Peppers

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Pepper varieties, thy name is legion. Big ones, little ones, hot ones, sweet ones, funny-shaped ones, funny-named ones and most of the colors of the rainbow except blue. If you think about it, food can taste pretty bland without a little seasoning, and peppers can certainly liven things up. Peppers were something the ranch wife could grow herself, unlike exotic spices. They also provided vitamin C, which was often deficient in the diets of those who lived where citrus fruits wouldn’t grow. Ecuador has archeological sites 6,000 years old that show peppers were grown and used by the inhabitants. Although Columbus and his personal physician probably took a few back to Spain, it was the Portuguese seagoing merchants who really spread peppers around the world.

Pepper Species

There are five domesticated species, all capsicums:

  • Annuum (bells, wax, cayenne, jalapenos and chiltepin)
  • Frutescens (malagueta, tabasco, Thai, prirpiri and Malawian Kambuzi)
  • Chinese (nagas, habanero, datil and Scotch bonnet)
  • Pubescens (rocoto)
  • Baccatum (aji).

These break down into three categories: bell, sweet and hot peppers. Pepper heat is rated according to the Scoville heat unit system, with a range from 0 in bell peppers to as much as 450,000 in habaneros. I hear there are some newer ones that average well over 1 million, but I’m darned if I know why anyone would want to eat something that could blister paint at 30 paces. In the bell group, I grow:

  • California Wonder – sometimes called Sweet California Wonder. It’s a 1928 variety that turns red when ripe, which is when we – or rather, my husband and the rest of the family – like them. I would be happy to like them but they don’t like me, and the resulting gastronomic distress leaves me miserable for hours. So I grow them for everybody else. When ripe, I understand it’s a very sweet pepper, nice and crunchy.
  • Cal Golden Wonder – basically the same as the California Wonder, only it ripens to yellow. It’s been around since the 1920s. Both of the Wonder peppers do better staked, as the fruit is heavy.
  • Bells also come in orange, purple and chocolate (color, not flavor), which I haven’t grown.

Bell peppers are sweet peppers, but the sweet pepper group extends far beyond this group of blocky, made-for-stuffing peppers. These are good ones:

  • Jimmy Nardello’s – this came from southern Italy with Giuseppe and Angella Nardello in 1887. Their son Jimmy grew it for many years in Naugatauk, Connecticut. It’s long, thin-skinned and typically used as a frying pepper, although it also dries well.
  • Sweet Red Cherry Pepper – these are my husband’s favorite for pickling whole. These have been around for a while; first mentioned in botanical texts in 1586.
  • Corno de Toro – the name translates as “Horn of the Bull” and you may hear them called Bullhorn or Cowhorn Peppers. Eight to 10 inches at maturity, when they turn deep red, Corno de Toro peppers arrived in the US in the early 1900s with Italian immigrants. Typically used as a frying pepper, but can also be grilled, roasted, stuffed or eaten fresh.

Hot Peppers I Like:

  • Anaheim – this is a typical chili pepper, although not a really hot one. This variety came to the Anaheim area with farmer Emilio Ortega in the early 1900s, although it probably originated in New Mexico. When dried, they’re known as chile seco del Norte. Some versions of this pepper that originate in New Mexico are hotter than the ones grown by Ortega. You won’t always know what you’re getting until you try some. These are the ones classically strung in ristras and hung to dry from the wooden beams of houses in the Southwest.
  • Ancho/Poblano – a pepper from Puebla, Mexico. Hotter when red and fully ripened. Lots of variability between peppers, even on the same plant – one may be quite hot while another is mild and relatively sweet (genetic diversity in action!). These are one of the major ingredients in chili powder.
  • Fish – this one either came to America with African slaves or was developed in the American South as part of slave cuisine; it’s been around since the American Civil War, at least, and is often used in spicy seafood dishes popular in the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. It’s a gorgeous pepper, with green leaves striped and splotched with white. The peppers change from cream with green stripes to orange with brown stripes and finally to red; all colors may be hanging on the plant at the same time.
  • Habañero Red – habañeros are hot little babies, and the Red Savina Habañero was the hottest pepper in the known world from 1994 to 2006, when it was kicked downstairs by the Naga Jolokia pepper. Although it’s not a hybrid, it is protected by a plant patent, which means you’re not supposed to save the seeds or sell them.
  • Tabasco – the pepper used in the famous sauce of the same name. These are bright red fruits that don’t hang down like other peppers but remain upright. The name came from the Mexican state of Tabasco. The pepper has been around since at least 1868, because that’s when the McIlhenny family started making Tabasco sauce in used cologne bottles (since they were small and inexpensive, and nobody in the South had much capital left after the Civil War).
  • Paprika – what would Hungarian stews and Chicken Paprikash be without this spice? The two best varieties are Dulce Rojo, which means “Sweet Red,” and Alma Spicy. The Alma has a good bit more bite to it. Feher Ozon is a Hungarian heirloom. Although it’s a dwarf plant, it should be staked, as it produces a lot of peppers and gets top-heavy. Beaver Dam also came to America from Hungary. Joe Hussli brought it to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin in 1912 and it got its name from the town. Another that must be staked, as the peppers can get very large. It likes dry conditions. Leutschauer originated in Slovakia, then traveled to the Matra mountains in Hungary some time in the 1800s. It is still grown in that area, but is considered a rare pepper in most of the world. I like to mix them in different proportions, tasting until the dish has just the right mix of flavors.
  • Long Thin Cayenne – we know this has been around since 1883, officially, but it’s believed to be pre-Columbian (at least 500 years old). Named after the river in French Guyana. Use with discretion, as they have a definite bite. These can be dried and ground for cayenne powder (actually, that’s true of all hot peppers).

