CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Remember "Cuckoo for Coco Puffs?" Well, my brother, Ben Watkins, is preoccupied with peppers.
He's a fan of a wide variety of peppers and chili pepper dishes such as salsas, chilis rellenos, chili, sauces and tapas. He roasts them, freezes them, stuffs them and dries them. He also grows them from seeds, about 80 of them in 11 different varieties this year. He gives some plants away, but this year planted 55 pepper plants in his Morgantown garden.
He started growing pepper plants about 20 years ago when he couldn't find any of his favorite varieties of plants in garden centers or nurseries.
"Unquestionably, it was my love of eating hot peppers that prompted me to start growing them," he said.
And he does like them hot. He grows a Red Savina Habanero pepper that ranks between 350,00 and 580,000 Scoville units, which is a system for measuring the heat of chili peppers.
Starting with sweet bell peppers at 0 units, peppers are ranked in increasing heat levels to the hottest pepper recorded, Naga Jolokia, or Ghost Pepper, which measures at more than 1,000,000 Scoville units. Pepper spray also has a 1,000,000 unit rating. A jalapeno pepper has 2,500 to 8,000 units.
Ben is not a fan of sweet green peppers, but he likes a stuffed pepper soup using them, which is on the menu at his workplace's cafeteria. He replicated the recipe, but substitutes Anaheim peppers for sweet green peppers.
Padron, his current favorite, is mild if picked before when it's about the size of a thumb, but heats up as it matures. Sauteed in olive oil until they are lightly singed and dusted with coarse sea salt, padrons make a great tapas dish. Haters of hot peppers avoid padrons because of the pepper's Russian Roulette quality -- one in every five to 10 peppers is extremely hot.
Jalapeno and serrano peppers are great choices for fresh salsa. He roasts and peels mild Anahiem peppers, then tosses them in olive oil and serves with Asiago cheese and crusty bread. Both Anahiem and pablano are good choices for baked chilis rellenos, stuffed with pork, beef and/or cheese.
His wife, Marsha, recently developed a new recipe for roasted peppers and hamburgers. She sandwiches the peppers and thin slices of cheese between two thin hamburger patties, presses the edges together to seal in the peppers and cheese, then grills the burgers.
When the harvest is too prolific, Ben and Marsha cut them into strips or roast and peel them and freeze for later use. The roasted peppers add a smoky presence to omelets, sandwiches and soups. They also dry some of the hotter varieties such as cayenne and habanero, then grind them into powder to sprinkle on just about any dish from eggs to soups to grilled meats. They keep the pepper powder in a sprinkle shaker.
Ben adds the requisite warning about handling hot peppers. The seeds and veins contain the most capsaicin, the organic material that causes a burning sensation when it comes into contact with skin or taste buds, so most people remove them before serving.
"You should definitely wear gloves or be extremely cautious about touching the inside of the hotter peppers, particularly if you wear contacts. You can wash your hands many times, and still at end of the day when you touch your eyes to remove contact lenses, you'll be reminded that you handled chilis earlier in the day," he said.
When he first purchased seeds, he ordered them from Burpee seed company. His search for hotter varieties led him to Reimer Seeds, a seed company that sells more than 2,100 varieties of hot pepper seeds.
Because the seeds must be planted well before the last frost, Ben starts the seeds indoors in February. An unused bathtub in the basement bathroom provides the perfect environment for the plants and bulky grow lights. After about three months, they are usually 8- to 12-inches high and ready to be planted.
During a well-planned year, his dried and frozen pepper supply runs out at about the same time the plants come into production.
"We enjoy using the peppers year round in a seasonal way. Fresh peppers for salads and salsas, roasted for appetizers and sandwiches and dried or frozen in cold weather dishes like soups," he said.
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.
Ben's simple salsa
6 fresh roma tomatoes or 2-3 fresh summer tomatoes (any variety) - coarsely chopped and slightly drained if too watery
1 to 2 serranos or jalapenos, veins and seeds removed, finely chopped
1/3 mild white onion, preferably Vidalia, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/2 lime, juiced
1 teaspoon sugar
MIX ingredients well.
Stuffed pepper soup
2-1/2 pounds ground beef
3/4 cup onions, chopped
2 cups mild Anaheim or banana peppers, chopped
1/2 cup carrots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 cup instant rice, uncooked
1 can (28 ounce) diced tomatoes
1 can (11-ounce) tomato soup
3 cans (14-ounce) beef broth
1 pinch baking soda
grated parmesan cheese
BROWN ground beef in stock pot; add onion, pepper, garlic, salt and
pepper and cook over medium heat until beef is browned, and onion and peppers are slightly soft.
ADD rice, tomatoes and tomato soup. Mix well.
ADD beef broth and baking soda. Simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or cook in a crock pot for four to five hours.
TOP with grated parmesan cheese and serve with crusty bread.
Pineapple habanero salsa
2 cups, about half a pineapple, peeled (reserving rind), cored, and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh pineapple juice, squeezed from reserved rind with your hands
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon mild molasses
3 scallions, finely chopped