It's difficult to forget your first accidental encounter with a habanero pepper. As soon as the little sliver of fruit touched my tongue I spit it out, but it was already too late. My mouth was one raging inferno. I spent the better part of the next hour sucking on ice cubes to no avail. I now know that the oil in chiles doesn't mix with water so I should've used milk, yogurt or bananas to put out the fire. Still, that eight-alarm experience didn't dampen my enthusiasm for one of summer's tastiest and most colorful treats: Chile peppers.
An ancient plant becomes a new favorite.
Hot peppers are warm-weather perennial shrubs in their native tropics, but are treated as annuals in most gardens. Remains of peppers have been found at archeological sites that date back to 7000 BC. They may have been cultivated as far back as 2500 BC. Christopher Columbus was among the first explorers to introduce chiles to fascinated Europeans. Here in America, interest in ethnic dishes and the desire to tingle our tastebuds has made these peppers the hottest thing in the garden, the kitchen and the market. In fact, chile-rich salsas have now surpassed catsup as our most popular condiment.
The right pepper for your region.
Although many grocery stores and specialty markets offer a variety fresh and dried chiles, there is no substitute for growing your own. Since they are true New World natives, hot peppers can be grown just about anywhere their sweet cousins do well. The trick for northern gardeners is to select early maturing varieties that will produce a harvest before frost. Anaheim chiles with their rich flavor are a good choice for northern gardens. Poblanos are relatively mild and are ideal for stuffing and roasting. Spicy Thai Dragon chiles are six times hotter than jalapenos and mature in about 68 days.
Red and yellow cayenne chiles make great seasonings and perfect garden plants for the central states. The fiery, flavorful Serrano chiles are excellent for making fresh salsa as well spicing up vegetable and egg dishes. As in the north Poblano peppers are also dependable performers here.
The lucky gardeners in milder climates have a huge selection of peppers to choose from. Just keep in mind that the hotter the climate, the hotter the pepper, which means folks in the hot, dry southwestern states will produce peppers that may shoot right off of the Scoville heat index. The most courageous chile lover will probably want to try the Red Savina habanero, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest chile pepper on earth. Those with less adventuresome tastebuds might prefer a member of the jalapeno family - they make super hot pepper jelly and stuffed chile poppers.
Chiles need full sun, good drainage and loamy soil that has been enriched with compost, aged manure and bonemeal. Set young plants out in the spring at least two weeks after your last frost. Don't plant your peppers near cantaloupes, cucumbers or tomatoes to avoid infection by tobacco mosaic disease. Water plants well and give them a good feeding with a soluble fertilizer that is high in calcium nitrate. Chiles also enjoy a dose of fish emulsion, or liquid seaweed. Keep feeding monthly to insure a continuous, abundant crop. You can harvest chiles when they are green or red as long as they are full-sized. Always cut peppers instead of pulling them off the bush. Also, be sure to wear rubber gloves when handling chiles and never rub your eyes.
Why we like getting burned.
The powerful compound capsaicin gives chiles their heat. A scale called the Scoville heat index rates the burning power of various peppers. The bell pepper is rated at 0, cayenne boasts 35,000 heat units and the Red Savina habanero hits the top of the chart at between 350,000 and 500,000 units. Why would anyone want to put something that hot in his or her mouth? The answer is that the "burn" signals the brain to release endorphins, a natural opiate. Humans, dogs, chimpanzees, goats --even chickens- grow to like this pain/pleasure roller coaster. So next time you see a chicken munching on a habanero, don't think she's cuckoo. She's just having some hot fun in the summertime.