PEPPERS – GARDENING TIPS FROM THE CULINARY VIEW
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
Did you know peppers – hot or sweet – are really berries?
October is the first full month of autumn and can be a cornucopia. Cool season crops are starting to come in and warm season vegetables get a second wind in the milder weather. Peppers are one of the warm season vegetables that really perk up this month.
Peppers (Capsicum ), many of which are native to the American tropics and sub tropics, are a member of the Solanaceae family along with tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes. Based on remains found in Mexico, peppers have been used for food since at least 3000 BC. Peppers are eaten fresh but also are the source of many spices including paprika, chili and cayenne. Note that I’m talking about the vegetable peppers and not the peppercorn (Piperaceae) – a totally different spice which grows on a perennial tropical vine.
Botanically peppers are a fruit – actually a berry – that we use as a vegetable. We generally divide our pepper varieties into two categories, those that are hot and those that are not – often called sweet peppers. The heat in a hot pepper comes primarily from the chemical capsaicin. Most of the capsaicin in a hot pepper is concentrated in the interior ribs of the fruit to which the seeds are attached. A hot pepper can be made somewhat milder by carefully removing the interior seeds and ribs.
The amount of heat in peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units or SHU. Sweet peppers like bell peppers are generally in the 0 to 100 SHU. Jalapenos through cayenne peppers range from 2 to 30 thousand SHU while habanero peppers can be 10 times that hot. Two of the current hottest peppers, the Carolina Reaper and Smith’s Dragon Breath, range from 2 to 2.5 million SHU. Eating those can reportedly stop your breathing – personally I’m not interested in trying that out. Jalapeno peppers and hot banana peppers are the hottest I generally grow and most of those are for friends that like hot peppers. I’m a bit of a tenderfoot when it comes to really hot peppers and much prefer the sweet peppers.
Peppers are a perennial plant where they don’t freeze but are most often grown as an annual in our climate. Like most vegetables, peppers like a sunny location and well drained soil with good organic matter content and moderate fertility. They like even moisture but no water logging. Although plants will tolerate temperatures in the mid 50’s, this is a warm season crop that prefers both soil and air temperatures at 70 and above. Plants are very frost sensitive and can be damaged or killed by a freeze if not protected. Peppers are usually started indoors and then the plants set out in the garden from Spring through Summer. The flowers of peppers are self fertile but do even better with help from insect pollination. Really hot or cold conditions (below 60 or above 95) tends to reduce pollination. Maturing fruit can sunscald when conditions are really hot, so the plants benefit from some shading from afternoon sun. Because of their moderate size, peppers make a wonderful container plant.
There are hundreds of hot and sweet varieties of peppers to choose from. Sizes range from the tiny chili tepin (the official state native pepper of Texas), to the midsized jalapeno (the official state pepper of Texas), to the bell and others that can weigh over a pound. Most peppers start out green but different varieties mature into a whole range of colors including white, yellow, orange, red, purple and even chocolate. Because of their colorful fruit, there are now a number of pepper varieties that are grown for their ornamental value. Like lots of fruits and vegetables, peppers are a good source of fiber plus a host of minerals and vitamins – particularly vitamins A and C. In fact, a half cup serving of ripe bell pepper provides 300% of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C. Harvested green, peppers have a distinct vegetable flavor. Left to fully mature, peppers will develop maximum sugar and have a more fruity characteristic. They are most plump if harvested in the cool of the morning. I usually use garden shears to snip off the larger varieties to avoid damage to the plant or fruit.
Peppers are a significant part of a host of cuisines with spicy varieties providing most of the heat in Central and South American, Asian and Indian dishes to name a few. My Cajun cooking heritage demands the use of the “Holy Trinity” (bell peppers, onions and celery) in almost all savory dishes along with a dash of cayenne for a bit of heat . Throughout Texas, jalapenos – whether stuffed, pickled or in queso or salsa are practically their own food group. One of my personal favorite side dishes is roasted ripe sweet peppers. Roasted ripe peppers also make a wonderful soup and a great pasta sauce – kind of like their cousin the tomato. Bell peppers along with other warm season vegetables make up a classic ratatouille. Fresh sweet peppers add wonderful crunch and color to salads. Chopped up surplus peppers also freeze well for use later in cooked dishes.
Whether you prefer your peppers hot or mild, this native of the Americas is easy to grow and tasty to eat.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor