If you want to add a little spice to your life, try growing chili peppers in your garden. Easy to grow in both the garden and in containers, chilis are an attractive addition to the landscape with their shiny green leaves and brightly colored fruit. Last season, a second crop of habanero chilis in my garden was still hanging on their branches in October and resembled tiny pumpkins. I love to use habaneros in a Jamaican jerk-style marinade where their intense heat is tempered by soaking them in vinegar for several hours.
Chili peppers are believed to have originated in South America and have been grown there for medicinal purposes as well as a food spice for thousands of years. While exploring South America, Christopher Columbus discovered the spicy chilis and brought the dried peppers and their seeds back to Europe, where their popularity spread.
Part of the Solanaceae or nightshade family that includes tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants and potatoes, the chili pepper gets its fire from the high level of the alkaloid chemical capsaicin. The concentration of heat in the chili is found in its interior veins and in seeds. The seeds become hot because they sit on top of the veins and absorb the capsaicin. By removing the veins and seeds, you can control some of the pepper’s heat.
Summer is a good time to find chili pepper plants at your local nurseries. Chilis like dry hot weather and well-drained soil and will thrive in a sunny part of your garden with little care and water. Capsaicin, the chemical that makes them hot, can also act as a natural pesticide and will deter insects from feasting on the plant’s fruit. Spider mites can invade the plant’s leaves, but on warm sunny days a good squirt from the hose can keep an infestation from occurring. Some believe that planting chilis among your other plants will cut down on insect infestation in general.
If you decide to plant your chili peppers in pots, use an organic potting soil and let the plants dry out a little in between watering. Chilis like magnesium, and a little Epsom salts added at planting time will help your plants to thrive. After they blossom, give them a balanced organic fertilizer, one recommended for vegetables, and repeat after about two to three weeks. Most chilis can be harvested green, or you can wait until the full color develops, which will intensify their heat and flavor. Fully ripened chilis will range in colors from yellow, orange and bright fire-engine red. As you pick them, your plants will reward you by producing more.
Fresh chilis are hotter than cooked or roasted ones, and if you dry them, they could be as much as ten times hotter than when they were fresh. Whole chilis can be roasted over an open fire on the grill. After they char, place them in a paper bag or a bowl covered with plastic wrap and let them sweat for about 10 minutes. After doing this, the outer skin can be removed, and you can open the chilis and remove the seeds and as much of their veins you wish.
Filled with antioxidants and vitamins A, C and B 1-3, chilis are a healthful way to add a little kick to your food. Chili peppers can range in size from approximately one-quarter of an inch to around 12 inches long. A general rule is the smaller the chili, the hotter the flavor. There are many different chilis to choose from that have a wide range of heat.
Here are a few varieties you can usually find at local nurseries: mild – Anaheim, poblano and ancho; medium hot — pasilla and jalapeno; hot — Serrano, cayenne and Thai; very, very hot (get out the fire extinguisher!) — habanero and Scotch bonnet.
Chilis can burn your skin and eyes, and it is recommended you wear rubber gloves when handling them. Remember not to touch your skin, face or eyes while working with chilis.
Try this great party appetizer after you harvest your chilis. The amount of heat can be adjusted to your taste by adding more or fewer jalapenos and chipotle powder.
Baked Artichoke Jalapeno Dip
2 14-oz. cans water-packed artichoke hearts, drained
1 8-oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained reserving 2 tab. marinade
½ to 1 cup mayonnaise
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese blend
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
6 green onions, chopped
4 mild green Anaheim or poblano chilis, roasted and chopped
4 fresh red and green jalapenos, minced
1 teas. chipotle chili power, or to taste
1 teas. garlic powder
½ teas. dry oregano (half tea.)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Chop the artichokes and mix all ingredients together with the reserved 2 tabs. of the marinade, adding enough mayonnaise to moisten and bind everything together. Place in a lightly oiled baking dish and bake about 30 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve with tortilla chips, salsa and margaritas!
— A local Realtor with Coldwell Banker who specializes in historic & architecturally designed homes, Linda is a co-founder of the La Jolla Historical Society’s Secret Garden Tour of old La Jolla. Take a tour of Linda’s Garden on: www.LindaMarrone.com.