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Groundwork: Peppertime

At Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, a cart of greenhouse goodies for fall planting. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Anyone who thinks the veggie garden goes away in the fall hasn't been paying attention. In Washington, a productive vegetable garden can work year-round. Garlic, onions, kale and spinach winter over quite happily, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. The autumn garden is a blend of old and new: old, in the way that long maturing vegetables such as winter squash are ripening their fruit, and new in that there is still time for putting in hardy greens. Radish seed sown now will mature by Halloween.

Recipe Included

The cart is loaded with greenhouse-grown seedlings ready for planting, and includes kale, cabbage, lettuces and fennel. Lettuces will take a few degrees of frost, cabbages and kale will take a fair few more. Arugula can be sown directly in the garden or in pots now for a long fall harvest. It would have been smart to sow carrot seed a month ago, but you could still do that and get baby carrots for Thanksgiving as well as the prospect of carrots through the winter (with a protective straw mulch).

The heat of September is still coaxing the gorgeous creamy yellow blossoms of the okra. Cindy Brown at Green Spring Gardens thinks people should plant it ornamentally as a substitute for its relative, the hollyhock. Hollyhocks get beaten down by disease and look awful at this time of year. The okra is looking fresh and clean, and has the added benefit of producing the edible pods. We think of peppers as summer vegetables, but their true season is early fall.

A sweet pepper at Green Spring begins its slow ripening. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Typically, the smaller the pepper, the sooner it ripens. But most peppers take until August to fruit and until September to hit their stride. Sweet peppers take ages; you can't rush them, and they need a warm and sunny early fall to ripen to perfection. They take a month, generally, to go from their green stage to full ripeness, in shades of golden yellow, lemon yellow, orange, red, purple and brown, depending on variety.
In order to get plants on schedule, you have to start from seed in early to mid-March and then set out robust seedlings in mid-May, once the soil begins to warm.

I love sweet peppers but I find tongue-searing chili peppers somewhat pointless. The hottest at Green Spring is a variety named Fatali. Green and wrinkled, it's so hot that your face will also become green and wrinkled if you chomp on it. Even the deer leave it alone.

Ornamental (and edible) pepper Masquerade. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

You can reduce the heat level of chili peppers by removing the seeds and membranes; when Cindy says one should "wear gloves and don't wear contacts" to do so, I'm ready to embrace that far more pleasant member of the nightshade family, the tomato. Some peppers, even hot ones, are undeniably beautiful and some have been bred principally for ornament. Black Pearl has purple-black foliage and small globes that age from black to dark red.

Masquerade reveals clusters of upright little horns that start out purple and then age from orange to red. (Very pretty, but have a cooling, cucumber-yogurt raita ready.) Cindy loves an old variety named Fish, which has dainty green and white leaves and variegated green fruit. Thomas Jefferson favored one called the Texas Bird Eye, which is still available. "A lot of the hot ones are made into condiments," says Cindy. "They're not meant to be eaten alone." Phew.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: Most novice vegetable gardeners obsess about their tomatoes. Their chests puff with pride when they produce the first ripe tomato on the block. They wrap their thumbs around imaginary suspenders, rock on their heels, develop a slight twang or drawl and wax poetically about their tomatoes' attributes.

I, too, love my tomatoes. But my obsession is directed toward the capsicums in the garden. Even though I already possess seed packets of dozens of pepper varieties, I am always tempted to buy more. Take the time to read the descriptions when the catalogs arrive this winter and you’ll see why I must buy and grow as many as possible. I swear the people who write wine descriptions moonlight as writers for vegetable catalogs. How do they come up with those adjectives?

This vegetable chowder is topped with a coulis that blends sweet and hot peppers. (Cynthia A. Brown)

Visitors who stop in the kitchen garden always ask, “Are the peppers sweet or hot?” I know I am talking to another aficionado if they get more specific: “Are they smoky? Fruity? Nutty? Thick-walled? Thin-skinned?” Peppers have such a range of flavors and attributes; don’t get stuck on bells and jalapeños. Start experimenting with the unfamiliar in your recipes. If you try five different peppers, at different times in the same recipe, the recipe will have five different flavors depending on the pepper used. Personalize the following recipe by trying different pepper combinations. A hot-and-sweet combo contrast is nice, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Have fun experimenting. Just remember, some of the peppers are hot enough to melt the iceberg.

Jalapeño-Spiked Corn Chowder With Red Pepper Coulis
6 servings

For the coulis
1 or 2 medium thick-walled bell peppers, such as Bullnose, Quadrato d' Asti Giallo, Marconi Gold or Red, Acongagua or Jupiter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large clove garlic, smashed
Freshly ground black pepper

For the soup
4 ears corn, shucked, preferably bicolor
1 medium sweet onion such as Walla-Walla, chopped (1 cup)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large (8 ounces) red bliss or Yukon Gold potato, unpeeled and cut into small dice (about 1 cup)
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth (may substitute chicken broth)
4 medium jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced, or to taste, plus a few thin crosswise slices for garnish
1 cup low-fat buttermilk or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Flesh of 1/2 ripe avocado, cut into 1/2-inch chunks, for garnish
Leaves from 2 to 4 stems cilantro, minced, for garnish
6 teaspoons creme fraiche, for garnish

For the coulis: Char the bell pepper(s) over gas flame or under the oven broiler until it is blackened on all sides. Enclose in a paper bag; let stand for 10 minutes, then peel, seed and coarsely chop to yield about 1 cup loosely packed. Transfer to the bowl of a food processor; add the oil and garlic. Puree until smooth, to form a coulis. Transfer to a medium bowl; season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the soup: Use the sharp edge of a chef’s knife to cut the kernels off the cobs, letting them fall into a large bowl. Be careful not to cut off more than two-thirds of the kernel, otherwise you will cut into the tough part of the corn kernel. Then use the dull side of the knife to scrape the remaining milky part of the kernels, still on the cob, into the bowl (yield is 3 1/2 to 4 cups).

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 8 minutes, until the onion begins to brown. Add the corn, potatoes and jalapeño peppers; mix well, then add the broth. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the corn and potatoes are tender.

Use an immersion (stick) blender to puree the mixture in the saucepan to form a soup that is chunky or smooth; your choice. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then add the buttermilk, or more as needed to achieve a soupy consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Divide among individual bowls, then spoon 2 tablespoons of the coulis into the center of each serving. Use a knife to create a swirl effect on the surface of the soup. (Reserve any leftover coulis; refrigerate or freeze in plastic wrap.)

Top each serving with a couple chunks of avocado, cilantro, jalapeño slices and a teaspoon of crème fraiche. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 201 calories, 5 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 346 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  September 28, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, Groundwork, recipes  
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Actually if you plant peppers early enough in the spring - and as big enough seedling - so that they are blooming in May and June, then they will fruit throughout the summer, and keep through the fall. The problem in Virginia and the mid-Atlantic, generally, in that the weather is so hot - including at night - that the blossoms drop off. No flowers, no fruit... Not as much an issue this year as summer was mostly (except for August) on the cool side.

Anyway, choose cultivars carefully (look for those with a short maturity date) because they will bloom faster AND plant large seedlings. I have been enjoying peppers - and a lot - since mid-July. They were actually doing a lot better than tomatoes for a while.


Posted by: rowandk | September 29, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

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