For the Love of Rellenos
I’ve written about our chili peppers before and although I don’t want to drive the subject into the ground I’m going to do exactly that.
The good news is that this particular year’s crop far outperformed the previous year’s. In crop terms, it was absolutely bumper. Quite possibly our success was due to the fact that we planted an inordinate amount of pepper plants, so the odds of some chilis surviving were in our favor. Of course, anything that we purposefully planted and that survived to maturity was cause for celebration, so we were winning in all sorts of ways.
We focused on poblanos and jalapenos. Poblanos are a family favorite because we adore chili rellenos. If you must know: we stuff charred poblanos with cheesy mashed potatoes and then bake them—not fry—in a nice roasted tomato sauce. We looked forward to harvesting poblanos with at least as much anticipation as we had for the births of our children. Well, that one kid, anyway.
We’d had some modest success with jalapenos in the past, slicing and pickling a few handfuls into a very toothsome condiment, and we were determined to produce plenty of jarfuls so we could give them to friends and family. If that wasn’t ambitious enough (and gracious enough, truly), I wanted to smoke-cure some of the jalapenos, dry them, and grind them into ancho seasoning powder. Grand aspirations indeed, considering who was doing the aspiring.
Unfortunately, peppers like a lot of sunlight. This was problematic in our sunlight-deprived yard, especially in the locations where I’d built raised-bed planters from very heavy concrete blocks. These substantial planters were part of my overall attempt to nudge our property toward Shangra-La-ness, one forty-pound block at a time. They are magnificent structures if I say so myself (I think I just did), with curved corners and generous depth, built with mighty sweats and strains and filled with top-quality organic planting mix. Labor-intensive, yes, but those multi-tiered concrete-block walls won’t ever need refinishing or replacement. After gloating about how much future maintenance I'd avoided I began to realize I’d neglected to take into account solar opportunities. The sunny promise of early spring was soon be obscured by the leafy reaches of early summer. Nearby trees filled out their canopies and, save for a two-hour period of direct, brutal overhead sunshine, these beds—these immovable objects—were in cool, dappled shade.
Oh sure, we could have switched gears and planted something more appropriate. Lettuces, spinach perhaps. Maybe kale. That would have been smart. But two words would prove to be masters of our will power: chili rellenos.
So hold on—I had a plan! Why if the peppers needed more sunlight, we’d oblige by extending the growing season for an extraordinarily long amount of time. I calculated that a good eight months of crappy sunlight would equate to four months of decent sunlight, or thereabouts. Problem solved!
Energized by this stroke of horticultural genius, I installed a skeleton of curved PVC pipe designed to support a fabric covering that would protect the tender seedlings from frost. In March we weened our little peppers from their indoor grow lights and stuck them into the beds, blissfully ignoring advice to “harden off” the seedlings by exposing them to the outdoors in progressive stages. My plan’s timetable had no room for “hardening off.” They needed max daylight, now.
I was diligent about managing this early stage, keeping the plants sheltered during nights and cool weather, uncovering them if the temps rose above 50 degrees. Despite this care, they lingered in their puppy stage, their little two-leaved heads quivering in the rude outdoors. Amigo, we’re not in Oaxaca any more.
But eventually, grow they did. They took to warmer days like a sophomore takes to a kegger. They got big and, because they were sun-starved, lean and lanky in their efforts to get vertical and find more light. I fussed about, testing for soil nutrients and moisture levels, occasionally singing You Are the Sunshine of My Life to the young plants in a cooing sotto voce. About late August, when peppers should normally be fruiting, ours were just starting the tiny, star-shaped flowers that would become globular peppers. No matter, we had a fair amount of good weather ahead, and our time-warped plants were rather handsome, with glossy leaves and thick stems.
Eventually, by mid-October, the peppers were at long last ready for picking. The jalapenos had turned red, yellow, and bright emerald; the poblanos took on a glossy dark green that slowly shaded toward maroon. We harvested every few days and collected (by Schiddygarden standards; admittedly a low bar) an abundance of peppers. Let’s call it an overabundance. We had bowlfuls and regiments lined up on the counters, and still the peppers came and we harvested daily. I got pecan wood for smoking the jalapenos and we bought a dehydrator for processing our overload. We smoked and dried and ground and pickled.
Okay, that was the good news. On the other side of the coin, the peppers were way too spicy hot. Over-the-top hot. Blazing. I do not say that lightly. But when we finally got around to sampling those fat crunchy fruits, it was like chomping a lit blowtorch. This crop, this bountiful spilling-over army of picked peppers, had enough Scoville units to melt glass.
Or did they really?
Turns out we humans (and other mammals) are full of TRPv1, a receptor protein that’s a heat sensor. When we get overheated due to exertion or a toasty summer day, TRPv1 signals our bodies to cool down by sweating. If we grab a hot pan or get a campfire ember up our hiking shorts, TRPv1 puts out the alarm.
Capsaicin, an alkaloid chemical produced by chili peppers, is a trickster. It fools the TRPv1 proteins into thinking that our tongues are literally burning up. If you handle chilis and get enough capsaicin on your skin then you’ll have little TRPv1 proteins running all over the place screaming, Fire! Fire!
But you’re not on fire, and your tongue and your skin are certainly not turning to char. Understanding this explains why chili peppers of all kinds have become essential in many of the world’s tastiest cuisines—over the millennia we’ve realized that A) we’re not damaging ourselves by eating hot chilis, and B) the pain is worth the gustatory reward.
But we had to get real—our chilis were pushing the envelope. In the case of this year’s chili crop, I’d say the pain—or at least the sensation of pain—overwhelmed any yummy chili flavor, rendering our harvest unpalatable. So we pickled most of the jalapenos and gave them away to unsuspecting acquaintances. We dried the poblanos and stuffed them in plastic bags with a warning label reminding us never to eat them.
Undeterred, I’m already planning next year’s chili plantings. I’ll search for varieties that have a reputation for being mild and flavorful. Why would I risk it? After all, chili pepper hotness is remarkably random—you can find hot and mild peppers on the same plant. So many variables; so unpredictable.
Two words: chili rellenos.