A Go for Lecsó

August 14, 2012

Homegrown Banana peppers from the garden. Photo and peppers by Mike Szilagyi.

Mike Szilagyi, a Center City planner who specializes in trail development, responded recently to the blog call for photos and stories.

“Thought you might like this,” he wrote. “This morning’s pickings from my garden. No roses or flowers in my front yard – veggies! These peppers and half as many fresh tomatoes, plus onions and sliced Kielbasi, and that’s my dad’s recipe for Hungarian Lecsó.”

A quick review of on-line sources to discover what makes up authentic Lecsó revealed a number of culinary interpretations of this traditional dish of Serbian origin. Or, as food writer June Meyer says, “Lecsó can be anything you want it to be.”

Typical of many ethnic cuisines, this melange of tomatoes, onions, peppers and seasonings becomes a base for an array of Hungarian dishes. The thick vegetable stew is versatile enough to be eaten hot or cold like its French cousin, Ratatouille, or other ingredients like sausages, eggs or beans and cheeses can be added in.

Some recipes for Lecsó call for Hungarian paprika. Mike’s dad uses Hungarian Wax peppers for his Lecsó and thinks that paprika is “a bit like gilding the lily” so he doesn’t put it in. However, if using a milder pepper like the Banana pepper, the smoky rich spice kicks up the flavor wonderfully!

Wikipedia and the Budapest tourist guide website both have good information about Hungarian peppers and paprika. Turns out there are as many varieties of Hungarian peppers as there are of Hungarian paprika, and in a full range of intensities and colors. Be warned: Pepper colors or shapes are not an indicator of hotness or sweetness.

Hungarian Black peppers look very similar to the sweet Banana peppers above, but they’re a medium hot variety, similar to Jalapeño, with black-skinned fruit that ripens to a deep shiny red.

peppersfresh“White” peppers (at left) are a light green pepper with a unique flavor that is nothing like classic Bell peppers or Italian frying peppers and when dried is the basis for Magyar Paprika.

The hot and sweet varieties of Hungarian paprika all derive from the deep red pepper that was brought into the country in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries by Turks, who got pimenton from the Spanish. Paprika is a much-evolved Slavic word derived from many reiterations for pepper.

Although Hungarian pepper heritage is centuries old, as a spice paprika didn’t really become popular until about one hundred years ago. Peasants adopted the spice first before the upper classes discovered it and added it to gourmet cuisine. By the 19th century, paprika was the dominant spice in Hungarian kitchens and restaurants. All paprika was hot until the 1920s, when a plant breeder discovered a mild version of the pepper and created the sweet paprika that’s so popular for most dishes today. Paprika is, of course, the perfect ingredient in Goulash and Chicken Paprikash, plus Hungarian sausages, soups, sauces and Lecsó.

Here are Mike’s instructions for making Lecsó…

“Fry onions. Lots of onions. Stir in slices of Keilbasi and salt. Then add a bunch of chopped peppers. Then a little while later, add the diced tomatoes. Use twice as many peppers as tomatoes.  Simmer for an hour. Serve over rice.”

If  you want to add paprika to your recipe, lower the heat while sautéing the onions before stirring in the paprika, says Mike.

Below: Not Philly’s Italian Market… Packaged ground and whole dried paprika for sale at a Belgrade market.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project


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

Hot Water

March 10, 2012

2011©Nick Blank Photo

This hot pepper was not on display at this year’s annual International Flower Show, hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at  Philadelphia’s Convention Center, even though this year’s theme was “Hawaii: Islands of Aloha.”

Former Philadelphian Nick Blank, who lives in Honolulu, sent this photo of a Hawaiian Chile Pepper, a very common hot ornamental that grows with abandon in his and many neighbors’ backyards. Dozens of other hot pepper varieties also grow all over the lush Islands.

Nick’s neighbor, Lynn, is native Hawaiian and her husband is Japanese. They use this particular pepper to make “Pepper Water,” a popular condiment that’s splashed on just about everything to give foods additional tang and kick.

Lynn’s recipe is simple: Add boiling water to some dried hot peppers in a clean, sterilized jar. Let cool, cover and refrigerate.

