Monday, July 27, 2009

Drying Chile Peppers for a Rainy Day

Our first additions to the vegetable plants were peppers. My older son fell in love with the huge selection at Buchanan's, and he finally had to stop when our wagon was full. We bought Anaheim, Cayenne, Poblano, and Jalapeno plants, plus sweet peppers in a rainbow of colors. Since then, I've started a few peppers from seed, but those original plants started producing long before our seedlings even made it into the ground.

The sweet peppers were without exception a total failure producing just a few miniature peppers. The plants are still alive and green, but there are no blossoms and they haven't grown for months. The hot peppers, however, have thrived. The cayenne plants are especially productive, with the poblanos close behind. The plants have grown tall and full, with non-stop blossoms and peppers. They clearly love our hot dry summer.

At our restaurant, we make a spicy Cream of Roasted Poblano soup. I had hoped to use our own peppers for the soup, but three plants can't produce the 20 peppers we need each week. We also use dried ancho chiles in a few of our soups, and I was surprised to learn that an ancho chile is just a dried poblano. The same pepper often has two names, one when it is fresh and another when it's dried. Poblano becomes Ancho. Anaheim becomes California or New Mexico. Jalapeno (when smoked and dried) becomes Chipotle. These distinctions make sense in the kitchen - we would never substitute a dried Poblano (i.e. an Ancho) for a fresh Poblano to make our Poblano soup - but it's a bit confusing in the garden. We purchased "poblano" and "ancho" plants, only to find out later that they're actually the same pepper with different labels.

I always thought a mature chile would turn red on the plant, but most peppers are ready to pick when they're still green. Once picked, they will actually ripen further and turn red off the plant. You can use the fresh peppers when they're green or red, or let them dry. I store the fresh peppers in a row of ramekins on our kitchen table, watching them turn orange and then red as they shrivel up. Peppers are hotter when they're dried than fresh. They also have a richer, more intense flavor than fresh peppers. This makes cooking with dried peppers an exercise in restraint -- a little goes a long way. And dried peppers store really well, so there's no rush to use up your summer harvest.

I complain that the kids like to pick our vegetables, but then they won't eat them. This is especially true when it comes to spicy chile peppers. Our son was drawn to the images of colorful peppers when he selected all our plants; he never planned on eating any.

I have to confess I'm not big of spicy food either, so we have lots of peppers without any obvious use. I tried to make a jalapeno jelly using a recipe from the internet. The recipe advised to first remove the seeds and white ribs from the peppers. I recently learned that the heat is in large part attributable to that white flesh, not the seeds. When I was dicing the peppers, I accidentally squirted some jalapeno juice in my eye. It was extremely painful, and burned for several minutes. I made David finish the dicing -- not my strong suit even when dealing with safe vegetables. After much work (it takes a lot of little jalapeno peppers to make just a few jars of jelly), I wasn't thrilled with the results. The jelly is an odd combination of sweet and mildly hot, and I couldn't think of any appetizing use for it. I saved the bell jars, but the jelly went into the garbage.

We have made several savory dishes with our fresh chiles. David makes us a delicious Middle Eastern salad which includes jalapeno peppers from the garden, and the cayennes have gone into several pizzas and pastas. Still, most of our peppers end up on our kitchen table drying for some future use. The red, orange and green chiles are so ornamental, I'm not in any rush to use them.

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