions.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016
The Philadelphia Pepper Project

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) published recently Ellen Markoe Emlen’s collection of 19th-century recipes.

Discovered among a cache of Emlen family documents, the staff at HSP couldn’t resist exploring the handwritten cookbook’s tattered pages — first as conservators, then as cooks, and finally as editors when they decided to publish a facsimile of the cookbook late last year.

The cookbook’s deteriorated condition reveals it was a much-used and useful reference by the Emlens. The home-made cookbook is very organized and even includes a table of contents, writes Tara O’Brien, chief conservator at HSP, who became the cookbook’s editor too.  “It would seem that Mrs. Emlen collected many recipes and made a project of writing them all down, be they for baking or pickling or something as simple as boiled coffee. There are food and wine splatters and other recipes added to the pages. The book was used so much that the spine was broken.”

Noted within the table of contents is a whole section devoted to pickles. In the old days, many vegetables were preserved as pickles. The Emlen cookbook has a recipe for mango pickles. But Mrs. Emlen doesn’t mean mangoes, the fruit grown on trees. Cooks of that era and even in some areas of the country today are referring to green bell peppers!

Culinary historian William Woys Weaver explains away some of this confusion in his book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

“Many Americans call bell peppers “mangoes” in reference to their former use in mango pickles, a recipe that traces ultimately to India. To mango something meant to stuff and pickle it with a mixture of spices and shredded cabbage.”

In his book he refers to 18th-century Bull Nose peppers, forerunners of modern-day bell peppers, but much smaller and possibly packing some heat. There’s a recipe for mangoing Bull Nose peppers in the 1838 edition of  The Virginia Housewife, he says.

It’s not known when or from whom Mrs. Emlen may have acquired her recipe for pickled mangoes, but just a couple of pages later in her cookbook she has posted a similar recipe for pickled peppers. She also has two recipes for Pepper Pot Soup, but more on this another time.

•        •       •

More clarification about mangoes from Houghton Mifflin’s International Word Origins:
… Prepared Indian style, a mango is not just an ordinary pickle but an experience. Saroj’s Cookbook from present-day India has a recipe for Spicy Mango Pickle that starts with three mangoes chopped into chunks and adds mustard, fenugreek, aniseed, turmeric powder, a half cup of salt, and a half cup of red chili powder, topped off with a cup of oil. According to Saroj, “This pickle will not go bad for over a year even at room temperature…

Because mangoes were first known to Americans in this pickled form, mango was sometimes used to mean any pickled fruit, even if not from the mango tree or from India. An American recipe from 1847 noted in the Dictionary of American Regional English calls for “melon mangoes” to be stuffed with horseradish, cucumbers, green beans, nasturtiums, onions, mustard seed, peppercorns, cloves, and all-spice before being pickled. Muskmelon, cucumbers, and green peppers were all made into “mangoes.” Even today, in the middle United States, green peppers are sometimes called mangoes or mango peppers.

 •       •       •

The Emlen family has a long and distinguished history in Philadelphia. The first George Emlen was one of Philadelphia’s earliest settlers, arriving from London around 1682.

Mrs. Emlen was born Ellen Markoe in 1814, married George Emlen in 1840, and had two children. She died in 1900, just a few months after her granddaughter and namesake also died. Husband George died in 1853 at age 38. George Emlen was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, a leading member of the Philadelphia bar, president of the Law Academy of Philadelphia, president of the Board of Controllers of the Public Schools, and secretary of the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

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