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Peppers : GARDEN FRESH : A Palette Full of Peppers

August 19, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Some peppers are perfect clotheshorses, trying on this hue, now that, until they're satisfied. In fact, if you left the green pepper named Blue Jay on its bush, it would in turn cloak itself in lilac, then grape, then pale orange before settling into plum red.

Actually, only in America are green peppers the norm. Europeans are mystified by our use of green peppers, the way we'd be if they chose to cook green tomatoes rather than red. Red, orange and gold sweet peppers are not only sweeter and milder in flavor, but their vitamin content is much higher.

Peppers in purples, however, are still on their way to turning red. Close your eyes and taste one and they're green--which they turn when cooked. Sweet Chocolate peppers, on the other hand, ripen rich chocolate brown, with warm red flesh beneath that's slightly spicy--certainly not chocolate-y.

So you can imagine the spectrum of peppers that exists, something you'll never see at any market. And there are plenty more shapes than blocky bells. There are bells twice as long as they are wide. There are peppers shaped like bananas, cherries, apples, tops and hearts, and like the horns of rams and bulls. There are peppers with thin walls and thick walls and walls in between. There are peppers whose shapes make them ideal for slicing, stuffing, frying, pickling and turning into paprika. All in peacock's colors.

Colors. Once in my college boarding house I was served a white plate heaped with mashed potatoes, fillet of sole, coleslaw and strips of daikon radish. The flavors may have been appealing, but I never found out--I lost my appetite over all that nasty white. If only the cook had had the wit to toss a ring of sweet red pepper on the plate. Better, red and green and gold. A small gesture, but crucial.

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Invaluable is the kaleidoscope of ripe sweet peppers! Something about the dazzle makes our mouths water. And isn't that the hope when we set food on the table?

Come spring, we can sow seeds of brilliant sweet peppers. Thinking about which to choose is a bit like leafing through a dozen Christmas catalogues. Things were calmer when you didn't know such treasure troves existed.

You can grow any pepper you want in glorious color if you have four months of sunny days in the 70s, nights in the 60s, light fertile soil, ample water and no pepper diseases in the neighborhood. If you're that lucky, then try the brilliant array of Dutch and French sweet peppers from Shepherd's--a seed company esteemed for the flavor and quality of their offerings. All bell-shaped, Quadrato d'Oro is rich gold; Vidi is intense deep red; Ariane is glowing orange, and Lilac Belle and Ivory Charm speak for themselves. A pinch of each of these seeds comes in Shepherd's Rainbow Pepper Collection--the seeds are pricey, so grow them with care.

If you have all the requisites for growing fine peppers except a long season, try earlier cultivars such as Earliest Red Sweet or Cadice for red bells, Gold Crest for gold.

If you have the soil and water but less warmth than you could hope for, there's always good old Gypsy. My first successful peppers grown in coolish Malibu were Gypsies--as they were here in my garden in the San Jacinto Mountains. They're an All America Selection, which means they can be expected to produce peppers throughout the country. Thin-walled and shaped like a longish top, hybrid Gypsy is yellow when unripe, turning bright orange-red. They are tasty. Although not as exciting as some of the flashiest, there are seasons and places when any peppers in the garden are exciting.

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When you're choosing which cultivars to grow, be aware that the number of days listed in the seed catalogue isn't days to glowing color, not at all. Customarily, the days are from setting pepper seedlings into the garden until the first fruits--which will be green and likely bitter. Allow at least another week to reach the sweet green stage--when the pepper has attained its size. You can tell because it will have the smooth, filled-out look of young maturity rather than an adolescent's air of still growing into its skin.

Then for the fruit to reach luscious red, orange or gold, you must patiently wait another four to six weeks. Harvest peppers by snipping them off the bush--never pull on a fruit, or the whole plant can come with it.

Before ordering seeds, inquire locally if there's any pepper disease so you can choose a resistant cultivar.

Wherever you live, sow seeds indoors in early spring. Here's the schedule: allow 10 day to 20 days for germination, six weeks to grow to transplanting size (although, if their roots have ample room, you can stretch this to nine or 10), and a week for hardening off (setting plants outdoors every day, then bringing them in at night).

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