Surviving the Winter as a Chilehead
Hey, I'll be honest with you...it's not easy! Every winter I really miss walking out to my garden and picking fresh hot peppers 100% organically grown with no chemicals or pesticides. If I'm in a rush I'll even slice them or chop them up without rinsing them off first. After all Mother Nature washed them the last time it rained. But no matter how busy I am I'll always take a few moments to enjoy the splendid beauty of those chile plants. From small bushy plants to giant towering plants they seem to be everywhere. They mostly have green foliage, but shades of purple and white are mixed in. The real show stoppers are, however, the hot peppers themselves. Fire engine reds, golden yellows, deep purples, sunset oranges and emerald greens...all living proof that Mother Nature can get fancy when she desires. The other stuff in the garden cannot come close to rivaling the chiles.
Anyway, sorry about the regression. As Chileheads we've got to get through the winter, right? How to do it? It's instinctive! It's intuitive! Much like a squirrel stores nuts or a bear fattens up for hibernation, WE JUST KNOW. Although I have gotten better and smarter at it over the years. I'll share some of my tips and experience with you.
During the winter months I do enjoy the taste, smell, feel and even sound (Ever hear the 'pop' of habanero when you're frying it? Puncture it with a fork first) of my hot peppers. The secret is to 'squirrel' away enough to get you through even the longest winters. You acomplish this by freezing and drying your chiles, even making your own hot sauce.
I use chiles during these cold weather months almost daily. Hot pepper flakes in my soups and chilis, hot pepper powder with eggs, thawed hot peppers fried in olive oil and garlic topping my favorite pasta, dried hot pepper pods tossed into many major meals, and hot pepper sauce splashed on cheese steaks and hoagies.
With this wide assortment of using chiles I never get the winter blues. And the bonus is that I rarely get colds or the flu. That's probably because peppers are loaded with vitamin A and C, minerals, and have great nutritional value. I don't think I'm a fanatic for eating them daily. But you could make a case that any guy called "Pepper Joe" just may take his love for hot peppers to an extreme.
Hot Peppers For Drying
Always pick thin-skinned varieties such as cayenne peppers. They have a low moisture level and therefore dry easier without rotting or getting mildew. You can dry them in a sunny windowsill or slow roast them in the oven. Either way I prefer to remove the seeds first. They dry better and without the seeds you have a gourmet blend. Of course a food dehydrator makes the entire process a snap. My favorites are hot pepper 'flakes'. I cut peppers into 1/4" x 1/4" tiny squares and dry them on large plates in a sunny windowsill or direct sun outdoors. Turn them occasionally as they are drying. After they are dried I'll roast them in the oven set at 250 degrees just until they start to darken. This gives the flakes a nutty flavor. CAUTION: Be careful of hot pepper 'fumes' coming from the oven.
Freezing Hot Peppers
This is the simplest way to go. Hot peppers freeze very well retaining the flavor and texture. Wash them thoroughly and let dry. Then just slice off the stem at the shoulder of the hot pepper and freeze in baggies with the seeds intact. That's all there is to it. I don't even bother to blanche them because they freeze so well. Remember, thick skinned fleshy varieties freeze best.
Where to find a good selection
The typical supermarket has a limited selection especially during the winter months. You can find the basics like Jalapenos and Habaneros. As far as seed catalogs go I'm constantly amazed. Most large companies offer the same old peppers. They just don't get it. Chile peppers are exploding in popularity. Salsa is now the #1 condiment in the USA surpassing catsup and mustard. Hot cuisine is 'in'. Look around at the amount of Mexican, Thai, Chinese restaurants. The immigration patterns have changed with more immigrants arriving from countries that prefer hot foods. The large seed companies have missed all of this. You're better off with a small company that specializes in primarily hot peppers. Our company is constantly searching for different and exciting products. We're always receiving new varieties from overseas, friends and customers, even the USDA (United States Dept. of Agriculture).
Hot Pepper Sauce
There is a proliferation of hot sauce selection on the market. They range from mild to incredibly hot with an unbelievable range of ingredients. This explains why you never hear of chileheads committing suicide during the winter. Hot sauce helps us get through. I use bottled hot sauce but I prefer my own home-made sauces. It doesn't matter if you grow your own or buy them at the supermarket, you can make your own personal blend of hot sauce. It's easy! And YOU control the heat level, the quality of the ingredients and the flavor. I like mine 100% natural and without preservatives. I provide some free recipes that are simple to make at our website. Check it out when you get a chance.
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