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Groundwork: A new garden, an old pepper

The Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History on the Mall. (Adrian Higgins/The Washintgon Post)

Groundwork moves to a new garden this week, the World War II themed Victory Garden at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where gardener Joe Brunetti grows heirloom vegetables, and grows them very well. It was 103 degrees when I paid a visit, so I didn't linger, especially when I could sense every pore opening and my feet actually cooking inside my shoes. Sole food?

There is much to say about this garden, and Joe's approach to growing your own, but I'll save it for future posts, after I retrieve my boots from the refrigerator.

Recipe Included

Even warm-season veggies sulk in excessive heat, which can render flowers sterile and unable to form fruit. The only thing to be done is to water, along with dutiful soil preparation at the start of the season. Wilting plants can be spritzed, that will give them a cooling lift, but it is best not to spray leaves routinely for fear of promoting fungal problems. Rich, deep soil will hold moisture like a sponge, but the ground must be charged with water first, and not allowed to dry out. A generous mulch of straw will block evaporation and keep beds moist. With good soil and a mulch, a deeply watered vegetable garden can go four to seven days without another drink.

Joe Brunetti in search of Fish, a pepper with a tale. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

This week we're talking peppers, the tomato relative that originated in the New World but has become a sizzling component of cuisines across the planet, and quite different along the way. Varieties have been developed regionally everywhere from Baltimore to Budapest to Bangkok.

Joe showed me five peppers, all dating to 1940 or before. Black Czech is a small but hot pepper, deep purple with red blushes when ripe. The flesh inside is green, though, and its heat doesn't obliterate underlying flavors. In the row behind it, Joe has raised the larger sweet variety, Sweet Banana. It's yellow-green, developing a little red when mature, and is quite edible before then. "It's great for frying and sausages, and it's certainly useable in the green stage," he said. I later munch on one he cut for me, finding it to be mild and succulent without being bland.

We move on to find two red-bell types not ready for harvest, World Beater, and the more elongated Marconi.

All these heirlooms have their own great tales behind them, but the pepper with the smallest fruit and the grandest story is the Fish pepper. The plant itself is compact, low growing and pretty with its variegated green and white foliage. The fruit too is striped, and goes through three distinct stages, all of them edible. It starts white with green stripes and ends up as orange with red brown stripes. Like many heirlooms, Fish was a pepper passed along from one gardener to the next, and was a variety favored by African American gardeners and cooks from D.C. to Philadelphia, and used in oyster and crab houses as a "secret" ingredient. The secret's out: Grow it next year.

I find it a true test of Joe's mettle that all the peppers are so well along so relatively early in the summer. He started them from seed in the greenhouse in February and set them out in early May.

This garden is a heat sink, and we've had a very hot early season, obviously, so the combination has induced precocious growth and fruiting in the peppers.

Apart from the watering and organic fertilizing of these plants, he gives them a foliar spray with Epsom salts, which promotes vigorous growth and heavy fruiting. He sprays when flowers first appear, again when the fruit is just setting, and a third when the peppers are at a baby stage.

Bamboo trellising for peppers worth emulating. The poles are about 18 inches apart. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

I love the support system for these peppers: A network of 6-foot bamboo poles that corral the plants without hiding them. I think I'll be trying that myself if my own plot ever gets off the ground.

-- Adrian Higgins

Almond Pepper Sauce
Makes 2 cups

This is a traditional Spanish sauce that elevates seafood or vegetables from plain to extraordinary with very little effort from the cook. A tablespoon or two will also spice up a seafood stew or soup or use it like pesto on pasta or sandwiches. The flavor continues to develop after the sauce sits in the refrigerator for a day or two.

MAKE AHEAD: Any leftover sauce can be refrigerated for up to 4 days. Adapted from a recipe found in "Herbs Love Tomatoes, Peppers, Onions and Zucchini," by Ruth Bass (Storey, 2001).

1 cup blanched slivered almonds, lightly toasted (see NOTES)
2 hard-cooked egg yolks (from large eggs)
2 medium red bell peppers, roasted (see NOTES)
1 habanero pepper or other hot red pepper, stemmed and seeded
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 1/3 bunch parsley, chopped (1/4 cup)
Leaves from 1/3 bunch cilantro, chopped (1/4 cup)
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons boiling water

Combine the almonds, egg yolks, sweet and hot pepper, garlic, parsley, cilantro and vinegar in a food processor or blender; puree until smooth.

With the machine running, slowly add the oil and then the boiling water. The yield will be 2 cups. Transfer to a glass container; cover and refrigerate until needed.

NOTES: Toast the almonds in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes until they are fragrant and lightly browned.

To roast the peppers, place them on a baking sheet under the broiler or place them over the flame on a gas stovetop until they are partially charred. Keep turning the peppers so all sides have been exposed. When all sides are charred, put the charred peppers in a paper bag for 10; minutes to steam and loosen the skins. Take the peppers out of the bag and slide the skin off the meat of the pepper; discard the skins. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and remove the stem and seeds.

Per tablespoon: 60 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  July 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, Joe Brunetti  
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