When I was growing up in upstate New York the only peppers I knew of were bell peppers. Yucky green bell peppers.
Oh how I hated them!
And worse was that my mother put them in just about everything from omelets to goulash to spaghetti sauces to salads to Italian sausage sandwiches.
However, when we moved to Texas, over time, I was slowly introduced not only to Mexican food (my all time favorite followed only by spicy Chinese or Thai dishes) but to peppers yet again. They were everywhere — and my friends even ate them out of hand like a Yankee might munch on an apple. Of course this time I am speaking of jalapeños.
At first I couldn’t imagine why. I mean I hated bells and if you added heat what was the purpose I wondered? However as I grew used to them, and the heat, I realized that not all peppers taste the same. I also realize that if you are not a hot pepper eater you might think like I did and imagine them as just fiery bell peppers in miniature but that’s not the case at all. Peppers have both flavor and heat variations and there are many different varieties to experiment with.There are jalapeños for our Mexican food, paprika for sprinkling on dishes and of course deviled eggs, Thai peppers to add SPICE to the national dish of Larb, and cayenne for the world famous chili. The famous Tabasco sauce is a very specific pepper. Around the world peppers have been used for, well, centuries. Longer in your history if any of your family members are “native” to the Americas. Columbus of course introduced them to the Eastern part of the world at the same time as potatoes and tomatoes. So, before he came sailing over here, there was no such thing as spicy Thai nor was the Szechwan district of China known for it’s fiery hot dishes.
And just to give you a heads up on why people might eat hot peppers: they are filled chock full of vitamins. They actually have more vitamin c than oranges and are good sources of magnesium, iron, thiamine,niacin, riboflavin, and vitamin A. They also have a compound in them that acts directly on pain receptors and stimulates endorphins which in turn produce pleasurable feelings.
Today we can grow many different types of peppers during the summer and they are easily stored for the winter months. Peppers to me are one of the easiest “spices” to grow. Give them some warmth and good drainage and away they go without really many pests or problems. I mean what bug in it’s right mind wants to munch all day on a jalapeño?! Occasionally peppers, just like tomatoes, can get blossom end rot. That’s when a black spot starts on the bottom of the fruits. It’s easily solved by watering as the cause is low water/drought that inhibits calcium use in the plant and fruits. Once you give them a bit of water, or it rains, the newer or unaffected fruits will be fine. Anther common “problem” with hot peppers is corking. Corking is when they have brown lines on them that kind of reminds me of the brown webbing on muskmelons. This webbing, aka corking, is fine to eat and some people say it is a sign of an extra hot pepper—others disagree. Either way don’t let it bother you.
I know that the end of summer is here now and peppers are not something you will be setting out any time soon. However, this winter, when the seed catalogs come in….really look at the different types of peppers you can grow. One plant/seed I have trouble finding is HOT Hungarian paprika. Mild is what you end up with when you purchase in the store. If you mail order from a specialty place you can get hot but it is still not very easy to find. In the end you can try many types of peppers because the plants usually pump out so many fruits that only a few plants of each type are really needed—even if you are a big spicy food eating person. This year we have habanero peppers –very hot with a fruity scent to them, jalapeño peppers—with too many uses to list, Poblano peppers –good for making adobo sauce, seasoning taco meat and stuffing, and cayenne peppers—good for spicing up things without adding a “flavor” to them. I use all of these year round. Next year I think I will try a few more types too including a thai pepper for my stir fry oil (ouch!).
Drying peppers to use throughout the year is an easy thing to do even in my humid climate. Though I will admit I cut a slice in my larger peppers from about the middle down to the bottom (see picture) to help speed drying in my moist climate. For drying I have four ways that I use regularly for all my veggies: A home made screen that I put into my truck cab with the windows slightly cracked for ventilation. Cover the window with a blanket so the sun does not bleach your produce and do not use this with tomatoes—-you will have sticky all over your seats! I didn’t do that—but I know it can happen. This is my “home made” solar dryer. You could of course use a real solar dryer, purchased or homemade. Second is to lay them outside on a screen covered with a light cloth to keep off bugs, just make sure you watch out for rain and you bring them in at night so dew doesn’t get on them. You can also use your oven with the pilot light or leftover heat from baking. In both cases crack the oven slightly for ventilation and make sure temps aren’t too high. Lastly—an electric dryer. Sometimes I have to use this more than I would like. It depends on the time of year and how rainy/humid we are. You can also smoke your peppers first. That adds a unique flavor and specifically for jalapeños changes their name to chipotle peppers (though in this day and age many smoked peppers are now called chipotle even though it is suppose to be specific to jalapeños). If they don’t fully dry during smoking just finish as you normally would.
After your peppers are dried you can grind them in a cheap coffee grinder to powder them or keep them whole to soak later and chop for adding to dishes. If you don’t want to dry them you can make sauces, pickles, oils for frying, use them for stuffing and many other things because their uses are simply endless.
Lastly beyond eating capsicums you can also use the powders in your own homemade cough,cold and pain remedies. You’d have to check out a good herbal book for exact recipes but I personally know that drinking tea with cayenne powder in it will make your stuffed up nose open up when you have a cold or the flu.
So…to get you started here are some books and links for you to check out.
Beginning with Chiles by Mary Lou Creechan and Jim Creechan. Mostly based on the Mexican food culture but has really good recipes for storing, using, smoking, grinding, saucing, peeling and preparing peppers. Highly recommend this book.
Chili Pepper: the Zesty Life. A magazine you get by subscription. Great for a gift for that hard to gift someone. You can also check out some past articles on their site. This magazine has a different theme each time and many many recipes (including drinks and sweets!) along with facts, festivals and product reviews.
Visual guide to peppers plus substitutes: http://missvickie.com/howto/spices/peppers/peppersdict.html
An herbal remedy site: http://www.anniesremedy.com/chart_remedy.php?oil_ID=122
And an on line link to the book (you can actually read the pages). It is the Complete idiot’s guide herbal remedies and is located at Google Books. This of course would not be my number one pick for herbal books but it is free on line:
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