You Can’t Make Mole Without the Olé!

Happy Memorial Day weekend to all of you in the United States! If I did not have a calendar I would swear it was only mid-April and not close to turning over to June. Our brief period of sunshine and warm temperatures has not lasted and even though the calendar says we’re on the cusp of summer when I look outside I swear it’s only mid-April. The burst of frenetic gardening energy brought on by the warmth and the sun of a few weeks ago has been tamped down by the weight of cool and damp days and cooler nights, which have yet to abate and show no definitive signs of retreating.

The silver lining of the the temporary halt to gardening activity is giving me an excuse to indulge my curiosity.  If you’ll recall my post Late Starters and Slow Growers from a few weeks ago, we tried tot throw a germination hail mary of a few additional varieties of peppers that would maybe or maybe not have enough time to fruit. As you can see in the photo below, that effort was less than successful:

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Two serranos and one pasilla bajio out of around ten seeds of each. A success rate lower than ones I obtained in many of my college calculus exams. In hindsight, buying a few serrano seedlings proved to be an excellent choice, but I’m still disappointed by how few sprouted, not to mention I was looking forward at taking a crack at making mole sauce. Garden space is already at a premium though so maybe a smaller number of seedlings is a blessing in disguise.

So thus we have my experiment. I’ve placed a half dozen pasilla bajio seeds, for no real reason other than only one plant has survived thus far and also because I’m less concerned at this point about getting them into the garden and their fruit into a sauce than I am at coercing better germination rates out of our seeds, into a cup with moist dirt and a lid.

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I did a little research and it seems like the most important thing is to keep the seeds warm and evenly moist. That would explain my poor germination rates with the original batch of seeds, where I placed them on top of the dirt and left the temperature of the soil up to the whims of mother nature. This time around I buried the seeds just below the surface to ensure they do not dry out and stay more insulated than if they were on top. I’ve placed them on a seed mat and underneath a grow light to keep them at a consistent mid-80 degrees Fahrenheit temperature, which I think will be the key difference. They are a central American pepper variety so it was no wonder they did not do well in an environment subjected to the springtime weather patterns of the upper Midwest. We’ll check back in a week or so and hopefully see a few plants starting to peek out of the soil. Until then, adios pimientos picantes!

Sigaretta di Bergamo — Sweet and Skinny

We only have one of these seedlings this year because this is a pretty obscure sweet pepper and we do not want to invest our precious real estate until we know the sweet pepper is as delicious as it looks.  These peppers have a beautiful resemblance  to the pepperoncini type. They are very long, curled thin peppers that mature to a bright red color. Fruits are usually about 0.75″ in diameter and can grow up to 12″ or maybe even longer. The flesh is said to be thin. I am excited because because they are early maturing, compact, and very prolific. Great for our northern urban garden!

The name of this pepper translates to “Cigarette of Bergamo” or “Bergamo Cigar”. Bergamo is a small city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. It is not too far north of Milan.

Italian food itself is more regional than national, with people from different provinces eating vastly different food. What someone eats in Lombardy may be very different than what they eat in Sicily. Because there is a lot of cattle rearing in Lombardy, people tend to eat more more beef compared to Sicily’s seafood. Also, possibly because of the higher number of cows, dairy consumption of butter, cream, and cheese is higher than what you would find in other parts of Italy.

As for these peppers, because they tend to be rather small and sweet with a tiny kick, I plan on using them in salads and just pan fried or grilled whole. Because this pepper is supposed to be similar to a pepperoncini, and I cannot find much info on it, I think I will also have to adapt some pepperoncini recipes and see how those go!

Sigaretta di Bergamo Seedling
Sigaretta di Bergamo Seedling Enjoying Some Sun

As for the seedling itself, it looks unique compared to our other peppers. Although small, it is incredibly busy already with several branches shooting off in different directions. The roots are now busting out of the bottom of the holes I drilled in the red plastic cups. The plant is begging to be put in the dirt, and I plan on obliging this weekend! I have scaled back on watering my peppers until their leaves begin to wilt and have been using a very diluted fish/seaweed based fertilizer. It seems to have had a great affect on the plants, all things considered. They are making quite the comeback and the root systems seem much more robust.

I cannot wait till harvest time late this summer, when we can start posting and experimenting with new recipes for these little known heirloom peppers. Do you guys have any ideas for how to eat these Sigaretta di Bergamo peppers? Maybe some old family recipes?

Until next time, Ciao peppers!

