Hot Peppers? Sweet Peppers!
Here we are in the last days of August and peppers are growing everywhere. They’re hanging big and bright in our gardens, the produce sections boast an abundance, and farmer’s markets offer bushels of varied-colored, varied-sized peppers of types we’ve never seen. In places like New Mexico where chile peppers are deeply embedded in the culture. It’s no joke to say that as summer progresses, so does the heat, at least when it comes to peppers.
With all the attention given to hot and hotter peppers, we want to make sure that you don’t overlook those other peppers, the ones grown for flavor and sweetness rather than heat. They’re often called sweet peppers, and frequently limited to traditional bell peppers, the kind every gardener has grown at some point. But we’re talking about the wide and ever-expanding variety of mildly or even barely spicy sweet peppers that have been commonly called wax and Hungarian peppers, the type that do well in stir-fry, gazpacho, and pickled.
We’ve been on a binge of sweet peppers this year and find that they’re a great addition to pastas, casseroles of grains and veggies, and wonderful ingredient to include in salsas. Not only that, they’re among some of the most beautiful and ornamental plants in the vegetable garden, their sizable blossoms giving way to a host of colorful fruits in all sorts of shades. Even their names are attractive: piquillo, lemon drop, padron, peperoncino, guindilla verde, corne de chevre (goat’s horn), Basque.
They’re all grown pretty much the same way. Peppers like warm evening and soil temperatures so it’s worth waiting two and even three weeks after the last frost to set them out. In cooler areas with shorter growing season, keep them under row covers or growing in cold frames is a good, even necessary idea as the plants will need two-and-a-half to three months to produce ripe fruits.
Giving them a good side dressing of compost will ensure strong growth. Foliar sprays every three weeks or so will give them the nutrients they need. A deep watering to one inch or more (most peppers are shallow rooters) is necessary weekly or as your soil dries completely — it’s always important to monitor moisture conditions — to produce healthy fruits. But don’t overwater. Too much moisture and soggy ground encourages aphids and certain fungus including “black spot” (anthrancnose). Copper or sulfur based fungicides may help but often it’s just best to destroy plants and be more careful next year. Rotating pepper plants to different parts of the garden each year is a must.
Many hot peppers won’t be all that spicy if picked early. Even jalapenos picked early in the season when light green will show minimal heat. But sweet peppers with little heat at any stage will get even sweeter as they ripen. Most don’t need to be roasted to remove their skin but a little cooking helps.
Find a red peperoncino type like Jimmy Nardello’s sweet, sautee briefly in olive oil, and add to summer salads for a splash of color and flavor. Or throw some young pardrons (they’ll get hot and lose flavor as the mature) into an oiled cast iron skillet with a little water and cover for a few minutes to soften, then remove the lid and let them sautee until they begin to brown. You can serve them as is or toss them with some walnuts and arugula for an unusual salad. Pickling? There’s a resurgence of interest in what was once considered a lost art.
Sweet peppers are a great flavor addition to hot dishes as well. We made a delicious raw salsa over the weekend with roasted jalapenos, a single clove of Spanish garlic, a large, red bullhorn sweet pepper (the name suggests its size and shape), a couple large ripe brandywine tomatoes, some cilantro and a good squeeze of lime juice. It was just like the woman we made it for: hot and sweet!