Growing and Grilling Peppers

'Corno di Toro', or bull's horn peppers, are excellent for grilling or broiling.

Every summer, a large section of my kitchen garden is devoted to a bevy of colorful and delicious peppers, which I love to harvest in big baskets and roast to sweet and savory perfection. The brilliant hues and full-bodied flavors of these New World natives have assumed a central role in many of the world's cuisines, and can transform an everyday meal into a flavorful feast.

Growing peppers for roasting is a relatively recent practice for Americans. Not so long ago, many of us knew only traditional bell peppers harvested at their green (unripe) stage. But within the last decade, many more varieties of sweet and spicy peppers in a multitude of shapes and colors have become available, adding robust flavors and succulent textures to an unending array of easy-to-prepare dishes. At the same time, our cooking styles have concentrated on using a wider range of fresh ingredients and bringing vegetables to the center of the plate.

The dry heat of roasting -- by grilling or broiling -- brings out the flavor of all peppers, and while bell peppers harvested when fully colored are undeniably good, I prefer several other varieties for roasting. In Italy, 'Corno di Toro' (bull's or ram's horn) peppers are the top choice for grilling and sauteing. These peppers grow 8 to 10 inches long, with a tapered, slightly curved shape and thin walls with very sweet flesh. They ripen to a rich red or deep yellow.

Before grilling peppers, I simply slice them lengthwise into 1- to 2-inch-wide strips, then marinate them by tossing them in fruity olive oil with minced garlic and chopped fresh herbs one hour before cooking. Grill peppers 6 to 10 inches above medium coals covered with white ash. Grill as slowly as possible, turning several times, until the peppers are tender when pierced (a little charring won't hurt them and actually adds flavor). They'll develop an irresistibly sweet succulence. Serve warm, sprinkled with a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to accompany chicken, steaks, lamb, or burgers. Be sure to offer crusty bread to sop up the tasty juices. During basil season, sprinkle a handful of freshly chopped leaves over the peppers just before you bring them to the table for a perfect marriage of Mediterranean flavors.

If there are any leftover grilled peppers, eat them for lunch at room temperature with bread and a good hard cheese such as Asiago or Parmesan. The peppers' smoky-sweet flavor makes a satisfying feast out of any meal. Other Italian varieties commonly available include 'Italia', 'Italian Gourmet', 'Marconi', and 'Super Shepherd'.

Lamuyo is another type of European roasting and baking pepper now widely available in the United States. These elongated bell peppers are about twice as long as they are wide. I like to grow them because they get bigger and sweeter than traditional blocky bells, but take no longer to reach harvest. Common varieties include gold 'Yellow Fame', orange 'Mandarin', and early red 'Vidi'. Each has thick, crunchy, and juicy flesh. Grill them and top with a savory sauce (see the Grilled Peppers with Anchovies, Garlic, and Basil recipe, below), or slowly roast them after rubbing with olive oil mixed with chopped garlic and oregano. Top with crumbled feta or freshly grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese and serve as a side dish. For a hearty main course, stuff and bake them with your favorite homemade ravioli filling.

Mild chilie peppers also lend themselves perfectly to roasting. 'Anaheim' or 'California' chilies are actually mild New Mexico types, which also include 'New Mexico #6', 'New Mexico R Naky', 'New Mex Joe Parker', and 'NuMex Big Jim'. The heart-shaped 'Poblano' ripens from shiny deep green to rich reddish brown, usable at either stage.

For more exotic mild chilies, try flattened, blunt-ended, thick-fleshed 'Mulato' or the elongated dark green pods of 'Pasilla' chilies. These are wonderful roasted, then peeled and seeded (see "Roasting Peppers," below). For chiles rellenos, stuff the chilies with cheese, seafood, or chicken; for fajitas, toss them with grilled meats or chicken and grilled onions, tomatoes, salsa, and fresh cilantro.

