Peppers are magic, be they bell peppers perfectly charred on the grill for your fajitas or the almighty chile pepper, small in stature but giant in heat and medicinal value. Peppers add color, flavor and heat in cuisine from California to Mumbai. The New Mexico green chile is its state’s crowning glory, most protected gem, and certainly its most prevalent ingredient, and the smell of roasting chiles during the late summer harvest permeates the state from top to tip. It’s for this reason that the International Herb Association has chosen the pepper as Herb of the Year, and it’s why the Chicago Botanic Garden is celebrating and educating with Pepper Sundays.
Having lived in New Mexico for a few years, I’ve become a believer in the central role of peppers in the kitchen, and a grower of several varieties in my own backyard garden. I’ve got poblanos, serranos, bells and jalapenos, and a recipe for every one. The Botanic Garden counted on people like me, and offered advice for those growing or cooking, and a farmer’s market full of treats for those who just like it hot sometimes. I took a pepper tour with a horticulturist, where we saw the botanic garden’s variety of chiles, from ornamental to the ever-important sport peppers, and learned tips for supporting your plants during the current fruiting season (bone meal or potassium are a great thing to feed your producing plants!) and preserving the seeds of particularly productive or delicious ones to plant in following years.
I also attended a pepper-themed version of the very popular Garden Chef series, which on this occasion featured Dave Esau, a chef who trained under the wing of Charlie Trotter and now has his own endeavor, Dave’s Specialty Foods. He gave an incredibly enthusiastic and very thorough talk on peppers while demonstrating how to make some classic dishes, like a simple pappardelle with goat cheese or a beautiful roasted red pepper pasta.
There were pepper mixology classes for those who wanted to know what sort of pepper might enhance their salsa or other dish most, activities for kids, and plant giveaways. I didn’t expect to see the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden so full of people for this event when I attended, even with the Garden Chef series, but as I found out, there are a lot of Chicagoans who love capsicum annuum in all its forms. If you’re a pepper person, and you’d like to be a part of the second installment of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Pepper Sundays, head out to Glencoe on August 7 at 11am.
If you’d like to know some of my favorite ways to cook up peppers, try this favorite from Rick Bayless, this roasted red pepper pasta from the Pioneer Woman, which never fails to impress, or spice up your mac and cheese or pizza by chopping up some authentic Hatch chiles and throwing them in the mix!