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In the Garden

Burning Love--There's a Pepper for Every Palate

August 10, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Peppers have beat out tomatoes as our summer favorite. Sure, we still grow some tasty tomatoes, including odd, liver-colored Russian heirlooms. But it is the peppers growing around them that are getting all the attention--they're just so useful for flavoring food. It seems like every meal benefits from their presence.

Peppers find their way into the morning eggs and potatoes, into noontime sandwiches, and into everything from rice to pasta at night. Extras are dried or pickled. The braised chicken my wife makes with peppers, herbs, onions, garlic and olive oil has a sauce so thick and good that I find myself pushing the chicken aside and eating just the peppers.

Our usual favorite for flavoring is one called poblano, or ancho, when it is dried, but this summer my wife is cooking with some brand-new varieties I raised from seed sown back in April. They are trial varieties and include several that will be new introductions in seed catalogs for 2001. One is an All-America Selections winner.

For many years, most new peppers and most All-America Selections were big, mild bell peppers. But that has changed. None of these new peppers is a bell, though one comes close. Bells have their uses, but for flavoring there are more exciting choices.

'Fooled You' is a brand-new jalapeno that is not hot, hence the name. Developed for the salsa industry, the pepper has all the distinctive taste of a jalapeno but none of the heat. This variety grows to become a little larger than a normal jalapeno, and it should be picked only when it turns red. It will be in seed catalogs for 2001.

The pepper that's an All-America Selection for 2001 is named 'Giant Marconi,' and it's a mild, sweet pepper, vaguely like a bell in size and taste, that can be sliced, stuffed, baked or roasted. Though it won an award, it actually began life as a breeder's mistake. Its distinctiveness and size caught the eye of hybridizers, and the pepper was entered in the All-America trials. Contenders for All-America Selections awards are grown in several parts of the country for several years before being chosen, or rejected. This prizewinning pepper can be picked green or red and seed will be available next year.

If it's heat and powerful taste you're after, you'll like the new 'Kung Pao,' a thin red pepper that someone figured would be perfect for Chinese Kung Pao chicken. It's about twice as long as the traditional Asian pepper and twice as hot as a full-strength jalapeno. After cooking out all the flavor, you might want to push the red husk and seeds aside, though some people eat them. Pick this pepper when it is red and wear gloves when handling it--hot peppers can badly burn your hands. Be careful when washing, chopping or processing hot peppers because the dust and juice can get in your eyes and nose and make life pretty miserable.

The spiciness of peppers is rated in units called Scovilles. A bell pepper rates 0 Scovilles, while a jalapeno rates 5,000 Scovilles and the new 'Kung Pao' gets a toasty 10,000. Neither is really hot when compared to a super-hot habanero,] which earns a sizzling 200,000 Scovilles.

Jim Waltrip of seed producer Seminis Garden in Oxnard said the hottest pepper variety is one sold as 'Caribbean Red' with an astounding 445,000 Scovilles--more than 80 times hotter than a jalapeno. "You can use them as weapons," said Waltrip. For those crazy enough to grow this flaming variety, it can be found in the Burpee Seed catalog (Warminster, PA 18974, http://www.burpee.com).

In our coastal-plain garden in West Los Angeles, hot peppers take a long time to develop, though they keep producing right into winter. Peppers, like tomatoes, love heat and sun and, as beach-goers know, that's never a given near the coast.

'Gypsy' is a pepper we tried this summer that ripens sooner than most, even planted near the coast. It's a hybrid sweet pepper that bears about two to three weeks ahead of any other, and it produces lots of peppers. It tastes like a Hungarian pepper and has a similar look. It was the main pepper in that sauce I mentioned earlier. We pick this one when it is yellow.

Another nice thing about peppers is that they are pretty impervious to pests and diseases. All we've found on ours is that little spiny leafhopper, called the Keelbacked Treehopper. They love plants in the solanum family, like potato vine (Solanum jasminoides), tomatoes and peppers.

Leafhoppers are easy to control if you keep after them. Every few days, we would check the peppers for the prickly black larvae. You can't simply squish them because they are so prickly, so we carry a small spray bottle loaded with a dilute pyrethrum, a botanical insecticide with a very low toxicity. We spray only the larvae--so as not to kill any beneficial insects nearby--and we must be diligent, since ants may carry new larvae onto the pepper plants that very next day.

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