Growing Up and Hardening Off

They grow up so fast, don’t they? One day they are only seeds, small, hard and so unlike a plant and then it seems all do is blink your eyes and they have grown into strong, tall, and independent seedlings. We weren’t as successful as we were hoping, our inexperience reared its ugly head as we moved through the spring and saw many of our seeds either not germinate or die soon after giving us a glimmer of hope. The weather, so cold and gray for March and April certainly did not help either, but despite all that we still managed (with the help of the local gardening store) to bring almost two dozen tomato and pepper plants far enough along to start planting them in our garden for the summer. Due to the number of seedlings versus available planting space, we are being more gentle with some plants than with others, as we can afford to lose a few but wanted to get as many plants into the ground as we could in time to take advantage of the great weather (mostly sunny and in the seventies and eighties much of this week) to try and make up some of the ground we lost due to the lousy spring.

The plants we planted this weekend fell into two categories: plants that were ready for the outdoors, like our tomatoes and cucumber plants which had both been spending time outside in their containers and grown unwieldy, as well as few varieties that were struggling inside and we were willing to risk to the whims of the garden gods: eggplant, garden store Serrano that was muddling along in the gardener’s limbo of not growing but not dying, and the single Ostra Cyklon pepper plant that survived, albeit barely, and was obviously not thriving in our apartment. I’ll be curious to see if the warm temperatures and full days of sun will be enough to revive those. Those varieties (excepting the Serrano) are also from cooler climes and should be able to handle the variances in the weather patterns of a Chicago spring.

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The plants we are holding onto are exclusively hot peppers.  This is mainly due to their size (pictured below) and their geographic region of origin. While tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumber find their homes in more temperate continental climates in the Northern Hemisphere, our pepper’s homes can be mainly found around the equator, meaning they’ll prefer to let the cooler nights of May pass indoors to await the warmer days of June and July more akin to their homes. As such, we are taking a more traditional hardening off approach with these, where we are placing them outside during the hottest part of the day and bringing them in at night. Over the next few days if they’re all looking good we’ll probably start leaving them out at night in preparation for their planting sometime next week.

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I’ll be curious to see if these end up doing better or worse than the plants we put in the ground this past weekend, with the Serrano serving as a perfect control. Feel free to share some of your approaches for kicking your adult plant children out of your home! I’m of the opinion that plants are fairly resilient organisms and can survive many conditions, so my approach to hardening off is accordingly lax, somewhat to the chagrin of Super_C#. This year might make me eat those words and adhere to a bit more rigorous routine for hardening off, but only time will tell. Until next time!

Fish Pepper Seedling Update. Things are looking fishy!

Well, it has been now been a month and a half since our initial fish pepper germination and twenty days since we first sowed the seeds. The seedlings are coming along nicely, the leaves are getting bigger, and finally showing signs of variegation. As mentioned in my previous post on these guys, fish peppers are an African American heirloom pepper from the Chesapeake Bay Area popular in seafood thought to be from the Caribbean.

Fish pepper seedling one month
A month and a half of growth and a week after first topping.

I am growing these at the recommendation of my sister and while I am primarily excited about all the fun history of the plant (food history is the best kind of history), something else that I love about it is its variegation. Some of our seedlings were so white that the amount of albinism they had meant an inability to photosynthesize and they died almost immediately after popping out of the ground.  The splashes of white on the leaves make the plant beautiful and on top of being tasty, a great ornamental addition to the garden.

So where does variegation come from and why is this the only pepper we have heard of to have it? Well, it’s just a wonderful freaky mutation and we don’t get out much! The white spots on its leaves arise because of a lack of the green pigment chlorophyll in a blotch of the plant cell. Those white patches cannot photosynthesize. Since green is still the dominant color of the plant, it survives and thrives. This variegation is usually the result of a cell mutation, and in fish peppers is apparently genetic (it has also been chimeric in other plants).  I imagine what happened is that a hundred fifty years ago the mutation occurred in the plant and as can happen, the characteristic stabilized in the plant’s offspring. From some reading, it seems that a season’s climatic condition can affect when leaf variegation and fruit stripe appears.  It can sometimes appear at first or second set of true leaves, but sometimes not till a bit later in the season for a plant. Anecdotally, mine have been all over the place  in terms of pepper variegation. Since these peppers cross pollinate so easily, I would be interested in setting out my fish peppers near some sweet peppers and seeing if I could come up with some sort of hybrid!  As for why this is the only pepper I’ve heard about for variegation, it seems like I simply have not done my research! There are plenty of other variegated hot pepper varieties such as Trifetti, Variegata, Filius Blue, and Golden Nugget. These are going to have to be a few varieties I consider for next season.

Fish Pepper Variegation
First signs of variegation

But for this summer, I am super excited about these fish peppers. They are a great ornamental addition in the garden, and unlike all my squash, I don’t think all the Chicago critters will be able to chomp down on these too much!

