Cooking from the Garden: Peppers

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Cooking from the Garden: Peppers

When I was growing up, the mention of “peppers” as an ingredient would make me cringe.

All I could imagine were the stuffed, soggy green “sweet” peppers that made an occasional appearance on our dinner table. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized there are many other peppers to grow and eat – fortunately, very few of them taste anything like the ubiquitous green peppers for which I never did develop an appetite.

Growing peppers in the garden requires one very specific thing: heat. Whether you choose to grow hybrid jalapenos that produce well in containers like the Fiskars® Terra Box railing Planter shown above, field rows of sweet-spicy Poblano peppers to fill with meat and spices, or miniscule chili peppers to dry for pots of chili to serve during the Super Bowl, your crop will need lots of sun and plenty of warm days. Some pepper growing enthusiasts will go so far as to suggest that the hotter and drier the summer, the hotter the pepper. But, in reality on excessively hot days, even the hardiest pepper plant may fail to fruit and flower until the heat wave begins to wane. Treating your plants to consistent sunlight, watering and nutrients is the best way to maximize your crop.

Peppers are usually defined by their heat level, which categorizes them as either “sweet” or “hot”. And, there are some significant ranges in that large “hot” category, so watch out!

Sweet peppers generally have little or no heat to them at all. The red, orange and yellow bell peppers offered nearly year-round at the grocery store typify the sweet group. Too, green bell peppers, which are really unripe peppers, also fall into the sweet grouping. With little heat to burn your tongue, these are ideal for a crudités platter.

Tomatillo Pepper Plant

Mildly spiced “hot” peppers include jalapenos, some pepperoncini, and tomatillos. This group can add a bit of spice to a dish, but they usually won’t leave you fanning your tongue.

Jalapenos are perfect chopped into a fresh summer salsa. Pepperoncinis are wonderful for pickling. And tomatillos are tangy and ideal roasted on the grill and frozen for use in winter soups and stews; they also make a delicious green salsa that is more sweet than hot.

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Medium-heat peppers are just the thing for adding quite a bit of heat to a dish without leaving your senses seared. Consider forest-green Poblanos to stuff and bake with lamb, herbs, pine nuts and raisins. (Hint: the sweet raisin is a fantastic foil to the mild, spicy heat.) Like a wax pepper? Try growing Hungarian Wax peppers to stuff with a cheesy blend, or try cutting them into a spicy pickling mix.

So you want to try some blazing hot options? Thai bird chili peppers are tiny, but they pack a lot of heat.  They are also multi-colored and beautiful in the garden. And, the well-known tangerine-orange habanero is terrific beauty, but respect its heat or you might get burned!

Tiny Peppers forming from Pollinated flowers

Whether you choose one of these options or any of the many others available, your plants will begin to flower as days lengthen and warm. From the flowers, peppers will begin to form. They may be harvested green, but flavor, color and storability will improve once they fully ripen.

Once harvested, peppers can be used fresh or stored in any number of ways. Most peppers dehydrate well. Roasting over an open flame will impart new flavors – whether used immediately or preserved for winter by freezing. Dried peppers are also fantastic used in any number of canning recipes; just be sure to follow canning safety precautions. Or, string them up to dry as a kitchen decoration or hostess gift during the holiday season.

If you like the heat, but maybe want just a bit less of it in your dish, remove and discard the seeds and interior white pith, which are the hottest part of any pepper plant. If you wear contact lenses, consider taking them out before you coat your fingertips with pepper oil while you chop. Even after a thorough washing, I’ve seared my eyeballs with the residual oils, which left me blinking through tears of pain.