If I could only have one – there’s no way you can only choose one, because the peppers are so different. But I would take the Jimmy Nardello frying pepper, the California Wonder sweet pepper, the Anaheim chile, the Red Savina habanero and the Dulce Rojo paprika. This group will give you plenty of variety.

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Eggplant Recipes

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As you should be able to tell by now, when it comes to cooking, most of the time I’m into easy. Easy eggplant is sliced, doused with a little olive oil and plunked on a hot grill. The heat eliminates the water, which is one of eggplant’s negative aspects when it comes to cooking. If you’re not grilling, don’t skip the salting step in the recipes below, especially for eggplant that will be breaded and fried or baked – it keeps the slices from turning to mush. Thinner slices are better for frying; they’ll cook completely and get crisp without burning. If you’re making ratatouille or another oven-cooked dish, you don’t need to salt.

Ratatouille

  • 2 large eggplants (about 2-2 1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • Table salt
  • 2 large zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds), scrubbed and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes (ripe), about 1 pound, cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
  • Ground black pepper

Place eggplant in large colander set over large bowl; sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt and toss to distribute salt evenly. Let eggplant stand at least 1 hour or up to 3 hours. Rinse eggplant well under running water to remove salt and spread in even layer on triple thickness of paper towels; cover with another triple thickness of paper towels. Press firmly on eggplant with hands until eggplant is dry and feels firm and compressed. Adjust one oven rack to upper-middle position and second rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 500 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with foil. Toss eggplant, zucchini, and 2 tablespoons oil together in large bowl, then divide evenly between prepared baking sheets, spreading in single layer on each. Sprinkle with salt and roast, stirring every 10 minutes, until well-browned and tender, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating baking sheets from top to bottom halfway through roasting time. Set aside. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion; reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and cook until they release their juices and begin to break down, about 5 minutes. Add roasted eggplant and zucchini, stirring gently but thoroughly to combine, and cook until just heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in parsley, basil, and thyme; adjust seasonings with salt and pepper and serve. (Can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days.)

Fried Eggplant

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 eggplants

Place eggplant in large colander set over large bowl; sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt and toss to distribute salt evenly. Let eggplant stand at least 1 hour or up to 3 hours. Rinse eggplant well under running water to remove salt and spread in even layer on triple thickness of paper towels; cover with another triple thickness of paper towels. Press firmly on eggplant with hands until eggplant is dry and feels firm and compressed. Slice eggplants crosswise, 1/2-inch thick. Stir together the flour, cornmeal, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper and place in a shallow bowl or baking pan. Beat eggs in a similar separate bowl/pan. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. A few at a time, dip the eggplant pieces into the egg, then into the flour mixture, then back into the egg, and back into the flour mixture. Fry the eggplant in the hot oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels, and serve immediately.

