Shishito Peppers: The Asian Heirloom

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ripe shishito pepperThere are times the culinary world impacts my horticulture world.  Such was the case years ago while dining at an up and coming sushi restaurant in Chicago.  For an appetizer, Shishito peppers were listed.  I had never heard of them before.  Sure, I was familiar with many varieties of bell peppers as well as  the common chili peppers of the American southwest.  But this?  Hmmm…  Being curious as well as adventurous, I decided to try them.  The moment they hit my taste buds, I knew that I would be adding them to my garden.

This pepper is a Japanese heirloom.  As such, they may be hard to find at local nurseries in the United States.  Online is a different story.  Many heirloom seed companies that have an online presence now carry this wonderful little pepper.  Have fun and search for it based on one of its common names,  Wrinkled Old Man pepper.   While I have searched nurseries for that moniker to no avail, I have been able to find them locally as Shishito.  You can also look up this pepper by its Latin name, Capsicum annuum var. annuum ‘Shishito’.  However, this pepper has been gaining in popularity over the last few years and as a result, are being offered by more nurseries and garden centers across the States.

Like any other pepper, it is considered a warm season crop.  Wait until after your area’s average frost-free date for planting.  Any sooner than that and you may find yourself replanting due to a hard frost.  Place them in a full sun location with well-drained soil for best results.  As you plant, keep in mind that Shishitos grow to approximately 20″h by 12″w.   Given their size, they also perform quite well in containers.

Shishito pepper plant

Shishito pepper plant

They are prolific producers.  At a minimum (in my experience) expect at least a dozen peppers per plant.  But if you harvest from the plants regularly, expect those numbers to rise.  These peppers are ready to pick when they are 3″ – 4″ in length.  They will have a wrinkled appearance, glossy skin, and are a bright green color.

harvested shishito peppers

harvested Shishito peppers

According to many seed catalogs as well as online sources, Shishito is listed as a sweet, mild pepper.  Now while this is true the majority of time, I find Shishitos to be similar to Padrón peppers in that approximately one out of every 20 is hot… a reminder of its firey past.  (And in some seasons, I may find that number to change to one out of every 10).    Think of eating them as a culinary Russian Roulette.  In fact, Pepper Scale lists, “Shishito Pepper: Mild… until it isn’t”.   Based on personal experience, I fully agree with that statement.  But don’t worry about biting into one and expecting the scorching heat of a Habanero.  They are along the lines of a mild Jalapeño.  Pepper Scale also lists them as a chili, not a sweet bell.

In the world of peppers, Shishitos have a very nice flavor.  I think of it as herbal, but sweet.  And even before introducing them to a hot pan, they exhibit a slightly smokey flavor as well.  A few ways to enjoy this flavor is by stir frying (my favorite) or a quick trip on the grill.   To maximize flavor, simply coat them with peanut oil and apply heat… but keep an eye on them as they cook quickly given their thin flesh.   The skin will begin to blister after about a minute in a hot pan.   After removing from heat, sprinkle with sea salt and a dash of sesame oil.  Simple.  Sublime.  You can also eat them fresh, sliced in a salad, or pickled.  But don’t cover them in heavy sauces or thick dressings… their flavor may get lost.

So gardeners, go ahead and give Wrinkled Old Man a try.  This is one pepper that deserves a place in your garden.  Your taste buds will thank you.

10 Growing Tips for Yellow Squash

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10 tips for growing yellow squashThis time of year, gardening is in high gear.  In between pulling weeds and watering plants, harvesting is happening.  Gazing down into the basket, one particular plant is producing like crazy… the humble yellow squash.  Each day, it seems as though I am plucking more of them than any other vegetable.

Now the squash family is huge.  It is split most commonly into summer squash and winter squash.  Given that we are in the midst of summer, let’s focus on summer squash.  Looking deeper into the summer squash family, one notable member stands out… yellow squash.  To be specific, Cucurbita pepo.  If you are not familiar with this branch of the squash family, they are golden-yellow and just slightly elongated.  They are best when harvested at approximately 6″ – 8″ in length.  At this stage, the flesh is quite tender.If you allow them to get much larger, the seeds inside become quite large and slightly bitter.  The flesh also becomes much firmer and loses some of its delicate flavor.  While they may not reach the legendary size of their cousins, the zucchini, huge yellow squash specimens tend to be more seeds rather than flesh… and that does not make for a great meal.

Tips for Growing Yellow Squash

  1. It is considered a warm season crop – do not plant this before the average frost-free date for your area.
  2. Squash plants HATE having their roots disturbed – for best results, direct sow rather than transplanting seedlings.
  3. Select powdery mildew resistant varieties – will generally be noted on the seed package.  If the package or catalog does not give any indication, select a variety that you are interested in and then plant in a place with good air flow and do not crowd the plants.  This will help reduce the likelihood of powdery mildew from developing.
  4. Choose varieties to fit your garden space – if you have limited space, go with ‘bush’ varieties.  Bush varieties do not vine out across the garden.  Bush varieties may also be planted in large containers with good drainage.  A good example is a 5-gallon pot.

