My house smells of hot peppers. Who knew that a dehydrator filled with them would send clouds of pungent oil into the air. At this rate I could probably produce highly effective pepper spray, may soon have to don goggles. It’s a good thing I can throw open windows and doors. It’s a good thing I have a tolerant family.
Visitors gape at the sixteen varieties ripening in the garden, each distinct in flavor, color and heat. “Sixteen? Whatever for?” Whatever for? This chile smorgasbord allows me to explore Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Southern European flavors in my kitchen—they add subtle degrees of texture, depth and complexity, not just heat. Though they can certainly do that big time.
Indeed, when I was young and knew everything, I bragged about loving all hot peppers—the hotter the better–that is, until I encountered some truly volcanic ones in Sri Lanka. Desperate for relief from the invisible flames searing my mouth after a single bite of a white shrimp curry, I dove into raw, spiced onions placed on the table for just that purpose. From then on, before I ever let a pepper pass my lips, I’d first watch my boyfriend (now husband) taste it. We called it the Roper Indicator: a mild pepper caused sweat to break out across his brow, a hot one across the bridge of his nose, a fiery one, well, just about everywhere. I had no idea back then that another system existed for measuring pepper heat, the Scoville Heat Index, created in 1912 by chemist William Scoville (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scoville_scale for more information). I just knew from spending six months in Asia that some peppers make your teeth burn.
In Vermont, I rarely find such peppers, perhaps the Scotch Bonnets I grew last year and no one ate because they flew past flavor to sheer heat measured in the heights of the Scoville red zone. I’ve grown tiny fiery Thai peppers for years, as well as rich jalapeños, mild cherry and spicy arbol.
But I’ve had to send away for dried ancho, guajillo, aji, pasilla, New Mexican, mulato; I’ve been reduced to purchasing not-always-perfectly-fresh serrano and poblano when I can find them. I’ve bought powdered paprika and chili powder and pepper flakes, salsa and harissa and Vietnamese hot sauce because I assumed I couldn’t grow varieties to dry for flakes, to grind for powder, to can for hot sauce.
Not this year.
Growing foods that anchor the rich variety of eating traditions of Vermonters means, for one, growing chili peppers. Or at least giving it a go. Imagine cuisine from Mexico or Morocco, India or Argentina, Ethiopia or Vietnam without a note of hot pepper. Impossible. Scouring seed catalogs and internet garden sites this past winter, I found sixteen varieties to start under grow lights. In April the seedlings went outside under tunnels to shiver and fidget, before heading into the open weather in May to sulk for a good month. During June and July’s wild extremes of weather, they looked stunned and I fretted. Perhaps it wasn’t possible to get hot peppers to flower, to fruit, to ripen, to taste right. Just as I can grow oregano that seems excellent until I try the incredible version my daughter’s boyfriend brought us from his mother’s Sicilian garden, perhaps I can grow peppers but without the full flavors of their native climes.
And then midsummer, the spindly plants fluffed out their leaves, called bees to their many flowers and grew tall—the poblano/ancho growing up the neighboring cedar. Myriad peppers of many shapes and sizes are exchanging green and yellow for red and orange, their flavors intensifying and deepening. Yes, I lost a couple of plants along the way, but not to critters—Vermont varmints apparently have yet to develop a taste for the spicy–and some fruit look a little thin-walled, a little meager, but most plants not only survived, they’re packed with fat, happy, tasty peppers. Seven of my twenty-two raised beds are devoted to some 200 pepper plants. Yes, 200. If things keep moving along as they are now, and the first frost holds off, soon some 2,000-4,000 hot peppers will overwhelm my kitchen.
Yes, the house is misted with pepper perfume. I’m drying them whole and in flakes, making hot pepper jellies (mild and hot), grinding chili powder and paprika, making hot sauces and salsas. I still refer to the Roper Indicator before sampling any pepper, of course, and I might yet have to bring out the goggles, but mostly, I’m finding my Vermont garden and kitchen wonderfully spicy places.
NOTE: Do take care when handling hot peppers, especially cutting and deseeding them. Wash your hands carefully after working with them or wear rubber gloves. Avoid touching your eyes after handling them!
Hot Chile Oil (2 cups)
Adapted from River Cottage Preserves Handbook
- 1 3/4 cups olive oil (some cooks prefer to use a neutral oil, such as grapeseed or corn)
Handful of fresh hot chiles, split open (how many and what kind are up to you—experiment!)
- One teaspoon black peppercorns (sometimes I use red)
Pack the chiles and peppercorns into sterilized, dry pint canning jar. Heat the olive oil (you won’t use quite all of it, but it’s good to have enough—I use the leftover bit in that day’s cooking) to 104 degrees and pour over the peppers. Let it infuse for a couple of weeks, then strain and rebottle.
You will have to play around with the kinds of chiles and the balance between them and the garlic powder, cumin and oregano until you come up with your own pleasing version that suits the dish.
- Mix of dried chiles—I usually use ancho, New Mexican and Thai with a pasilla thrown in for good measure.
- Cumin seeds
- Dried oregano
- Garlic powder (pinch)
Toast the chiles and cumin in a skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan to make sure they don’t burn. Once they become fragrant and a bit brown, add the oregano and garlic powder. Cook for just a few moments then cool and grind in a spice grinder (or coffee grinder). If you don’t need a fine powder, use a mortar and pestle for the grinding.
Hot chili paste used in North African cuisine; I use it in sautéed greens, couscous, chicken marinades, on sandwiches, atop pizza…
Note: North African sources seem to use no or few tomatoes in their recipes; American and British recipes include the tempering sweetness of tomatoes. All use both caraway and coriander seeds. I mix it up a bit here. For excellent traditional harissa recipes, see Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food and Paula Wolffert’s The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen (she has a terrific Tunisian one with rose petals and cinnamon).
Makes about a half cup
- 2 ounces fresh hot chiles (You can also make it with dried chiles toasted and rehydrated in hot water. Play around with the flavors and heat of your chiles.
- 2 sundried tomatoes packed in olive oil
- 2 large cloves garlic (or to taste)
- 2 fat shallots
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- one-half teaspoon coarse salt
- Olive oil
- Lemon juice
De-stem the chiles and remove all or some of the seeds and membrane if you are concerned about the heat (most of the heat resides in the seeds). Mince by hand or food processor. Mince the tomatoes and the shallots.
In a mortar and pestle, grind the caraway and coriander and salt to a coarse powder (you can also use powdered spices though they won’t carry the same heady perfume). Add the garlic and mash, then the chiles, tomatoes and shallots, working until they all come together into a paste. You can also use a food processor after hand-grinding the spices.
Taste and add a splash or two of lemon juice or oil from your sundried tomatoes or extra olive oil to bind the flavors and thin if the paste is too thick. Place in a small pot on the stove, bring to a simmer and cook 10-15 minutes. Pack into a sterilized jar, leaving an inch of headroom. Cover completely with olive oil. Seal and store in the refrigerator or freeze.