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!

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Late Starters and Slow Growers

Hello from rainy Chicago!  Hopefully the weather has been better wherever you’re reading this from.  It’s been stuck in the forties and fifties with intermittent rain and limited sun for a better part of the past week and will remain that way for at least another day or two.  Before this rain blew through we had discussed starting to move some of our more mature seedlings into the garden beds due to the unseasonably warm weather.  It hasn’t dipped below freezing, but with the way the forecast looks for the foreseeable future I’m glad we didn’t take the leap.  I don’t imagine the young plants would weather (pun intended) this deluge of rain very well. The silver lining of this particular weather pattern has that its been cold enough for our radiators to be back on, making it ideal for seed germination! I had desire the other week to try to sneak in a Serrano plant or two yet this year (they’re one of my favorite chilies to cook with) despite how close we are getting to the main growing season starting. Lucky for us, even though the temperature outside is not ideal for growing, it is inside is for seed starting! We also nabbed a few small seedlings from the local garden store (at $1.49 for four how could we not?) that still need some growing up before being transplanted.

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Pictured above is our last few pepper varieties we’re going to try and grow this year. The seedlings are Poblano and Melrose peppers; the seed packets contain the seeds of serrano and pasilla baijo peppers.

Poblanos hail from the Puebla state of Mexico and are mildly hot, usually somewhere between bell and jalepeno peppers, and are a very versatile pepper.  We use them a lot for fajitas and other meals heavy on bell peppers to give it a little extra heat without changing the flavor profile of the dish.  When dried they are called ancho chilies, which is a common seasoning in Mexican cuisine.

Melrose Peppers actually originate in Chicago and are rarely found outside of the city, and accordingly, information on them is relatively hard to find.  Their name originates from the Chicagoland suburb Melrose Park and are a staple in the cooking of the Italian community here.  Neither of us are Italian, but both love the city and are looking forward to growing and trying them.

Serrano Peppers are also from the Puebla region of Mexico and are named for the highlands present in that part of the country (serrano means “mountainous” or “of the highlands” in Spanish). They are hotter than jalapenos and have a very bright taste that comes out well in salsas and richer dishes.  They are a favorite of mine to use in chili and sauces because they add a good amount of heat while imparting their own distinctive flavor on the recipe. Despite visiting numerous garden stores, and the large Hispanic population in Chicago, we were unable to find any seedlings, but I’m hoping we’ll be able to sneak in a few peppers at the end of the year.

The final packet is the best kind of seeds, free seeds! They are of the Pasilla Baijo variety, which is not one I had heard of previously.  Apparently, they are one of the main peppers in the dark version (mole negro) of mole sauce. I’m not sure what to expect from these, but I’m still excited to try them. One of the best parts about getting involved in the gardening this year is discovering all of the new peppers I’ll get to incorporate in my cooking this fall and this is another one to add to the list! Upping my sauce game.

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We’re out of seed starting pods, so I’ll be placing our serrano and pasilla baijo seeds in this empty hummus dish. I’ve soaked them overnight and hopefully that, along with the radiators, our new seed warming mat, and any hummus I didn’t manage to clean out of the container will speed these along enough to still get a good harvest.  Has anyone experimented with ways to speed up germination and early-stage growth?  I can’t imagine we’re the only procrastinators out there.  Until next time, cheers!

Hot Peppers Need Hot Temperatures To Grow – Troubleshooting Pepper Problems

In the world of starting vegetables from seeds, there is a whole host of things that can go wrong. Especially without the tools of a commercial garden. These problems can be difficult to troubleshoot. Unfortunately, I find myself having to do that now and hopefully we can take a slightly scientific approach while trying to fix the problem. All the inforgraphics in the world are not as helpful as photos and data. So the plan is to track it.

My once healthy ostry-cyklon seedlings have been looking a bit stunted, yellow and sad lately. After transplanting them to bigger containers from peat pellets, I found we no longer had room for them in our incubator, and off to the south facing windowsill they went. At the same time, this has been a miserable late March/ early April in Chicago. The weather has been constantly hovering in the low fifties during the day and low forties at night. The sun only poked out for the first time this weekend and promptly went back into hiding today. Sitting against an 1890’s single pane window sill, what once were sweet, vibrant green, happy looking seedlings, are now stunted, slightly yellowing seedlings. I worry about them daily. Growth has not been as quick and vigorous as I was hoping for — even for a hot pepper. Remember these hots are supposed to be mild.

Without any Photoshop filtering, here is a sad month long progress picture. With a lot of research and a bit of prayer to the pepper gods, we start our healing journey.

Troubleshooting pepper problems
One month without sufficient heat  (among other things)

After some internet reading, I have decided to be optimistic and diagnosis this as a light/ heat problem and not root rot. So with a heating mat to the rescue hopefully I can provide a happy update soon. My soil is currently hanging out at about 68 degrees during the day, and surely a bit less at night.  The seedling in question is four inches tall. And the leaves… well, you can see those.  There is five or six of them. They don’t look good.

