Sunday, October 23, 2011

Peppers, Part 1

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, dahlias, silver lace vine, datura, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds; grape leaves brown or yellow, apple leaves golden orange; woman down the road has been putting nightly covers over the plants that are still blooming in front of her house wall; man down the road planted alfalfa this week.

Beyond the walls and fences: Leatherleaf globemallows, clammy weed, goat’s head, chamisa, native sunflowers, snakeweed, gumweed nearly gone, Hopi tea, áñil del muerto, broom senecio, golden hairy, strap-leaf, purple and heath asters, mushrooms; cottonwood leaves turning yellow, some Apache plume leaves yellow, tamarix and choke cherry leaves turning orange; more Juniper berries a grey blue; gypsum phacelia seedlings grown larger.

In my yard, looking east: Winecup mallow, sidalcea, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, Rose Queen salvia, Shirley poppies; Autumn Joy sedum leaves have coral tinge, Maximilian sunflower leaves turning yellow and falling.

Looking south: Floribunda roses; zinnias turned brown, rose of Sharon leaves turning yellow, raspberry leaves bronzed.

Looking west: Calamintha, Silver King artemisia; sea lavender leaves mottled, red at the tips, then yellow and green toward the stem; purple coneflower leaves turning yellow or dirty brown.

Looking north: Nasturtium from seed, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, blanket flower, yellow cosmos from seed, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum; black locust, apricot and sweet cherry leaves turning yellow, Siberian pea dropping its leaves.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, nicotiana, impatiens; moss rose blooming despite many dead leaves.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: More birds flitting about the arroyo yesterday late morning; don’t know if it was the time of day or the time of year; harvester and small black ants.

Weather: First morning temperatures below 32; last rain 10/07/11; 11:03 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: As soon as you arrive in New Mexico and need to find a place to eat while you await the moving van, you’re confronted with the great question, red or green.

There’s no right answer. You say green. You like the taste of the peppers or don’t. The next time, you say red. You like, you don’t. You notice how others respond to your choice, and the time after you follow their lead.

Unless you’re from Texas, where they eat jalapeños like the rest of us eat celery sticks, it doesn’t hurt to do what others do in public, and eat what you like when you’re alone.

In theory, the distinction between red and green is simply a preference for a particular food preservation technique. If you pick a chile pepper when it’s green, it has a milder taste because the chemicals that give it the hotter flavor don’t develop until it ripens and the skin turns red.

In Chimayó in the past, people preferred to eat them when they were green, but used the red for medicine. Don Usner was told chile caribe was especially effective against colds and sore throats, while Leonora Curtin was told to use chile colorado for rheumatism.

Unfortunately, unripe Capsicum annuum spoil when they’re picked, while red ones will dry and last a very long time. It’s very difficult to dry the unripe fruits because their skins toughen to prevent premature evaporation in this arid climate. The trapped water supports bacteria, that leads to rot.

People in México, probably those who lived in Teotihuacán northeast of modern Mexico City around the time of Christ, discovered they could preserve unripe peppers in their milder state by smoking them.

When Phillip II sent Francisco Hernández to report on plants from the New World in the 1570's, people on Hispañola, where Christopher Columbus had first eaten chiles 80 years before, were drying and smoking one species so it lasted it a year. Texochilli was a soft pepper, with a light spiciness and was “usually eaten with corn or with tortillas.”

Smoking peppers enough to remove all the water takes time. According to Wikipedia, chipotles are jalapeños that have ripened red and dried on the plant. At the end of the season in Chihuahua, the ones that ripened late are picked for smoking that can take several days. Chuck Evans experimented with smoking peppers over hickory wood with a modern rack smoker and found red pods took three days to dry at 110 degrees.

People realized that, instead of completely drying peppers with heat, they could simply heat chiles long enough to make the skins easier to remove.

In Chimayó, Benigna Chávez remembers they would roast red chile “in the horno, on coals of the wood.” I’ve talked to a young woman in her 30's in Santa Fe who says when she was a child her father would roast green peppers in the stove’s oven in pans. Now every August, a section of the local grocer’s parking lot is fenced off for the propane fueled burners that roast chiles dumped from 50 pound burlap bags into spinning wire cages.

Half cooked peppers still spoil if they’re not eaten within a week. In the past, Chávez said they “peeled it and tied it and hung it outside to dry on the clothesline” before putting the dried chiles “away in a flour sack that was not very thick so it would get air and hang it in the dispensa for the winter.”

When people are given their clear plastic bags of roasted chiles in the parking lot today, they still have to remove the skins and seeds, and cut them. Since electricity was introduced after World War II, many have frozen diced pieces instead of drying slices.

Such progress, of course, changes the taste of and for peppers. It also alters that primal New Mexico question, (almost) fresh or dried?

Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

DeWitt, Dave and Chuck Evans. “Chipotle Flavors: How to Smoke Chiles,” Fiery Foods website.

Hernández, Francisco. The Mexican Treasury,” edited by Simon Varey, 2000.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995, includes quote from Benigna Chávez.

Wikipedia entry on “Chipotle.”

Photograph: Peppers from different generations this summer left to ripen down the road, 20 October 2011.

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