Peppers ~ Do you believe in magic?

The most memorable moments in Hollywood and Broadway awards shows are often not in scripts. So, when cinema luminary Federico Fellini came to the microphone during the 1992 Academy Awards, he had me at “ciao.”

I set my glass of wine and bowl of popcorn down on the kitchen table and leaned forward. This could be interesting. The beloved Italian writer-director was being presented with an honorary Oscar for a lifetime of unforgettable movies – Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and more. Fellini was more than a genius filmmaker. He was also famous for his choice quotes, and he didn’t disappoint, wrapping up his short remarks with a generous smile and the observation that “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”

I’m not the only one to have been smitten by that delicious remark, which has become as popular as pizza. And why not? It’s the perfect recipe, and for many cooks and gardeners it can be improved only by adding some peppers to the sauce for the pasta – or really, just about anything else on the plate. Peppers are on U.S menus around the clock these days, from huevos rancheros at breakfast to Mexican cocoa at bedtime.

Even gardeners who don’t crave the heat have discovered that milder peppers can transform a recipe, and that all varieties are generally easy to grow and as beautiful in the garden as on the plate. There really is something for every taste.

Peppers – Born in the Americas

Peppers are native to the Americas and have been part of the earth’s landscape since before human settlement in South America, where geological evidence dates them to tens of thousands of years ago. Evidence of human use dates back at least 6,000 years. According to Virginia pepper expert and grower Mark Ragland, the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs were primarily responsible for their domestication and culture, selectively choosing peppers in the wild that they preferred. Most people are surprised to learn that “there are no peppers native to Asia, Europe, or any other country,” Ragland says.

“Ask a Chinese chili lover or an Indian or a Thai and most will swear that chilies are native to their homeland, so integral is the spice to their cooking, so deeply embedded is it in their culture,” writes Simon Robinson in Time Magazine.

Pepper Explosion – Who Lit the Fuse?

long-red-cayenne-pepper-seeds-capsicum-annuum-202-monticello
Long Red Cayenne peppers (Monticello Garden Store)

We can blame it all on Christopher Columbus, according to historians. When he set sail from Spain in 1492, the explorer was searching for a westward route to Asia and its ample chest of spices, particularly rare and expensive black pepper. Making landfall in the Caribbean, he encountered hot peppers. Fortunately for us, Columbus was not a culinarian or a botanist. Because they were spicy, he mistook the exotic fruits for the black peppercorn (Piper nigrum, the dried seed from an entirely different plant), and brought them back to Spain. The rest is history.

A Famous Redhead and his Cayennes

Pepper fever spread like wildfire almost as soon as the plants left the New World and were introduced into cuisines around the globe.

Thomas Jefferson, the red-headed Founding Gardener who was born with a silver trowel in his hand, was among the early adopters. In 1767, just before his 24th birthday, he planted his first Long Red Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum annuum) plants at Shadwell, his Virginia birthplace.

And 45 years later, and just a few miles away, he was still planting peppers, this time at his world-famous gardens at Monticello. One of his garden records shows that Jefferson received the seeds of the Texas Bird Pepper (C. annuum glabriusculum) from Army Captain Samuel Brown of San Antonio. In the time-honored tradition of pass-along plants, Jefferson grew them and then forwarded seeds to Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon, who was reported to have popularized the colorful Bird Pepper as an ornamental potted plant, which is still available today.

Both Cayenne and Bird peppers are handsome plants and if you’re short on garden space, you can grow both in containers. Like all peppers, they need warmth, abundant sunshine and good soil. The Cayenne’s dark green foliage sparkles with tiny icy-white flowers that mature into green fruits and then into scarlet exclamation pepper points. Imagine glamorous movie star Julianne Moore walking the red carpet in a form-fitting red dress and a diamond necklace. You get the picture.

top-of-texas-bird-pepper-plant-with-foliage-flowers-and-fruit-lady-bird-johnson-wildflower-center-digital-library
Texas Bird Chili (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)

The Texas Bird Pepper plant reaches only about 12 inches high, with reddish-orange fruits the size of tiny cherry tomatoes. Brown wrote Jefferson that “The Spaniards use it in a fine Powder & seldom eat anything without it. The Americans … make a pickle of the green Pods with Salt & Vinegar which they use with Lettuce, Rice, Fish, etc.” Today, this basic recipe for “pepper vinegar” remains as popular as salt and pepper on tables throughout the Southern states and beyond.

