They are waiting for me outside. Every time I go into the garden I know they’re there, lurking. They are a row of still sturdy-looking chilli peppers, burdened by shining green and red fruit.
I really should be making salsa verde from them, or better yet, popping them into jars with various spices and herbs to enjoy through the winter. It’s just that we’ve been so busy lately, there was an unprecedented family reunion to recover from – and then there was Easter, which meant a houseful of friends, wine and chocolate.
Now everyone has returned to the UK or Australia and even Gisborne, and peace is descending on the household. And it’s time to do something about the impressive crop of chillies waiting in the garden.
Of course, we’ve used many over the summer in our cooking, but these little plants have made such an impressive effort that we need to get busy.
Chillies are native to Mexico, where they’ve been grown for at least nine thousand years. Chillies (Capsicum frutescens) come in greens and reds, round and long. Green means they are younger (and hotter) while red indicates advancing months.
In the past, I have grown a wide range – Anaheim, which is a good pepper for stuffing, Cayenne (hot), Jalapeno (very hot), Thai (off the scale) and Habanero, the chilli pepper which sorts the small, soft furry things from the bigger, soft furry things.
Talking about scales, thanks to Wilbur L Scoville, we have a way of measuring how hot chillies are. According to the Scoville test, chillies range in intensity from 0 (Anaheim or other user-friendly peppers) to 300,000. Using this scale, the long, thin chillies one buys in shops rate from 50,000 to 100,000 and good old Habanero hits the 300,000 mark.
Habanero chillies are also called Scotch bonnets, for their shape which resembles a tam-o-shanter. The mature bright orange fruit is said to be hundreds of times hotter than Jalapenos (see very hot). With this chilli, sauces are created with names like Hell Fire and Sure Death and often carry health warnings.
In fact, when handling chillies that rate well on the Scoville test, you’re strongly advised to wear gloves. Or get someone else to do the chopping. I rinse my hands after chopping away the seeds, as a matter of habit. And remember not to rub your eyes.
The traditional remedy for eating a chilli that is too hot is to gulp milk or yoghurt – not water. This washes the heat around the mouth. Rice, pasta or bread help. One bit of wisdom says the best thing to do if you eat a too-hot chilli is to gobble another one. And if that fails, get another.
Capsaicin, the chemical in the seeds and veins of chillies, stimulates the release of endorphins, which gives a natural high and people can become addicted to chillies.
After years of growing the many different varieties, I have decided I like Jalapeno the most, and this is what is fruiting rampantly in my garden now.
One of my favourite dishes using chilli is fish chowder, which is simply scrumptious.
Fish chowder with chilli
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 onion
- 1 tarakihi fillet
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- I packet fish stock
- 1 tin tomato puree
- 4-5 chilli peppers (as hot as you like, I use Jalapeno)
- 12 raw, peeled prawns
- salt and pepper
Heat oil in a large saucepan.
Chop celery and onion and sauté until tender.
Cut fish into bite-sized chunks, and add to the pan. Cook for a few minutes.
Add the garlic, chopped thyme and bay leaves. Stir over medium heat.
Pour in the fish stock and tomato puree. Cut peppers in half, remove seeds if less heat is wanted, slice thin and add to pan. Season to taste.
Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook for about half an hour. Add the prawns, and cook for another few minutes.
Then, of course, you can pickle them. The man of the house is a dab hand at pickling peppers, so I might just nip outside now, collect an armload, and leave them on the table with some jars.
- Jalapeno peppers
- 1 clove of garlic, sliced
- 1 shallot, sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- sprig of oregano
- handful of thyme
- 1 dsp oil
Puncture each pepper first, to prevent them from collapsing. Blanch for three minutes in boiling water. Add the above ingredients to heated jars, packed with the peppers. Then pour over the brine:
- 1 dsp sugar
- 3 dsp salt
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup vinegar
Close jars and process in boiling water for 10 minutes, then cool. Jalapenos must be hot when the brine solution is added.