In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
September, 2010
Regional Report

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Pickled peppers make tasty and colorful gifts, if you can bear to share.

Peppers Aplenty

Hot peppers are forgiving to busy gardeners. Forget to fertilize, they grow anyway. Forgo water and they wilt at midday, yet the flavor improves. Then comes the question of what to do with all that bounty.

Harvest for more
First of all, keep picking unless you're ready to save seed. Like all annual plants, peppers consider it their mission to bloom, produce viable seed and die. The longer you harvest, the more peppers will produce. If you do water and fertilize occasionally, the plants will continue to grow and make more peppers. That's the beauty and the dilemma of growing cayenne, chili peppers of all sorts, and my favorite for cooking and "putting up", Tabasco peppers.

Preserving the pepper harvest for future use and gifting can be done many ways. Keep these goals in mind: color and integrity. Both are essential to safely prepared peppers that will be appetizing for months to come. Put up only fresh, intact peppers even if you will be slicing them into rings. If the skin is compromised by cuts or age, neither vinegar nor dehydration will return the pepper to top quality. Slice those culls up, coat in olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast in the oven with onions and corn for a quick side dish.

Pick a method
Stuffed, pickled, pureed, dehydrated, dried or frozen, there are reasons to use each of these methods for hot peppers. Sizable ones like poblano are natural for stuffing, then roasting and/or freezing. If you're not a fan of chile relleno, try this instead. Blend shredded jack cheese with enough mayonnaise to make it spreadable. Cook a mixed bunch of chilies with onions and celery, salt and pepper until they become soft or "sweat". Puree the whole business and refrigerate as a holding stage. Later, you can make pepper jelly or pepper paste with the puree.

Pickled peppers in various vinegars (alone or with a few herbs added) can put a spicy splash on cabbage or beans or be the beginning of salad dressings and marinades. Sliced peppers put up in the same vinegars can be eaten alone or used in cooking.

Dried and dehydrated peppers are a long standing tradition in the Southwest US, and in the fall, strings of dried peppers hang alongside garlic braids in New Orleans' French Market and farmers markets across our regions. To preserve peppers as a culinary ingredient, wash, de-seed and dice individual varieties or make a pepper blend, then freeze on trays for easy retrieval.

Safety first
The way you put up peppers and any other edibles is less important than your attitude about the process. Choose the most convenient method for you, or the one the creates the end product you seek, but put food safety first. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great place to start your education about food preservation. They are housed at the University of Georgia and funded with your tax dollars. Specializing in current events as well as seasonal tips and a host of resources for individuals and educators, NCHPF stays on top of the best methods and makes that information available to the public through their website www.uga.edu/nchfp/ and events. Your state's Cooperative Extension Service has staff that specializes in this area of agriculture; take advantage of their publications and programs. Last but not least, the venerable Rodale Press publishes Stocking Up: The Third Edition of America's Classic Preserving Guide by Carol Hupping.

Small batch preserving of peppers or any other food can be a real confidence builder for people with food safety concerns. Temperatures are critical, including the vinegars used with so many peppers, and we know better today how to create tastier preserved foods, too, thanks to research in both the public and private sectors. Put these collective smarts to good use and don't use old family recipes unless you can be certain they meet the 21st century food safety criteria.


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