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



A Sowing Primer

April 29, 2012

Early Spring weather has restless gardeners eager to get outside and plant the garden quick! But it’s still too early to sow pepper seeds outdoors: the nights are too cool. Best to start those seeds indoors or under the care of a hotbed or cold frame outdoors. That’s what Bernard M’Mahon recommends.

Growing Hot Peppers

America’s first-ever gardening handbook, published in Philadelphia by Bernard M’Mahon in 1806, is a handy primer for home gardeners of all abilities.

The handbook’s full title says it all: The American Gardener’s Calendar; Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States: Containing a Complete Account of All the Work Necessary to be Done in the Kitchen-Garden, Fruit Garden, Orchard, Vineyard, Nursery, Pleasure-ground, Flower-garden, Greenhouse, Hot-house, and Forcing Frames, for Every Month in the Year; with Ample Practical Directions for Performing the Same.”

Search inside its pages and find step-by-step instructions of what to do, when and how. Here’s what M’Mahon says about planting capsicums or peppers in April:

“Sow capsicums, towards the end of this month, on a warm border, to produce plants, for planting out towards the latter end of  May, or beginning of June; the large heart-shaped capsicum, is in the greatest estimation for pickling, but the small upright kinds, are the strongest for pepper: if they are desired at an early season, sow them on a slight hot-bed, the beginning of this month, and with due care they will be fit to transplant, where they are to remain, towards the middle of May. In the eastern states, the tenth of May will be soon enough to sow them, in the open ground, but in the southern states, they may be sown any time this month.”

Spicy Pepper Plants from Hot Head Heaven

Many modern-day seed merchant catalogs and websites present equally helpful growing tips about starting pepper plants from seed.

“You’ll find an enormous range of choices available from seed,” writes Jill M. Nicolaus for Dave’s Garden, which publishes a “Seed Starting 101” guide for all kinds of garden plants. “If you’re new to growing peppers, you’ll be amazed at the varieties available at seed racks, in catalogs, and on on-line websites.”

Bartram’s Garden has just published its latest garden catalog, offering ten kinds of sweet and hot peppers.

Sweet varieties include the Bullnose Red Bell, originally introduced from India in 1759; the Doe Hill Golden Bell, a pre-1900 family heirloom from Virginia, described as a “cheese-shaped pepper”;  and the Chervena Chushka, a Bulgarian heirloom traditionally used for roasting.

Hot peppers include the Bulgarian Carrot; Fish Peppers from William Woys Weaver’s collection of Afro-American varieties; the Hinkelhatz, a rare Pennsylvania Dutch heirloom,  used mostly for pickling and pepper vinegar; Long Red Cayenne, a pre-1827 heirloom; Habanero, a fiery Scotch-Bonnet variety originally from Cuba or the Yucatan and a key ingredient in West Indian jerk sauces; Willing’s Barbados, a useful ornamental with tiny peppers, featured before on this blog; and, the Numex Twilight, a hybrid ornamental, originally developed by New Mexico State University, that’s also good for cooking.

Most growers warn gardeners that unlike tomatoes or some other kitchen garden plants, peppers take a bit more patience as they’re slow to germinate and picky about soil and temperature conditions.

Here’s another gardening website that feature tips for growing hot peppers GrowingAnything.com

Photo credits

“Growing Hot Peppers,” a Facebook photo essay web page.

“Spicy Pepper Plants,” from Hot Head Heaven, featured on the Daily Loaf website.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

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