Like most things in Hawaii, these peppers are not a native species. In a land with a 12-month growing season, perfect weather – even when it rains – and near perfect soil conditions, Hawaii has long been an easy landing strip for introducing all manner of plants and produce from other parts of the world.

In the olden days, smart world adventurers brought their own food with them when headed for parts unknown. Polynesians came to the isolated archipelago possibly as early as 300-500 A. D. and soon colonized it with taro, sweet potato and yam, breadfruit and bananas, coconuts and sugarcane, as well as pigs, chickens and dogs.

Much later, in the late 1700s, roving seafarers like Captain Cook brought European animals and seeds. Another sea captain, George Vancouver, gifted a few longhorn cattle to Hawaiian King Kamehameha I, who allowed the critters to run wild on The Big Island, safe from all predators, including man. The lusty cattle begat unchecked until the King hired John Parker in 1809 to capture and domesticate the feral beasts. By 1830, beef was soon added to local menus and salt beef became a major export. To this day, the Parker Ranch on the island of Hawaii is one of the largest free-range beef cattle ranches in the US.

253Pineapple, from Brazil originally, wasn’t cultivated here until after 1813. In the mid-1800s, Hawaii’s bounty supplied California’s 49ers with Irish and sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins, oranges, molasses, and coffee.

By the late 1800s, as certain commercial food growers became more dominant, Hawaii’s ruling monarchy was deposed by European and American business interests, with support from some US government agencies. Plantation crops of pineapple and sugarcane for export took over much of the agricultural landscape on the Islands. Hundreds of Asians and other ethnic groups immigrated to work on the plantations, contributing even more culinary influences to Hawaiian menus. Puerto Rican and Vietnamese immigrants followed in subsequent decades.

Where does the hot pepper figure into all this diversity? No doubt many varieties of hot peppers arrived via various immigration channels over the years, but credit for the Hawaiian Chile Pepper is usually given to Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and the Azores, who arrived on the Islands in the 19th century to work the fields and ranches. They also introduced the ukulele, as well as Pão Doce, a traditional Portuguese sweet bread. The popular brand King’s Hawaiian is a staple in supermarkets everywhere.

Hawaii’s agricultural heritage continues to evolve. Over the past decade, the pineapple and sugarcane industries have relocated their operations to other shores, and the former growing fields lie fallow on the garden islands. Small organic farms and specialty growers of Kona coffee, Macadamia nuts, and Maui onion and limes continue to thrive, yet more than 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is still imported!

Meanwhile, five major companies that dominate the world seed industry are buying and leasing prime Hawaiian farmland. The latest agricultural frontier in Hawaii? GMO corn seed.

History of Agriculture in Hawaii, State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture,
•    •    •
“King Corn Takes Root in Hawaii,” by Paul Voosen of Greenwire, published August 20, 2011, The New York Times.
•    •    •
Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

Pick a Pickled Pepper

January 4, 2012

Here’s a recipe for Green Pepper MThe Original White House Cook Book, 1887 Editionangoes from the 1887 edition of The Original White House Cook Book.

“Select firm, sound, green peppers, and add a few red ones, as they are ornamental and look well upon the table. With a sharp knife remove the top, take out the seed, soak overnight in salt water, then fill with chopped cabbage and green tomatoes, seasoned with salt, mustard seed and ground cloves. Sew on the top. Boil vinegar sufficient to cover them, with a cup of brown sugar, and pour over the mangoes. Do this three mornings, then seal.”

Below are Ellen M. Emlen’s recipes for Pickled Mangoes and Pickled Peppers from her handwritten collection of 19th-century recipes published in 2011 by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


“Choose the mangoes when green, lay them in salt & water till they are yellow. Then green them with weak vinegar & water. Cut a piece out of the side & take out the seeds. Prepare the following stuffing, which is sufficient for 18 mangoes – A pint of mustard seed, 2 oz. cloves, 2 oz. allspice, 2 oz. whole black pepper (all of them whole/ 4 sticks horseradish chipped, wet all these with vinegar, stuff the mangoes, put a clove of garlic in each, & tie the piece in which you cut out; put them in the jars & cover with boiling vinegar – When you green the mangoes, you must put cabbage leaves all round the kettle.”


