The Kitchen Garden
One last rush of fall peppers
By Jan Leitschuh
Pepper abundance time is now. Take advantage.
Enjoy October’s cooler weather, after this summer’s scalding sweat bath. Pepper plants revel in the easier temperatures, desperately throwing out lots of new fruits this time of year.
If you have a little vegetable plot, and it includes sweet bell peppers — or peppers of any type — chances are your counter is overflowing right now with jalapeños, sweet bells, habaneros, Anaheim chilies and more.
What to do?
Don’t argue with the prosperity! Peppers of all types are expensive in winter. Chop and freeze for winter fajitas, pizza toppings, veggie soups, Italian dishes and chili, of course. Hot pepper jam is amazing on cream cheese and crackers all winter long. And roast some sweet red bells on the grill, or in the oven.
It’s a funny thing, this crazy fall pepper flush.
Young pepper plants are warm season plants. The little transplants can be frost-tender in spring, and they dislike cold soils. Not only do they need to be planted well after any frost is possible, their little rooty feet crave warm soils to thrive in.
But once a pepper plant digs in, matures and begins producing, it can segue smartly into fall and handle some chilly nights. Curiously, heat-loving peppers put out one last hearty flush of fruits in the fall, leaving a gardener with an abundance. It’s a plant that can pay itself back in spades come early October.
Didn’t put any peppers in last spring? Local festivals and farmers markets can be a fun way to experience the fall pepper abundance, too. Places like nearby Pittsboro celebrate this Carolina fall flush with a popular “Pepperfest” (held annually, it was in late September this year). Star chefs, brewers, distillers and more, all from central North Carolina, produce pepper-themed dishes, desserts and beverages for the festival-goers, along with live music. Put it on your calendar for next year.
The Farmers Market in Carrboro features growers like Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farms of Graham, roasting peppers in a metal drum on the spot for your feasting pleasure, or to take home in a paper bag to cool down. Our local farmers markets should have fresh peppers for salsas, stuffing, pepper steak and more.
Roasting bell peppers instantly improves the flavor of this common garden veggie, kicking up the interest in any dish. It’s a fall specialty. Kitchen maven Ina Garten’s instructions for pepper roasting are:
1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
2. Place the whole peppers on a sheet pan and place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the skins are completely wrinkled and the peppers are charred, turning them twice during roasting.
3. Remove the stem from each pepper and cut them in quarters.
To get an even smokier and more complex pepper flavor, try flame roasting, over a grill or even on your stove. Be sure to wear a protective oven mitt and use tongs. To grill, arrange peppers on a medium flame, turning every few minutes, roasting for 15-20 minutes, until the peppers are charred, soft and collapsing in on themselves. Let cool in a paper bag, or steam further in a glass bowl covered with plastic wrap. Peel away the charred skin and discard. Remove seeds and membrane from interior.
Over a stove burner flame, char individually, using tongs — simple for a small-batch recipe needing a flavor up-level. Hold pepper above your hottest flame with tongs and a mitt, turning until fully blackened, 7-8 minutes. A sheet pan and your broiler can also do the trick for a greater number, but watch carefully and rotate as needed.
Process the results for terrific, smoky roasted red pepper tapenade or soups, relishes, dips, pastas, sandwiches, even breakfast scrambled eggs.
To freeze your abundance of peppers, first rinse, dry, then remove the stems, seeds and white interior membranes. Dice or cut into strips, then spread on a tray so they’re not touching. They don’t even need to be blanched (flash-cooked) first. Freeze till firm, then transfer to a freezer-safe zip-top bag with all the air pressed out. Or, if you have a vacuum sealer, seal your harvest into chili-worthy portions. Shake out needed quantities for your cold weather recipes.
If you have a dehydrator, and freezer space is scarce or you like to camp and backpack, it may be a good option. It’s generally too humid in North Carolina to dry peppers outside, as they do in New Mexico and Arizona. Set your oven to the lowest possible temperature and watch carefully throughout the day. This will heat the house but, hey, nights are cooling off. Store in airtight containers.
For a little winter heat, I like to freeze my hot peppers as well as the sweet bells. A teaspoon or two of jalapeños scooped out of the bag adds a kick to many a chilly night meal. While you are chopping, wear gloves and don’t touch your eyes.
Come November, when the colder winds blow, you’ll be glad of a little fire to add to chili, beans, curries and tortilla soups. Or treat yourself to a few jars of homemade pepper jam to serve over the holidays, with cream cheese and crackers. Since you’re already chopping hot stuff, why not go ahead and whip up a batch of fresh pepper salsa straight from the garden?
Habaneros and the throat-scorching “ghost” peppers are generally too much for most dishes, yet the plants are throwing them out by the handfuls now. Despite the fact that many humans love hot peppers, capsaicinoids, the “heat” in peppers, is an irritant to mammals and insects. We can use that to deter deer, rabbits and some insect pests.
Chop and freeze two cups of the habaneros or ghost peppers as above — besides gloves to protect the fingers, contact wearers may appreciate goggles. Come spring, dump it into a food processor with several cloves of garlic. Add a little water to make a slurry. Consider the goggles again. Once pureed, add the mix to a big, clean bucket and pour four gallons of hot water over it. Cover and let steep for a day, then strain well, through several layers of cheesecloth, into another clean bucket. Add a few squirts of dish soap to help the mix stick. Add to your garden sprayer, and use after a rain or every few days. Don’t spray your actual tomato fruits unless you like them spicy!
Peppers can be slow to come into production in summer. Once they hit their stride, they bear prolifically. The heat and dryness of late July can cause blossoms to drop, thus a gap in fruiting. But come fall, they charge ahead. As we head into late October, it’s usually well worth the effort of tossing a blanket and covering the plants on those first few frosty nights.
Roasted Red Pepper Spread
Red bell peppers, roasted
Good olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Rinse, then roast red bell peppers and peeled garlic cloves in the oven at 350 degrees until soft. Cool, then blend in food processor with a little olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and black pepper. Adjust quantities of ingredients to your taste.
Roasted Red Pepper Spread can also be frozen, and it takes up less freezer space than chopped and bagged peppers. Get the fireplace going, crack open a good bottle of wine, and serve with a good chevre and crispy crackers. Consider it dinner. PS
Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table cooperative.