Stuffed Eggplant

  • 1 (1 1/2 pound) eggplant, halved lengthwise
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 pound bulk Italian sausage
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
  • 2 cups spaghetti or marinara sauce, divided
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush cut sides of eggplant with olive oil and place, cut-side up onto a baking sheet. Roast in preheated oven for 30 minutes, then remove and allow to cool slightly. Meanwhile, brown the Italian sausage in a skillet over medium-high heat; drain off the grease. Place into a mixing bowl, and season with garlic powder, Italian seasoning, and pepper. Stir in bread crumbs, 1/2 cup of sauce, 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese, and the beaten egg; mix well. Once the roasted eggplant has cooled enough to handle, scoop out the flesh to within 1/2-inch of the skin to create a shell. Roughly chop the eggplant meat, and fold into the sausage mixture. Divide evenly among the two eggplant shells, and sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake in preheated oven until the filling has set, and the cheese is bubbly and golden-brown, about 30 minutes. While the eggplant is baking, warm the remaining sauce in a saucepan over medium-low heat to serve with the eggplant.

Classic Caponata from Southeastern Sicily

  • 2 pounds black-skinned eggplant, cut into
  • 1½-inch cubes
  • Salt
  • 9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup red or white wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced, plus 2 large cloves, crushed
  • ½ pound red onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, thinly sliced into rounds
  • ½ cup thinly sliced celery half-moons
  • 15 pitted green olives, coarsely chopped
  • 16-ounce can tomatoes, drained
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil, plus more to taste
  • ⅓ cup coarsely chopped toasted almonds or pine nuts
  • ⅓ cup grated unsweetened chocolate (optional, but it adds depth of flavor)

Toss eggplant in a colander with several tablespoons of salt. Place colander in sink and let sit 30 minutes, allowing juices to drain. Rinse eggplant under water, then blot dry with a paper towel. Set aside.Heat oven to 425°F. Toss eggplant with 4 tablespoons oil, then spread out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast eggplant, turning once, until crisp and golden, 30 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine vinegar and sugar, and set aside to let sugar dissolve.In a large skillet over low heat, sauté sliced garlic, onions and carrots in 3 tablespoons oil, stirring frequently, until onions are soft and carrots are cooked through, about 20 minutes. (Be careful not to let onions brown.) Stir in pepper strips, celery and olives, and continue cooking gently over low heat until celery just barely cooks, about 2 minutes. Meanwhile, make tomato sauce: In small saucepan over low heat, sauté crushed garlic in 2 tablespoons oil until garlic has softened. Stir in drained tomatoes and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes have dissolved into a thick sauce, about 20 minutes. (If necessary, use a hand blender to purée tomatoes until smooth.) Stir in reserved vinegar-sugar mixture. Stir tomato sauce into sautéed vegetables. Gently fold in roasted eggplant, being careful not to smash vegetables. Remove from heat and stir in basil. Let rest, covered, several hours to allow flavors to meld. (Caponata can be made up to one week in advance. Store in refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.) Just before serving, garnish with almonds and chocolate, if using.

Creamy Summer Pasta with Eggplant and Tomatoes

  • 1 pound pasta
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium eggplant, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, whole
  • 2 teaspoons thyme
  • 1 pound cherry tomatoes cut in half, or diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup sliced olives
  • 1 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • Salt and freshly grated pepper to taste
  • 10-14 medium-sized basil leaves, chopped

While you prepare the eggplant, cook the pasta according to the package directions, rinse it and drain well. In the meantime, heat a large skillet or a deep pan over medium/high heat and add the olive oil, the eggplant, the garlic, the salt, the pepper, and the thyme. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until eggplant is soft and tender. Remove the garlic cloves from the pan, add the tomatoes and cook for 1 minute. Add the yogurt, half of the feta, the basil, and the pasta. Stir and cook until feta is just starting to melt, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and add the rest of the feta. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Mediterranean Eggplant Chips

  • 6 baby eggplants, thinly sliced along their length
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Generous amount of salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place eggplant slices in a large bowl. Add olive oil and spices to the bowl and gently toss with a fork until each piece of eggplant is coated in the spices. Place the eggplant slices on the trays of your dehydrator and dehydrate on the fruits/vegetable setting (about 135°F) for 4-5 hours until fully dried and crisp. Check the slices after 3-4 hours as some of the thinner slices may be ready by then. Let eggplant cool completely before storing in a container.

Eggplant Chips

  • 2 eggplants, peeled and thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon agave nectar or other liquid sweetener
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon chipotle powder

Place sliced eggplant in bowl. Mix the rest of the ingredients together and pour over eggplant. Marinate overnight, stirring occasionally to coat. Dehydrate at 145°F for 1 hour, reduce heat to 116°F and dehydrate until crisp, about 6-8 hours.

