As we enter into this summer growing season, there are so many fruits and veggies that interest me. Unquestionably, tomatoes excite me the most, but it’s hit or miss as to whether they produce well. It takes a good bit of luck when growing tomatoes. One year I may have them growing past Thanksgiving. Other years I may not have any survive the bugs, blight and blossom end rot.
Homegrown tomatoes may very well be the gems of my garden, and they fetch a steep price when ripe. They are worth slightly less while green, but I just got a new fryer so that may change. Though my excitement for tomatoes is a true love affair that produces salsa, sandwiches, spaghetti sauce, slices with mayonnaise and blistered tomato halves with Parmesan cheese, I have to admit there is another mistress in my garden that I seek more often. Her name is the pepper.
I hit the tomatoes hard for the season, but the pepper is something I go to all year long. I’ve rarely had any trouble growing peppers, and there’s such variety that I never get bored. The durable plants keep me going for a long time, and they even work well in greenhouses (an idea I have entertained for a while now). With a lengthy growing season and plenty of applications, I hold the pepper in high regard.
Bells will be ringing
Around this house there is an influence from our neighbors to the west. We are fans of Cajun and Creole cuisine, which does use a lot of tomatoes. But the cornerstone of many dishes is the holy trinity.
If you watched any food television shows in the past decade, you’ve heard chefs speak of this mixture of onion, celery and bell pepper. Some grocers even sell it premixed. This should always be the green variety of bell peppers with white onion. Winter, spring, summer and fall, I have plenty of recipes that begin with trinity. It’s either butter or olive oil as the fat and garlic almost always follows.
Green bells are also great for stuffing with rice and meatloaf. Cheese steaks must have them. Asian food requires a good bit of green bells. Fajitas would be lost without them. But when the mood strikes I have to have an Italian sausage with onions and bell peppers that have been wilted on a cast-iron grill. Like onions, bell peppers sweeten as they cook.
Red bells are sweet on their own, but almost fruity when roasted. My preferred method is to halve and seed the peppers, place them on a cookie sheet and stick them under a broiler. Disconnect the smoke alarm and put it under your pillow. Once the skin is blistered and black, put the hot peppers into a Ziploc bag until they cool. Rinse under cold water and the skin peels off easily.
Reds are great as an accent to pasta dishes. My favorite use in the summer months is for gazpacho.
Jalapenos for a little fire
Yes, there are hotter peppers than jalapenos but sometimes a tart jap is all you need. I have no idea why one of mine will be fairly mild and the next one temporarily blinds me, but jalapenos are an important part of my diet.
I make salsa with fire-roasted jalapenos. I also stuff them with cream cheese and wrap them with bacon for the grill. The past couple of years I’ve been crazy about black-eyed peas and to me they require these peppers. When using raw, I soften the peppers with onion before adding the peas and a decent stock. It’s a versatile pepper, to say the least.
Cayenne to burn the house down
I don’t grow habaneros. I’m not the type to search for the hottest ghost pepper or anything too dangerous. This is wise on my part, especially after my friend Tony ended up in the hospital after a tiny dose of ghost pepper extract found its way into his eye. I am much more careless than he. Therefore the hottest my garden gets is the cayenne.
These things grow like weeds and still pack a good flavor with the heat. You know them from notable hot sauces such as Tabasco. Fellow musician and cooking enthusiast Mark Saunders has created a hot sauce I’m begging him to put the Fat Man Squeeze name on. It’s a fermented cayenne pepper in red vinegar and is now my go-to sauce.
So there is another reason I’ve grown bell, jalapeno and cayenne peppers: They’re great together. Pickling all three of these in the same jar makes each take on some characteristics of the others. The bells receive some heat and the others receive the sweet. It’s actually something I learned from Cliff Fulkerson.
It took some introspection, but I’ve come to grips that while the tomato is important to me, the pepper is truly the bell of the ball. I wouldn’t give up either, but I think of the pepper as a year-round must while the tomato seems more of a seasonal treat. Maybe I just overthink everything. I’ll eat them all until they’re gone.