To summer vegetables like corn, squash, or green beans, I like to add a bold accent of chopped grilled, seeded, and peeled mild chilies. They also add a tantalizing taste to egg or cheese dishes and a kick to casseroles like cooked dried beans or macaroni and cheese. For a spicy twist on chicken soup, add a few roasted and chopped mild chilies and tomatoes and several mashed roasted garlic cloves to the broth. Squeeze in the juice of a fresh lime and sprinkle generously with fresh cilantro. Serve this Mexican-style soup with tortilla chips and diced avocado as a sure cure for whatever may ail you!

Grilled Peppers with Gorgonzola, Lemon, and Capers

Don't expect leftovers from these simple appetizers with their savory and nutty flavors.

Dressing
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
3 ripe sweet peppers, seeded and cut lengthwise into eighths
Olive oil
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
Freshly ground pepper
6 anchovy fillets, drained and halved

Preheat grill so coals are medium-hot and covered with white ash.

Combine garlic, oil, lemon juice, and thyme; set aside.

Brush peppers with oil, and place on grill. Cook, turning once, until tender-crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Spoon 1 teaspoon of dressing inside each pepper wedge; divide capers and cheese evenly among them. Season with black pepper, and top each wedge with an anchovy half. Return to grill just until cheese begins to melt. Serve hot with crusty bread. Serves 6.

Fish Tacos with Sweet Pepper Salsa

If you prefer, substitute 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts for the fish fillets.

Salsa
2 large red elongated sweet peppers, such as 'Vidi', roasted, peeled, and seeded
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 fresh, small hot chilie, such as 'Jalapeno' or 'Serrano', seeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Taco filling
1 pound firm-fleshed mild fish fillets, such as red snapper
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 flour tortillas
1-1/2 cups shredded cabbage or romaine lettuce
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup chopped green onions

To prepare salsa: Coarsely chop sweet peppers and set aside. In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil; add garlic, onion, ginger, hot chilie, and cumin; saute until softened. Add the sweet peppers, oregano, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then cook, covered, over medium-low heat until peppers are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool slightly, then puree in a blender or food processor. Return salsa to pan and add lime juice. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until sauce is slightly thickened, about 1 minute.

To prepare fish: Prepare a grill so coals are medium-hot and covered with white ash; or preheat and oil a griddle. Brush both sides of fish with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Grill fish, turning once, until it flakes when poked with a fork, 6 to 7 minutes on each side.

While fish is cooking, wrap tortillas in foil and heat on side of grill or in a 350° F oven until warm and softened. Mound cabbage, cilantro, and green onions onto a serving dish.

When fish is cooked, break fillets into chunks and divide among tortillas. Pass salsa, cabbage, cilantro, and green onions for each guest to add to taste before rolling up the tortillas. Serves 4.

Roasted Pepper and Black Bean Salad

1-1/4 cups dry black beans or 3 cups cooked black beans
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 long Italian-style sweet peppers (2 red and 2 yellow), halved lengthwise, seeds and stems removed

Dressing
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
4 scallions, chopped
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

If using dry beans, rinse well, drain, and add water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil, turn off heat, cover, and let soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse. Place soaked beans in a deep pot, and add fresh water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil, then loosely cover pot and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Preheat oven to 450°F. Place peppers on broiling pan 3 inches from heat. Turn frequently until skins are blackened. Cool in a paper bag, then rub off the charred skin with paper towels. Cut into 1-inch squares, and place in serving bowl with beans. Combine dressing ingredients thoroughly, and toss with beans and peppers. Garnish with scallions and cilantro. Serves 6 to 8.

Grilled Peppers with Anchovies, Garlic, and Basil

2 large sweet peppers (red and yellow)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 can (2 oz.) anchovies, drained and coarsely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

Preheat grill so coals are medium-hot and covered with white ash. Remove seeds and ribs from peppers, and slice lengthwise into 1-inch strips. Brush strips with olive oil, and grill until slightly charred and tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside. In a frying pan, heat olive oil. Add anchovies and garlic; cook over low to medium heat, stirring, until the anchovies melt and garlic is fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in balsamic vinegar, parsley, and basil. Arrange pepper strips on a serving platter, and spoon the sauce over them. Serve with crusty bread. Serves 4.

