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Groundwork: The wonder of late-season peppers

Sweet Banana, big and bountiful in early November. Pretty amazing stuff. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Some veggies are sweetened by the first frost, but peppers are not among them. Freezing temperatures render this tropical plant pretty useless. So at this time of year, the gardener is watching the weather forecast and harvesting as many of these late-season fruits as possible. Amazingly, while the cooler nights have slowed pepper development, the plants at the American History Museum's Victory Garden are robust, healthy and oblivious to their impending fall. Some plants are 5 feet tall from their tippy tips to their feet, consisting of a pretty impressive woody trunk. Started in a greenhouse in February and planted out in May, they have come a long way, albeit in the same spot.

Recipe Included

It is perhaps worth mentioning that not all sweet peppers are bell peppers, and gardener Joe Brunetti has convinced me, a longtime bell pepper grower, that the non bells are a better bet in the Mid-Atlantic garden. Bells simply take too long to mature, the fruit set is relatively low and they don't attain anywhere near the size of the California-grown fruit you find in the supermarket. Joe imparts this as we examine his one bell variety, World Beater. Late in the season, the peppers have turned a lovely scarlet red, but they are a third of the size you want.

World Beater, an optimistic name for bell pepper varieties in Washington. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

We find abundance instead in a variety named Sweet Banana, which is festooned with clusters of mouthwatering fruits, hornlike and as long as your hand. "We have been picking on this the entire season," he said, observing fruits in three classic stages, yellow-green, orange and full-blooded red. We each take a green and a red one to sample the flavor differences. Both are really fresh-tasty, but the green ones have an unfinished quality about them compared to the red ones, which are not only sweeter but more complex.

Marconi is another tapered, sweet heirloom, but it grows as long as 12 inches. Joe likes it a lot, but next year he is adding a variety he used to grow named Nardello. It's smaller than Marconi, meaning the growth cycles are shorter, and it's even more fruitful.

Peppers require three elements for successful cultivation: full sunlight, deep, rich soil, and a forward-thinking gardener. If you're considering ordering pepper seed in April, forget it. You need to start it indoors by late February. Joe says that more than tomatoes, peppers really benefit from heating pads that warm seed trays and spur quick germination and young growth.

Thick woody stem in a well-grown late-season pepper. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

In addition to Joe's soil preparation, which included incorporating organic fertilizer, he gave the peppers a spray with liquid fish emulsion, supported them with a framework of bamboo and watered as needed. By season's end, the work is rewarded by abundant red fruit and a woody base that is fully an inch and a half across. Take that, Mr. Green Tomato.

-- Adrian Higgins

Pumpkin With Hominy, Corn and Bell Peppers
6 servings

What do you do with the piles of pumpkins and squash after Halloween? Eat them, of course.

In this recipe, they are combined with late-harvest peppers and corn to make a fresh stew. Adjust the seasoning to make it as hot as desired, especially if you are still feeling a bit devilish.

Sugar pumpkins are small, with firmer, drier flesh than the field pumpkins typically used for jack-o-lanterns. Any number of firm-fleshed squashes can be used: butternut, hubbard, delicate or acorn.

Adapted from an October 1997 Bon Appetit recipe by Smithsonian Garden education specialist Cynthia A. Brown.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped (1 cup)
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped (1 cup)
2 small jalapeño peppers, chopped (optional)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 cups sugar pumpkin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (1 small pumpkin; see headnote)
1/4 cup beer or water
15 ounces canned whole hominy, rinsed and drained
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 6 to 8 stems cilantro, chopped (1/3 cup)

Heat a large skillet over medium heat; add the oil and swirl to coat, then add the onion. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the red and green peppers, the jalapeño peppers, if desired, the garlic, pumpkin and beer or water, stirring to combine. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until the squash is almost tender. Stir in the hominy, corn, chili powder and cumin. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often to prevent the ingredients from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix in the cilantro; serve warm.

Per serving: 160 calories, 3 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 220 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  | November 1, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork, Recipes  | Tags:  Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, Joe Brunetti  
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