 

Maybe it’s your turn to garden like a redhead, and make your garden, your pasta – and your life – more magical by sprinkling in some cayenne. If you’re just getting started, only two or three plants can provide enough peppers to last until the next summer’s harvest. You may have enough left over for holiday gifts of pepper vinegar or easy-to-make dried pepper flakes, or to use as long-lasting decorations. As every gardener knows, these gifts from the earth are even sweeter when they’re home-grown.

Pasta Fresca No. 1
This homegrown recipe opened my eyes to the magic of peppers and pasta.

Line up your ingredients (“mise en place,” say the French) while you start boiling water for the pasta.

Ingredients

Pasta to serve two

2 T good olive oil
1 bunch of scallions (chopped)
1 ½ C canned or fresh tomatoes (chopped, incl. juice)
1 tsp sugar
fresh oregano & parsley (finely chopped)
¼ tsp (generous pinch) dried red/cayenne pepper flakes
pinch (generous) fennel seed (ground slightly in a mortar & pestle)
salt & pepper to taste
fresh basil (chopped) – or frozen cube of pesto, if you have it on hand
Italian cheese(s) of your choice

Optional add-ins: some good pepperoni, browned Italian sausage or a few shrimp that you’ve sautéed in olive oil. Prepare them ahead of time, before the steps below ~

This goes together quickly. While pasta is boiling ~

  1. Sauté scallions with olive oil in a shallow pan
  2. When soft & slightly golden, stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer just a few minutes, uncovered, to reduce slightly
  3. Then, fold in extras if you’d like, such a shrimp, Italian sausage or pepperoni
  4. Serve over pasta and sprinkle with your favorite freshly grated or shaved Italian cheeses (Parmesan, Romano, Asiago)

Buon appetito!

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Roses ~ ‘… and when she opened her suitcase …’

By Patricia Paquette
October 2016

I overheard two women talking on the street one gray winter morning in downtown Seattle when these words stopped me cold: “And when she opened her suitcase in the hotel room, it was filled with red roses.” I was on my way into the office, and a little late, but the sheer romance of this image, its stunning luxury, erased all thoughts of the day ahead. Don’t you wonder what came before the flower-filled suitcase – or after? I’m guessing the woman in the hotel room, or whoever packed her suitcase, must have been a redhead.

What flower can rival the place reserved for roses in our hearts and gardens? And no wonder, with its long and loved history in the wilds and in cultivation.

Ancient History – in Colorado and China

Fossil evidence for roses dates back some 70 million years in Asia and from 35 million years ago in North America. “Rose species are found only in the Northern Hemisphere, and no one knows why,” according to the American Rose Society, which notes that specimens found near Canyon City, Colo., closely resemble the modern-day species familiar to many gardeners, Rosa nutkana (the Nootka Rose) and R. palustris (the Swamp Rose).

It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of rose history, categories and hybridization, but time travel a few millennia forward and, says the National Arboretum, “you’ll find that the majority of modern roses owe more of their genetic heritage to Chinese species than to all others combined.”

'Champneys Pink Cluster' - AntiqueRoseEmporium.com
‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ – AntiqueRoseEmporium.com

Indeed, garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, probably in China. However, even before the first ever-blooming rose made the trip from China to Europe in the late 1700s, “roses were already one of the most loved flowers in Western culture, with unparalleled beauty and fragrance,” say Arboretum historians. This was true even though nearly every variety grown in those times bloomed for only about a month each spring. Then, the newly arrived ‘China’ rose (R. chinensis) burst on the scene, blooming all season long, and cloaked in even more beautiful petals and fragrance. Just imagine.