Green Chilie Pepper Pesto

This unusual dip for vegetables or chips keeps 'em coming back for more!

6 mild chilie peppers, such as 'Anaheim' or 'Poblano', roasted, peeled, and seeded
1 'Jalapeno' chilie, stemmed and seeded
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts or chopped almonds
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
1-1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a food processor or blender, combine chilies, garlic, parsley, cilantro, nuts, cheese, and lemon juice. Puree, adding olive oil to make a smooth, thick paste. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serves 6 to 8.

Roasting Peppers

Lay whole peppers on a hot grill, under a broiler, or on a stovetop grill, or hold over a gas flame. Grill or broil, turning frequently, until the skins are evenly blackened and charred but the flesh is still crisp. Place the peppers in a paper bag for about 5 minutes to cool and steam -- this helps to loosen the skins further. Then peel off charred skins. Remove stubborn bits by rubbing the skin with a paper towel. Slit and remove veins and seeds. (If you are doing this with chilie peppers, wear rubber gloves and don't touch your eyes.) Chop or slice the peppers to add flavor to a wide variety of savory dishes.

Growing Great Peppers

Peppers, a warm-weather crop, need a long growing season, but starting them indoors will give them ample time to bear fruit in most parts of the country. Six to eight weeks before your area's average last frost date, sow seeds according to packet directions in containers or peat pots filled with seed-starting mix. To germinate, all peppers need consistently warm temperatures, ideally 80° to 85° F. Keep pots moist but not soggy, and seeds will sprout in two to three weeks.

Once seedlings emerge, place them in bright light in 75° F temperatures. Fluorescent shop lights are a good way to provide light for seedlings; suspend lights 2 to 4 inches above the tops of plants and move them higher as seedlings grow. If you're using a sunny windowsill, regularly rotate plants and protect them at night when windowsill temperatures can plummet. Once seedlings get their first true leaves, feed regularly with half-strength liquid fertilizer. When plants are about 2 inches tall, thin or transplant 3 to 4 inches apart or into individual pots.

When danger of frost has passed, weather is consistently warm and settled, and night temperatures are above 55° F, set seedlings outdoors to get them used to garden conditions. Gradually harden them off over three to five days by putting them in a protected shady spot, first for half a day, then a full day, and then gradually into full sun.

For planting, pick a sunny spot with well-drained soil that has been amended with ample organic matter. Set out only the stockiest plants with healthy, well-developed root systems. To minimize stress, try to transplant seedlings on an overcast day or in the late afternoon. Space plants 18 inches apart; most peppers will grow at least several feet tall and need ample room. Stake or cage the plants, as many varieties have a branching habit and heavy fruit sets that will need support. For best crops, weed and water regularly and consistently.

Fertilize at least once a month with an all-purpose plant food or a combination of fish emulsion and liquid kelp. Plants will respond well to a thick layer of mulch applied when they are 5 to 6 inches tall.

For maximum fruit production, harvest regularly. Pick when fruits are large, glossy, and thick-walled, or wait for the mature-ripe stage, when the color changes from green to red, orange, or yellow, and flavor is sweet and well rounded. Ripe peppers are also the most nutritious and the best for eating raw and roasting. When harvesting, always cut rather than pull peppers from the plant so you don't break their brittle branches. Most plants will bear fruit until cool weather takes hold. Store peppers in the refrigerator in ventilated plastic bags, but for best flavor bring them to room temperature before using.

Renee Shepherd is the proprietor of Renee's Garden, a seed company, and the author of Recipes from a Kitchen Garden (Ten Speed Press, 1994; $12).

Photography by National Gardening Association

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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