Here is what I have learned about pepper growth and temperature along the way. Per a 1986 University of Arizona study, root temperatures of 25 – 30 Celsius (77 – 86 Fahrenheit) were optimal for pepper root growth. At 35 degrees (95 Fahrenheit), plant growth was adversely affected.

Chili Pepper and Temperature Growth Hot Pepper
Root Temperature Affects Pepper Growth Sarni Laibi, N. F. Oebker and M. H. Jensen College of Agriculture, University of
Arizona (Tucson,AZ)

Root growth is important for plants because roots absorb water and nutrients for the plant. Even more so, they provide growth regulators, such as cytokinins, which travel up the plant’s xylem and help top growth especially when a plant is experiencing adverse conditions (like perhaps too little light?).

On a final note, just as a precaution I am going to lay off on the watering till I see some slight wilt. I typically stick my fingertip in the dirt to check if the soil is dry, but I think maybe the sensors on my fingertips are off.

Hopefully, in a week or two I will have a happy update! How have you remedied stunted seedlings in the past?

Until then, I have to sacrifice some money to the gardening gods.

So Close You Can Almost Taste It

We had absolutely gorgeous weather this weekend in Chicago.  Maybe a bit blustery, but I’ll take some wind if it means I get clear skies and temperatures in the seventies.  We gave into temptation and even put a few seeds in the ground, mostly cold hardy plants like beets and radishes, filling in a few rows of our freshly prepared raised garden beds (more on those later this week). The weather was so great this weekend that it made us forget we were still only in mid-April and were getting ahead of ourselves thinking about where to place our prized pepper seedlings.  One look at the forecast later this weekend, back into the fifties with lots of clouds and rain, brought us back to reality though.  This was a wonderful taste of summer though and a reminder of just how close we are to gardening season getting into full swing.  Tonight was spent transplanting a few dozen seedlings from their starter pods into solo cups for the next stage of their maturation and their gradual introduction to the elements.  It was hard going, as evidenced by the need to keep a beer on hand.

hot pepper in the city

Seeing our pepper seedlings take flight in this weather awoke a bit of a frenzy in me.  Last night we were very close to ordering another half dozen varieties despite the fact we are probably too late in the year to have much success with many of the hotter varieties, as we would be talking about mid-June by the time they were ready to go into the ground.  I was a bit let down by this realization and may yet give in and buy a seedling (serranos are a favorite of mine and I’ve had my eye on Trinidad Scorpions) and maybe a few more varieties we’ll plan to grow in pots, at least for this year. A bit unfortunate to realize this now but these growing pains are to be expected as this is my first season of true dedication to horticultural pursuits.  ‘

I hope wherever you are you were all lucky enough to get outside the house and into the garden this weekend.  I’m sure you’re all as excited for spring as we are.  Until next time!

Petit Marseillais

Today we’ll be starting out a few seeds of a variety we received for free from our order containing the pimente d’Esplette which we started a few days ago.  I wasn’t able to find much information on this pepper, but from the little bit I was able to dig up it looks to be a heirloom pepper originating from southern France that grows to be a medium size and of relatively mild heat.  From what I’ve been able to find it looks like this particular strain is not widespread and can be hard to find, especially in the United States. The few seed websites that had this in stock looked to be sold out of it already, so it looks like we were lucky to have obtained this beautiful orange fruit ideal for culinary exploits: roasting, stuffing, and pickling.

(http://www.superhotchiles.com/images/petit/photo_001.jpg)

There’s nothing I love more than discovering the story behind something and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to grow the pimente d’Esplette so much.  It has a defined historical tradition and a real cultural tie to a people.  I hope to find more about the Petite Marseillas and disseminate that information in the coming days, even if it will make SuperC#_Gardener roll her eyes like when I start going on about the history behind a certain beer style we’re drinking or cheese we’re eating.  The pursuit of knowledge can provide as much sustenance as food and beverage.

Due to the volume of seeds we have been germinating, the remaining items we have on hand to aid us in the commencement of our horticultural endeavors are not nearly as beautiful as I like to think my previous sentiment about the pursuit of knowledge was, but they should still do the trick.  Keep in mind folks, it’s not about the size of your planter but the rate of germination.vsco-photo-1 (1).jpg

Until next time, hot peps!

Pimente d’Esplette

The pimente d’Esplette, also known as Ezpeletako biperra in euskara, the language of the Basque people, is an heirloom pepper grown mainly in and around Esplette, a village in the the northern reaches of the Basque region.  It is to the Basque what black pepper is to the rest of the world: a mild and earthy seasoning ubiquitous in recipes and tabletops across the area.  It is so intertwined with Basque cuisine it has achieved Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union, indicating strong historical and cultural ties to a specific place.  Our seeds, originating from a farm in Ohio and grown in Chicago, will not be receiving any sort of recognition from the EU anytime soon, but I do hope they will achieve the same smoky and delicate flavor in the sandy soil of the Windy City as they do in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  I’m looking forward to drying some this fall and trying it out in a traditional few recipes from the region.

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The pimente d’Esplette (or in our case, pimente d’Chicago) is a relatively low maintenance pepper and should be ready to transplant about a month after germination.  Until then, cheers! Or as the Basque say, topa!