Monday, April 7, 2008

"Capsicum." It rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? Not like "Solanaceae," which is simultaneously hard to pronounce and sounds like a variety of cancer. Capsicum is upbeat, punchy, pithy. And we could all use a bit more pithiness in our lives.
Capsicum includes both hot and sweet peppers, and as far as genus rivalries go, vies with allium (onion, garlic, shallots) for best flavoring group ever. I don't care much about sweet peppers, but hot peppers are essential.
Wisconsin is a land of plenty in many ways. We have master cheesemakers. We have beautiful herds of cows. We have corn and soy, and brats. (Not to mention beer, oh best beloved.) However, spice is not something that is common. In restaurants, I ask for 5-star hotness, and assure the waitresses that, really, I want it hot. If I'm lucky, what arrives produces a moderate tingle. Even in Thai restaurants, one of the places I've generally assumed to be free of mid-Western understandings of heat, where spicy = Tobasco.
What's even more amazing is that we have immigrants; Madison, at least, has Korean, Thai, Hmong, and other heat-loving palates.
So what's in the garden and market becomes even more valuable as the source of vital heat.
The farmer's market, of course, has peppers. There is, in fact, a pepper stall. (My favorite bit is that the mild and sweet chocolate peppers sit next to the habaƱeros of fire without any sort of distinction, as though inviting innocent Wisconsin market goers to choose. It's like the lady and the tiger, but botanical.) And the little finger-long Thai peppers are ubiquitous, and can be brilliantly hot, like biting into lightbulb.
So why worry? In Wisconsin's short season, wouldn't it be better to grow things you can't get in the market?
Peppers taste different, for one thing. Try replacing New Mexican green chile with a Thai version of similar heat, and the taste just isn't the same. I think this is one of the things that marks fake Mexican food so distinctly - making the jalapeƱo the sole source of heat, instead of one of a constellation of flavors. And there are subtleties in flavor, too. Big Jim is my favorite New Mexican pepper, good enough that I can forgive it for being the biggest type of New Mexican chile (biggest usually is not a bonus in my book), for being a latecomer (1975!) and for the horrifying appelation "NuMex Big Jim." (It's the Nu that is really irritating.) I almost placed a separate order for it this year; common sense won out, but next year, it's going in. Also: Dear market gardeners of Wisconsin, please grow and roast New Mexican chile for me, because I am tired of going through airport security with frozen bags of chile and cold packs. Thank you.
This year I have six options for peppers.

Balloon Pepper - little funky-shaped peppers that look a bit like off-color habaneros to me
Candlelight Pepper - the narrow, finger-length peppers so common in the market - gorgeous.
Georgia Flame Pepper - not from the south but from Georgia-near-Russia. Supposedly hot and good for salsa. Hopefully also good for drying and adding to things.
Thai Hot Pepper - another small peppered plant, hot and gorgeous. I may have this confused with candlelight peppers - the pictures are pretty similar.
Tobago Seasoning Pepper - supposedly "mild", whatever that means, although Seed Savers also thinks it's "variable." (Yay!)
Wenk's Yellow Hots - how could I not, after this line? Seed Savers: "Grown by the late Erris Wenk, one of the last large local truck farmers in Albuquerque's South Valley." Hey, I've been there! How could I not plant these? RIP, Erris. Marked as both medium hot and hot. Supposedly good from canning and pickling, neither of which I've done before.
So, knowing that I have options, I really only need a plant for trial of Balloon, Candlelight, and Thai Hot. (That means I'll plant 2-3, because I'm perverse like that. Also, things die.) Georgia Flame is the one I want lots of - the peppers look very ristra-y, which means they may dry well. Or not.
Either way, I'll have options for my endorphin high, which is excellent, because cayenne is getting really boring.

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