Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Chillis

To most people, the word "chilli" is synonymous with "heat". This is simply not fair. Some chillis are hot -- so hot in fact that they are painful to eat, which is OK if you like that sort of thing, but I personally don't, and anyway some chillis are not hot at all, but just tasty. (I'm tempted to explain the Scoville rating system here...but perhaps I won't. If you interested in it, search for it on Google! Suffice it to say that this is the way the heat of chillis is measured.) My Dad had his own version of the Scoville system -- he always reckoned that a curry was no good unless it had so much chilli in it that it made you sweat profusely and go red in the face. I prefer to taste chillis, as well as feel them.

We don't use huge quantities of chillis in our household, but Jane has a very wide repertoire of recipes at her disposal, and we do frequently eat "oriental" food, which often requires chillis. So it is nice to have our own ones from the garden ready to hand. Mature chillis are only likely to be available fresh from the garden in late Summer and early Autumn, but we usually freeze some for later use. This seems to work quite well, but I would say that when you use a frozen chilli in a recipe, cut it and de-seed it while it is still frozen, because if you allow it to defrost it can go quite limp, which makes it hard to prepare.

I usually grow only about three or four chilli plants, because each one will produce many fruits, and it is easy to to get overwhelmed. This year I have four. Three of these are grown from seed saved from fruits I bought at a show called The Taste of Christmas held last Autumn at the Excel centre in London. I dried them in the airing cupboard and extracted the seeds. They have all done really well, producing some wonderful fruits. Unfortunately I didn't make a note of their names, so I just named them after the characteristics of the fruit --  "Long Fat", "Long Medium", and "Long Thin". The fourth plant is from some seeds handed out by Thomasina Miers at a talk she delivered at the British Museum, about Mexican food. I know these were seeds of the Serrano chilli, which is a "middle of the road" one, ideal for beginners! Not too hot, not too mild.


Chilli "Long Fat" -- big, good-looking, but pretty mild.
Chilli "Medium Long" -- just look at the number of fruit on this plant!

Chilli "Medium Long" - medium size, medium heat

Chilli "Long Thin" -- maybe the Cayenne type? Probably going to be quite hot when ripe

The Serrano chillis obtained at Thomasina Miers' talk

We haven't sampled the Long Thin chillis yet -- they look as if they would be best when ripe and red, and they haven't reached that stage yet -- but we have had several of the Long Fat and Long Medium ones. Both types are fairly mild. More akin to the Capsicum style red (or sweet) pepper. I normally find red peppers very indigestible, but the chillis don't make me suffer in the same way. Maybe that's because you use a smaller quantity?

Here's a recipe that you might like to try for the milder types of chilli. [Tonno con Fagioli -- Tuna with Beans]
Combine a small tin of tuna (drained), a small tin of white (Cannellini) beans (drained), half a red onion finely sliced, a medium chilli de-seeded and finely diced, and a couple of sprigs of parsley, also finely chopped. Gently mix them all together in a bowl, moistened with a slug of good olive oil, and present them on a plate, seasoned with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a few twists of black pepper. Serve as a lunchtime dish or light supper, accompanied by some toasted Ciabatta bread. [NB; This would be a "nightmare" dish for me, because I don't eat any fish, but Jane assures me it is heavenly for those who do like fish!]

From a gardener's point of view the main points about growing chillis seem to be
1. Give the plant some support, because many varieties grow pretty tall.  A bamboo cane should suffice.
2. Give the plant plenty of water during the growing season, but drastically reduce the amount of water given when it nears the end of the Summer and you want the chillis to ripen. Lack of moisture hastens the ripening process.
3. Feed the plants with tomato food every couple of weeks.
4. I recommend harvesting some of the fruits when they are still green. Many recipes use green chillis, and these are harder to find in the shops than red ones.

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