Growing peppers is a tradition in the Southwest. Learn to grow peppers from simple patio containers to large rural gardens. And, pickled peppers provide the piquant flavor you love all year long.
Here on our Arizona homestead, we like our food spicy. We grow and use peppers of several different varieties and find they are some of the best ingredients for adding kick to our Mexican-style dishes.
We use the hot jalapenos in salsas, roast and pickle the thick-walled pimentos and bells, and always save a few large poblanos and bells for chiles rellenos or baking stuffed with rice and cheese.
Peppers of all kinds are members of the genus Capsicum. They come in many different sizes, shapes, colors, and degrees of heat, from sweet bells to the tiny, fiery chili piquins of Mexico. Growing peppers is easy if you give them conditions they like.
Peppers like it warm. If there's an all-important tip about growing peppers, it's "Keep them warm!" Start plants from seed indoors about six weeks before your last frost date. Provide bottom warmth by using a heating pad under the pots, so that the soil temperature stays about 80 degrees. We find that they germinate quickly, and if given lots of light, warmth, and moisture, will grow well in their small pots.
Don't put the young pepper plants out in the garden too early! Even here in the desert, we find that the pepper plants will limp along and be quite unhappy if placed in the garden before the soil is nice and warm (at least 70 degrees).
So transplant them to larger containers if necessary, but don't ask them to put up with cold feet. We often start growing peppers in a cold frame, our little mini-greenhouse, for great results.
Once they're in the garden and growing well, provide the pepper plants with some support from a wire cage or such. The plants will grow up to four feet tall, and you don't want them flopping over, exposing the fruits to wet soil and mold.
They'll thrive during the hottest days of summer if given adequate water. Watering is extra important if you want to produce thick-walled, succulent peppers.
Peppers aren't vulnerable to many pests, although tomato horn worms sometimes chew on them, and if you live in a damp climate, be sure to give the plants breathing room so they're less likely to fall prey to mildews and viruses. Overall, peppers are some of our lowest-maintenance vegetables.
About six weeks after they're set out, fruits will start to appear on your plants and will continue until frost. You can pick bells green or let them ripen. They'll even finish ripening in a paper bag indoors, the way peaches do! When your plants deliver a bumper crop, what do you do? Roast and pickle them!
Some peppers, especially pimentos and red bells, are perfect candidates for this treatment. They are thick-walled and sturdy, which makes them easy to peel once they're roasted.
We typically grow peppers of four kinds at the Bear Cave: bells, jalapenos, anchos, and pimientos. We find that the sweet, heavy bells and pimentos are delicious roasted if we allow them to ripen, then roast and pickle them.
Many cooks recommend roasting peppers under the broiler or over the direct flame of a gas range, but around here we keep the late-summer heat out of the kitchen by roasting outdoors on the gas barbecue. The peppers roasted this way acquire a rich, smoky flavor and the kitchen stays cool.
The process is simple. Turn all the bbq's burners on high (Our unit has three, and we roast up to a dozen peppers at a time.) and place the whole peppers over the hottest part of the grill.
Protect your hands with oven mitts or heavy gloves, and use bbq tongs to turn the peppers from time to time as they char. You want to end up with the peppers black all over, the skin completely charred.
As the peppers finish roasting, place them in a covered glass or stainless steel container (plastic might melt) to steam. This step helps loosen the skin so they're easier to peel. Let them steam for about 20 minutes, at which time they should be cool enough to handle. Peel off the charred skin by hand (a bit messy, but necessary), and remove the stem, core, and seeds.
These piquant peppers are delicious on sandwiches, made into a pureed soup or dip, or incorporated into scrambled eggs or stir fry. To extend their storage life in the fridge, layer them in a jar with a mixture of 2 cups white vinegar, 1 cup water, and 1 teaspoon salt. They'll last several months under refrigeration.
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