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Eggplant

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Eggplant is an acquired taste for many people. I suspect this is because eggplants in stores are great big things that tend to be bitter, even when well-salted. The oriental eggplants have a much more delicate flavor. The original globe eggplant varieties had sharp spines on the plant calyxes as well as the stems. They tended to be both bitter and tough, so stewing was the usual way to cook them.

This vegetable has been tinkered with by many cultures, so it comes in green, white, orange, purple and streaked versions, and varies in size and shape from small eggs to big globes, with a few long cylindrical versions in the middle. The name comes from the shape of the very earliest varieties, as they were about the size and shape of an egg. It was grown in England in the 16th century as the Old White Egg. There’s a black version, called, of course, Black Egg. Manchuria is a green egg-shaped variety, collected from China in the 1930s. Unlike their larger cousins, these eggplants will readily cross with each other. This is another indigenous Indian plant. The Chinese started domesticating eggplant’s ancestors about 500 B.C. It was supposedly domesticated from the poisonous wild nightshade, which makes you wonder how many taste testers they lost in the process. Once domesticated, it rambled through Africa into Italy before moving into Greece, Turkey and France, where it’s called aubergine. Although you can freeze eggplant, it’s not safe for canning, because it’s so dense that it may not cook through. Frozen eggplant isn’t worth the effort, as far as I’m concerned (although cooked ratatouille freezes OK for up to two months), so I plant enough to eat fresh; we get our eggplant fix in the summer and then wait until next year. It’s great grilled, so it’s nice that barbeque season and eggplant season overlap. Lots of nutritional goodies in eggplant: vitamins B6, C, K, thiamin, niacin, vitamin b6, pantothenic acid, magnesium, phosphorus and copper, plus plenty of fiber, folate, potassium and manganese.

Eggplant Varieties

  • Pingtung Long – highly productive eggplant that should be staked, as the weight of the fruits will pull it over. It’s from Taiwan, disease resistant and thin-skinned. Probably the best flavor of all the eggplants (I think) and very easy to slice and sauté or stir fry. This one and Long Purple don’t really grill very well (although you can broil them), but in my experience, they make better ratatouille than globe eggplants.
  • Long Purple – first showed up in the B.K. Bliss and Son offerings in 1870, but it may have been around as early as 1855. It’s an Italian version of the long and skinny type of eggplant, not quite as slender as Pingtung Long, but similar in flavor. It also has fewer seeds than standard eggplants. Unfortunately, it also tends to have thorny calyxes and thorns on the stems, so watch your fingers.
  • Rosa Bianca – this one is a beauty, rounded and streaked purple, pinkish-purple and white. It’s worth growing just as a table decoration, but it also tastes very good. The flavor is delicate and mild, no bitterness unless you short it on water. It’s an Italian variety.
  • Black Beauty – this eggplant was a big hit because it was so much earlier than its competitors when it was introduced in 1902. It will also produce well in short-season areas. This is the typical old standard, with large purple fruits so dark they are almost black in color. The flavor is good if you harvest when it first ripens and eat it while it’s still really fresh. If it gets too big, it’s more likely to be bitter and tough. This one and Rosa Bianca are my choices for fried eggplant or eggplant Parmesan. Cucumber beetles really like this eggplant, to the point that some gardeners grow it just as a trap crop to keep the beetles away from their cucumbers and squash. Of all the eggplants I’ve grown, this is the slowest to germinate and ripen. While William Woys Weaver reports it produces more fruits than other large-fruited varieties, I haven’t found that to be true in my garden. It should be staked, as the heavy fruits will pull the plant over, especially if you have heavy rains. I grow it because my husband loves it as fried eggplant; otherwise I wouldn’t bother.
  • Listada de Gandia – a beautiful eggplant, striped purple and white. The James Vick catalog listed it in 1872 at twice the cost of other eggplants in the catalog. Loves hot weather – thrives in the high nineties – but does need a long growing season. Expect 120 days from seed. Fruits are variable in size, shape and color. Make sure you harvest young or the skin will be tough.

If I could only have one eggplant, I would choose Long Purple. It germinates more readily and faster than globe eggplants like Black Beauty or Rosa Bianca. Since it’s smaller at maturity, it rarely gets tough or bitter. It’s very productive, starts to produce earlier and produces over a longer period than the globes. It tastes great, especially in ratatouille.

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