“Cut a slit in the peppers, put them in an earthen jar, put cabbage leaves over them & 2 handfuls of salt on the top. Boil vinegar & fill the jar completely. Let them stand 3 days; then boil the same vinegar & put on them again – repeat this every 2 or 3 days, until the peppers are of a fine green color when they will be fit for use.”

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

Pick of the Peck

August 28, 2011


What to do with the bounty?

Nothing beats homemade roasted hot or sweet peppers which can be added to salads, sauces and soups or turned into various condiments, like Piri Piri sauce.

However, before you start cooking, take care handling hot peppers. The hottest parts of the peppers are the skins, seeds and soft white ribs on the inside of the peppers. You should also rate the hotness of your peppers before handling them.

You can consult Scoville scores, developed in 1912 by American pharmacologist Wilber Scoville, which measures capsaicin levels, or you can rely on a simpler gauge for hotness — reputation.

Common hot pepper varieties are Jalapeno, Habanero and Scotch Bonnets. Much, much hotter varieties than these exist, but frankly they probably shouldn’t be eaten at all. Indeed, malevolent uses are planned for the latest, hottest pepper of them all, the Naga Viper.

Roast peppers in a hot oven, under the broiler or over the open flame of the gas jets on your stove. The best flavor comes from roasting over a wood fire from an outdoor grill or fireplace. Place well-washed whole hot peppers on foil or a metal baking sheet if cooking in the oven or under the broiler. Place peppers directly on the grill rack or use extra long grilling tongs or skewers to hold them over the fire of an outdoor grill, stove or fireplace.

Turn peppers as they blacken on all sides. Avoid rough handling or piercing the softening skins so you don’t lose the juices that have built up inside. Put hot, fully charred peppers into a glass or stainless bowl and cover with foil or a lid to continue steaming and softening the peppers. Avoid standing too near the bowl as the rising steam has oils from the hot peppers that can burn your eyes or nose. Cool peppers thoroughly before handling them.

You can wait up to a couple of days before handling them again – the flavor will only improve! When you do get around to peeling the peppers wear vinyl food handler gloves to protect yourself, especially if handling very hot peppers like Scotch Bonnets or Habanero, and be very sure not to accidentally touch your face in the process. Use small tongs or a paring knife to carefully trim off the burnt parts; slice open the peppers and pull out the stem holding the seeds and rib membranes as best as you can. Retain the steeped juices and some seeds and add them to your prepped peppers. Slice, dice, mash or leave peppers whole for stuffing – whatever the recipe dictates.

Plain roasted peppers keep in the fridge for up to one week or more. They freeze well too. Canning takes a bit more work but is certainly worth it if you’re putting up large quantities. Local blog “Food In Jars” is an excellent resource for canning all kinds of foods.

Culinary historian William Woys Weaver talks about a popular hot pepper vinegar in his book, “Sauerkraut Yankees,” which offers recipes from an 1848 Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook.

Says Weaver: “Among Philadelphians, pepper vinegar was used with the same frequency (and just as sparingly) as horseradish or its closest cousin Tabasco. It was sometimes poured hot over salad greens, added to pickles and sauces, or even sprinkled over scrapple, sausage, and other pork products. It appears to have been one of those hot West Indian things that gained popularity in the United States during the late 18th and 19th centuries but is now gratefully forgotten, retired by the much milder Creole chili sauces, which are now as popular among the Pennsylvania Germans as they are anywhere.”

It’s easy enough to create your own version of this hot pepper vinegar using your freshly made roasted hot peppers. Add a tablespoon of mashed or diced roasted hot peppers to a clean, sterilized glass jar; add one cup boiling white vinegar, apple cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar to the jar. Cool mixture and cap jar with sterilized lid. Keep refrigerated.

Enjoy, sparingly.


William Woys Weaver, Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods and Foodways, published by Stackpole Books, 2002.

Pepper photo courtesy of  free-extras.com images

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

%d bloggers like this: