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Wimpy to fiery, is there a chili pepper for you?

Wimpy to fiery, is there a chili pepper for you? The most popular spice in the world, the chili pepper has a distinguished history. Indians in the Americas first domesticated the original peppers--extremely hot and pea-size--moe than 5,000 years ago. And Columbus himself brought them to Europe from the New World. Since the beginning they've been worshiped, used medicinally, and even employed as an insecticide. But most popularly, of course, they season the cuisines of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

More recently, the pepper has developed an almost fanatic following. Produce sections offer fresh peppers, and grocery shelves display dozens of concoctions to fire the taste buds. Catalogs sell pepper-oriented paraphernalia ranging from T-shirts to rubber stamps; there's even an international pepper fan club.

But no produce section carries as many kinds of peppers as you can grow from seed. So, in the last few years, specialty seed catalogs have begun to carry dozens of varieties from around the world.

Although chili peppers generally start out green or yellow, intermediate colors may be brown, purple, orange, and yellow. Most eventually turn red or brown-black. Even more diverse are their shapes--pointed, round, flat, narrow, triangular, heart shaped--and sizes--from 1/4 inch to a foot long.

Choose a pepper that's right for you

Chili peppers belong to the nightshade family, which includes eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes. Five domesticated species of pepper exist in the world today, but most of those offered in catalogs are varieties of one species--Capsicum annuum. Two other well-known species are C. frutescens 'Tabasco' and C. chinense 'Habanero'.

If you've never tried anything other than the typical long green chili, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Each variety has its own distinctive flavor, and many are central ingredients in special ethnic dishes. 'Ancho' (or 'Chile Poblano') is the favorite for chilies rellenos, 'Pasilla' (or 'Chile Chilaca') is necessary for mole sauce, and 'Serrano' is preferred for chili verde.

To select a pepper with the right amount of spiciness for your taste, use the chart on the opposite page. Keep in mind that this is just a general guideline. Peppers cross-pollinate readily, and seed sources vary, so you can never predict exactly how hot a pepper will be.

Warm climates and moisture stress produce hotter, spicier peppers than do cool climates and moist soils with high nitrogen levels. (Small-fruited varieties tolerate higher temperatures.)

If you live in a hot climate, avoid peppers such as 'Fresno' and 'Super Chili'; plants hold their peppers above the foliage, where the intense heat sunburns them.

They're easy to grow

Although most nurseries carry chili pepper transplants, you'll have a much wider range of choices if you start them from seed yourself (for sources, see page 224).

Grow peppers in full sun either in pots or in the ground. Sow seeds in pots in early spring, six to eight weeks before you plan to set out seedlings in the garden. Use a light potting mix and cover seeds with about 1/2 inch of soil. Keep the soil moist. Seeds germinate fastest if given bottom heat for two to three weeks.

In the ground, plant seedlings 12 to 18 inches apart in loose, well-drained soil. To warm the soil and control weeds, you can cover rows with black plastic and then plant the seedlings through it. Keep the soil constantly moist. Extreme fluctuations in soil moisture cause blossom-end rot--spots on the pods that eventually turn black and leathery.

Pepper plants thrive in heat, but temperatures over 90[degrees] inactive the pollen; unpollinated flowers drop off. In hot climates, plants stop producing fruit in summer, then start again when temperatures drop below 90[degrees].

Peppers are spiciest when they're fully formed and mature (green or yellow). You can harvest them then or wait until they turn color; they'll get a bit sweeter but no hotter. Even if they shrivel, you can still use them, but harvest before frost. For ristras, harvest chilies after they've colored completely.

When handling chili peppers, always use rubber gloves to protect your hands from the volatile oil, capsaicin. It's found in the interior ribs where seeds are attached.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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