When it comes to growing habaneros, I’m a badass. I suck at pretty much everything, but if you pin me down, this is one thing I’m good at doing. This year 8 plants grown from seed (from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) produced 6 POUNDS of peppers. Yep, 6 pounds. The irony? I can’t eat them and neither can anyone else. Too freaking hot. Like, don’t touch your eyes hot.
Why do I grow them? Because I can. Because I’m damn good at it. I’ve been gardening for almost 20 years, and have seen my share of failure. Gardening is a finicky mistress. A delicate chemical formula, requiring the right seeds, enough sun, no overwatering, which if you’re very lucky will result in good eats. There’s nothing more frustrating than babying a plant, doing everything right, but because of the weather or the plant gods, or whatever, seemingly healthy shoots shrivel up and die, sometimes overnight.
But I can grow some damn habs. I’ve tried serranos (great in Bloody Marys) and jalapenos (great roasted into chipotles) but I always go back to my apricot fire. What can I say? Some people obsess about pumpkins in the fall, I obsess about the tiny orange wrinkled globes my plants seem to produce at will.
Every January I sit with the seed catalog and dream. Some years I get adventurous, trying on new vegetables for size. Heirloom tomatoes, okra, exotic lettuces. Half the time these plants end up weak and disease-ridden, or the rabbits get them, or they produce such a low yield I have to wonder why I bother? I mean 9 heirloom plants producing 7 tomatoes? What’s the point?
As a result, sometimes I just want to be successful. To have a huge harvest without a lot of work. Plus, I’ve had a rough year. I’m in need of some success, a nice pat on the proverbial back. I want that confidence boost that comes from looking at your garden knowing, “I did that.” Habs fit the bill. Not only do they grow abundantly, but the only pests I’ve come across are aphids, which are quickly dispatched by insecticidal soap.
I figured out a long time ago most vegetables can grow in pots. I grow everything in them. Instead of slaving away in the hot sun, weeding, spraying, babying my plants, I just step outside, take a quick look, trim here, spray there, and I’m done in 10 minutes. The plants reach almost 4.5 feet in height and the lush green leaves, white flowers, and low-hanging green and ripened orange fruit looks glorious in the summer sun right into Autumn. And 6 pounds of peppers later, I look like a rockstar.
But what to do with 6 pounds of apricot fire? I sent 2 pounds to a friend in Georgia who insisted he wanted an entire quart-bag Ziploc full of these beauties. Made sure I included instructions like, “Use gloves when cutting. Do not touch eyes. Wash hands thoroughly. Keep fatty foods like butter, milk, and ice cream about in case of capsaicin emergencies.” When you’re dealing with a pepper that contains 100-350,000 Scoville units, this is imperative.
The remaining 4 pounds are a mixture of orange and green habaneros. Both are stellar vegetables, containing flavors of fruit, herbs, and lemony acid, NOT JUST HEAT. Another reason I prefer habs to any other pepper. Orange habs start off as sweet peach or apricot on the tongue, quickly evolving into a smoky heat that builds until it is capsaicin fire. Just a little adds a fruity spice to chili, stir-fry, spaghetti sauce, salsa, hell anything you can dream up that might need some fruity heat.
Green habs taste green, for want of a better word. Herbal like a meadow. They taste like springtime smells, before evolving into just as intense a heat as the orange. Use green habs anywhere you think an herbal element might improve the flavor.
I dried the orange ones in my dehydrator. Wear gloves, then slice, remove the seeds (the hottest part, trust me the meat of the pepper is plenty hot), and dry on racks at 135 degrees for about 3-4 hours. Place in Ziploc bags in the freezer. Just one pepper is enough for an entire crock pot full of chili. The smell permeating the house during the drying process is an intoxicating perfume of smoked peaches, apricots, spice, and capsaicin. I’ve come to crave it every Autumn. I’m used to the smell, but I’ve had a lot of folks say it clears their sinuses.
As for the green habs? I was fortunate enough to attend a demonstration by Paul Virant of Chicago’s Vie Restaurant during Richmond’s Fire, Flour, Fork festival last weekend. He talked about his own recipe for fermented pepper hot sauce which I’m dying to try! Ferment the peppers whole in a crock with an equal volume of salt and water for 2-3 weeks. Then simmer with equal weight of peppers, the brine itself, and vinegar. As he put it, “NO bacteria is able to survive in THAT soup!” I’ll let you know how it turns out.
What fueled this adoration for fiery fruit? Why do I grow something I can no longer eat comfortably? Because 20 years ago, I could. Because 20 years ago, during the infancy of the Interwebs, I was part of a listserv called the ChileHeads. Hot pepper enthusiasts traded recipes, growing and preserving tips, jokes, stories, and challenges to like-minded people as part of their daily digest.
I developed my palate for hot peppers by trying out different types of hot sauce, discovering that the best ones aren’t just a blast of heat, but contain full flavors of smoke, fruit, citrus, even beer, wine, or chocolate. To this day I use Mild to Wild Habanero Barbecue Sauce and Chipotle Barbecue Sauce on everything from french fries to mac and cheese to quesadillas because the owner was a member of the listserv. The best hot sauce I’ve ever tasted was developed in Indiana by Jim Campbell, who harvests 40 acres of hot peppers on his land, and invites fellow Chileheads out to his farm to camp every Autumn where they can pick to their heart’s content. Screw picking apples on Carter’s Mountain. Like Peter, I want to pick peppers!
So yeah, I’m still a Chilehead, even though my ingestion of said chiles has greatly diminished. I’ll always grow them. I’ll always have them to give away. I’ve got 2 pounds dried in my freezer if you’re interested. Not only are the plants beautiful, and the fruity flavor addictive, I love the feeling of success I get from growing them. When life kicks you down and makes you feel like you can’t do anything right, it helps to have something to fall back on that you’re good at, and that you enjoy. To remind you you’re a badass.
I figure I’m carrying on a tradition. My Nana always grew lush fields of iris every year, and my Muddy was a genius with geraniums. When I’m old and gray, I’ll be growing habs. In a pot of course.
Pepper Drying Playlist? K-Tel Super Gold Hits from the 70’s. Of course!