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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