Track the growth with us:

  1. Early March: Sowing the seeds.
  2. Late March: Germination!

Thyme is not always on our side

I love thyme. It’s my favorite herb and I cook with it as much as I can. The distinctive strong aroma and bold taste means it easily stands on its own as the star of a dish but the flavor profile also blends well with many other herbs and seasonings from warm climates, creating beautiful medleys on the stove top and in the salad bowl.  I always have some on hand in the spice cabinet and when in doubt with what to add to a meal I’ll usually give it a few shakes of thyme.  The only problem is that the dried version is nowhere near as flavorful as the growing plant and much to my chagrin I can never seem to keep a thyme plant alive! We’ve tried to grow a thyme plant in a container the last few years and all have kicked the bucket on us. An attempt or two directly in the garden failed as well. This year, instead of leaving the fate of our new thyme plant up to fate and our incapable hands, I’ve done some research and aim for better success for our humble plant this year.

Growing Thyme

Our thyme plant will be a primarily indoor plant with some time spent outside during the summer months, so most of my planting plan is built around that.  Thyme originates from the Mediterranean region and likes a well drained soil on the sandier side.  In retrospect, this was our most common mistake, as we have planted it in potting soil designed to retain moisture as well as garden beds heavy on clay in the past.  This year, I’ve mixed some cactus soil (heavy on sand and perlite) with potting soil to create a more hospitable environment for our thyme plant.

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In addition to this, thyme requires mostly full to full sun to grow. Last year we had it on our back porch, which gets only a few hours of the morning sun. No wonder it died so quickly! Heavy potting soil and limited sunlight does not do a thyme good.  We will be keeping it in our front windows with the occasional trip up to our roof deck for the summer months. Hopefully the better sun and soil conditions will yield a healthy thyme plant whose leaves will impart their fragrance to our cooking this summer, instead of the usual dried out and dead mess we have by June.

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(Here it is in its new home! Hopefully the more spacious confines will give it space to fill out over the next few weeks.)

Anybody have any other tips for growing thyme or other herbs? We’d love to hear them! Also, if you have a favorite recipe featuring thyme please feel free to share! We always love trying out new recipes in the kitchen.

Espelette pepper — A basque vacation in a plant

Capt.Capsicum has been lovingly coddling our Espelette pepper seedlings ever since he glimpsed the Basque food article in the foodie Saveur magazine we subscribe to. He decided to order these seeds from the internet, and as soon as they arrived, went germinating.  Since then, we have been dreaming of visiting Basque country, soaking up the sights, culture, and especially cuisine. Unfortunately, such a vacation will preclude us this year, and we will have to settle to cooking our own Basque food! Hence the Espelettes. Week by week we are slowly getting closer to harvest as our seedlings grow. With the rough, grey weather we have been having, these guys are special enough to get some of the brightest spots in our grow light station. The Espelettes grow bigger and leafier by the day.

While we wait for them to grow up and dream of spring, we to make plans for the peppers and while away the time learning about their origins. In Basque, this pepper is known as the Ezpeletako biperra, and festoons can be found hanging in markets and window-boxes in the Espelette commune in southern France along the Pyrenees mountains,  the northern most area of the Basque region.

 

As mentioned before in the previous post, these peppers are so special to french culture and cuisine they have the designation of Appellation d’origine contrôlée, a certification granted by the French government for significant regional foods. There are a few other french Basque A.O.C foods which I do not expect us getting our hands on. For example, the cute black spotted Kintoa Basque Pig which just got its designation last year or the Irouléguy wine of the region. And yet there are a few others which I expect we will, like the sheep cheese Ossau-Iraty, which is apparently sold at Trader Joe’s as Basque Shepherd’s Cheese. We are definitely going to have to make tapas come fall and hang up a festoon of peppers to dry and decorate our kitchen as well.

For now, back to Chicago though and an update on our pepper’s progress. Although the germination rate was not as vigorous and fast as the petit marseillais , they are making quite a come back at the moment. The leaves are growing and the plants are not looking at all anemic.  Just in case, I also germinated a few more in some coconut coir just in case because for a while some of our peppers weren’t looking too good.  (A few security seedlings never hurt).

Espelette Seedlings Growing in Chicago
Babies ready for their own containers

A bit of heat and light always does a pepper good. I fully expect that these guys will be able to succeed outdoors and we will be collecting fruit and cookin’.  We are about two weeks away from our last frost date in Chicago and every day I grow more anxious.

Until then, we dream of spring, read gardening blogs, read food blogs, learn javascript (my life has been strictly backend development), and anxiously look at the weather forecast getting ready to dig and plant our summer crops.

Oh and these are getting gently transplanted to their own containers tonight!