A Ground-breaking American Rose – With a French Name

Native species roses were growing in North America while the continent was being settled by Europeans. Captain John Smith records a rose today thought to be R. Virginiana, which caused a sensation when it was exported to Europe. However, “there is no other class of roses more American than the Noisettes,” in the opinion of horticulturists such as those at Carolina Gardener. The Noisette was the first rose hybridized in the new country, and is named for Phillippe Noisette, a French-born horticulturist and neighbor of John Champneys, a rice farmer in Charleston, So. Carolina. This was in the early 1800s, when Charleston was a major port in the global plant trade.

‘Champneys Pink Cluster,’ the first in the new class, resulted from a cross between ‘Old Blush’ (a China rose, R. chinensis) and the European musk rose (R. moschata) in Champneys’ garden. As the story goes, Champneys gave some of the infant plants to Noisette, who collected its seeds, developed the ‘Blush Noisette, and sent that seed to his brother in Europe, where it became a parent of a long line of roses stretching even to today.

The Twinleaf Journal published at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello notes that ‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ “remained an important ornamental through the nineteenth century. Jefferson’s long life was ending just as this new breed, the Noisette, was emerging on the scene.” Ever the cutting-edge plantsman, however, in 1791 he ordered two each of the ‘Monthly rose’ (R. chinensis cv.) and the ‘Musk Rose’ (R. moschata) from a New York nursery.

Roses stepped into their “modern” period 75 years later when the first hybrid tea rose was developed in 1867. These are the roses you want in your cutting garden, in the vase, or in the florist’s delivery box – or suitcase – when you open it.

Four Men and a Rose

George Washington. Noisette roses are still grown today and are admired for their beauty and vigor. One example is the white ‘Martha Washington’ Noisette grown at and around the Mount Vernon estate of our first president. But just like the story of the cherry tree, it is a myth that George planted and named it for his mother – since the new American rose was developed after Washington’s death.

Ronald Reagan.  “The American people have long held a special place in their hearts for roses.” So said President Ronald Reagan when he signed a proclamation declaring the rose as the national flower in November 1986. Speaking in the famed White House Rose Garden, he noted that roses are grown in all 50 states and that, “more often than any other flower, we hold the rose dear as the symbol of life and love and devotion, of beauty and eternity.”

Robert Burns. Roses are the basis of countless perfumes, poems, and songs. You may know Scots poet Robert Burns’ 1794 song, A Red, Red, Rose

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie That’s sweetly play’d in tune. …

& Bob Dylan. But did you know that songwriter and musician Bob Dylan is on the record as saying that the lyrics to Burns’ song have had the greatest effect on his creative life?

‘A Dish for the Gods’

We’ll dig into 21st century roses and current horticultural practices another day, probably in deep midwinter, when we most crave garden daydreams. In the meantime, let’s dream about a rose-flavored recipe for Quail in Rose-Petal Sauce that inspired passion among diners in Laura Esquivel’s fanciful novel and movie, Like Water for Chocolate.

Can you tell that I love roses? So of course, I tried it myself. The most difficult part was bringing enough rose petals to bloom all at the same time during a gray Seattle summer. I grew two plants of R. ‘Glory Days,’ a hybrid tea with a fragrance and taste something like ripe nectarines.

Why did I try it? This sentence, like the one about the rose-filled suitcase, caught my heart: “When Pedro tasted his first mouthful, he couldn’t help closing his eyes in voluptuous delight and exclaiming: ‘It is a dish for the gods.’ ”

Quail in Rose-Petal Sauce

12 roses, preferably red (organic, no sprays)
12 chestnuts
2 tsp butter
salt & pepper
2 tsp cornstarch
2 drops attar of roses
2 T anise
2 T good honey
2 cloves garlic
6 quail
1 pitaya (dragonfruit)

The novel is short on direction, but cooks and romantics can find a recipe online, at sites such as the Food Network, Pinterest and others. Like all cooks, I adjusted this recipe to taste, using three small Cornish game hens instead of quail, plums instead of dragonfruit, and an olive oil-butter combination to reduce burning. And although it’s not on the list of ingredients, I splashed some fruity red wine into the sauce.