    bush variety of yellow squash

    bush variety of yellow squash

  5. Plant in full sun locations with good draining – squash plants will thrive in the sun, but the roots may rot if placed in poorly drained soil.
  6. Extreme heat can stress the plants –  a stressed plant may suffer from reduced yields.  Add mulch around the base of the plant which will help conserve water, keep the root zone cool, and reduce competition from weeds.  Examples of mulch include straw, chopped leaves (whole leaves tend to mat when wet and may prevent adequate moisture from reaching the plant roots), hay, and even shredded newspaper.
  7. Hand pollinate to ensure high yields – squash have both male and female flowers.  At the base of a female flower is a tiny, immature squash.  Take a swab of pollen from a male flower (no immature squash at the base of the flower) using something such as a small paintbrush or Q-Tip and then apply to the stamens of a female flower.  Yes, squash is a bee pollinated plant, but you are helping out.

    tiny squash at base of female flower

    immature squash at base of female flower

  8. Protect the plants with floating row covers – this will help reduce infestation from insects such as squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and vine borers.  The row cover is put in place when the squash are seedlings, but should be removed when the plants begin to flower.
  9. Good for succession planting after radishes, lettuce or peas – a yellow squash plant generally produces in approximately 50 days (give or take a few days depending on the cultivar).  Refer to the seed packet or plant tag for maturity date.
  10. Don’t plant near pumpkins, winter squash, gourds, and other varieties of summer squash (such as zucchini) if saving seed – squash can readily cross pollinates with cucurbits listed earlier in this bullet point.   Worth noting is that if cross-pollination has taken place, it will not be noticeable in the crop that is produced in the first year (the current season), but seed saved from the harvested crop, may bear fruit that looks and tastes different from the original yellow squash plant.  To help reduce cross-pollination, you could try planting pumpkins in the front yard, gourds in the side yard, and yellow squash in the backyard.  Another suggestion would be to coordinate with your friends and neighbors.  Each person grows a single type of squash and then when harvest season begins, folks share with each other.

Whether you have a huge garden, small raised bed, or even a large container, you can grow yellow squash.  And with the 10 growing tips listed, you can enjoy a bountiful harvest!

 

35 Pasta Sauce Hacks

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spaghetti with pasta sauce

spaghetti with pasta sauce

Pasta is a big deal in our family.   Not only is it something that we enjoy eating, but it is something we enjoying cooking and sharing with others.  And as much as I love pasta, in all honesty, I view it as a vehicle for the pasta sauce.  Around here, sauce is red, luscious, and has a depth of flavor that is hard to find in store brands from the grocery store.  But if you are a fan of the store-bought kind, you can make it taste even better with these simple hacks.  Yes… you can hack your way to the perfect pasta sauce.

In order to hack the perfect pasta sauce, you will need a few items in your pantry, ‘fridge, or freezer.   And these hacks can be applied to your own homemade sauce or to a jar that you bring home from the grocery store.  Feel free to experiment with the individual tips to create a sauce that suits your palette.

simmering pasta sauce

simmering pasta sauce

Hacks to the Perfect Pasta Sauce

  1. Add roasted tomatoes – roasting brings a deeper and more ‘tomatoey’ flavor
  2. Use paste tomatoes – they have less liquid compared to beefsteak type of tomatoes and cook down more quickly into a sauce
  3. Use homegrown or tomatoes fresh from a farmer’s market – these tomatoes were picked at the peak of ripeness and bring more flavor than those typically found at the grocery store

    fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil add great flavor

    fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil add great flavor

  4. Add roasted, pureed carrots – they add a subtle sweetness and can balance out acidic tomatoes
  5. Add roasted, pureed beets – start with 1/2 of a beet (they tend to be sweeter than carrots when roasted) and add more if necessary to the sauce
  6. A spoonful of sugar – if you are not a fan of carrots or beets, sugar will help balance the acidity of tomatoes
  7. Molasses – brings a very earthy, yet subtle sweetness to the sauce
  8. Add fresh garlic – garlic in pasta sauce is a great combination, but be sure to saute or roast the garlic first
  9. Two words… roasted onions – they bring subtle sweetness and a depth of flavor
  10. Pinch of cayenne or chili flakes – they bring a little spicy heat to the sauce
  11. Bay leaf – add a bay leaf to the sauce and simmer for at least 30 minutes, but remember to remove the bay leaf before serving… bay leaf adds another layer of flavor… deep and herbal
  12. Pesto – whether it is fresh or out of a jar, a heaping tablespoon provides a great taste of Italy
  13. Fresh basil – this herb marries well with pasta sauce, bringing a taste of summer to even winter meals
  14. Roasted red bell peppers – dice them or turn them into a puree and add to the sauce… great veggie sweetness and wonderful roasted flavor
  15. Add a good splash or two of a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Marsala  or Chianti – use a good quality wine and I am a fan of using a wine that you would drink (if it doesn’t taste good to you when you drink it, the flavor won’t improve in the sauce)
  16. Add a splash of really good olive oil – add at the end of simmering, right before you take the sauce off of the heat and stir in well… a good, fruity variety will elevate the flavor of the sauce
  17. Clams – make sure they are clean before adding (rinse off any sand) then bring the sauce to a simmer and cook until the clams open
  18. Italian sausage – not only will it add great flavor, but it will help create a hearty sauce
  19. Ground fennel seed – helps create an Italian sausage flavor, minus the meat
  20. Assorted fresh or dried herbs – parsley, oregano, and thyme all play well with pasta sauce
  21. Saute a small sprig of rosemary in one tablespoon of olive oil – saute for a minute then remove the rosemary and add the olive oil to the sauce
  22. Nutritional yeast – stir in a small amount, taste, and add more if desired… it brings an earthiness to the sauce
  23. Meat on the bone such as oxtail or ribs – add a richness and meatiness to the sauce, but simmer until the meat is fork-tender… be sure to remove bones before serving
  24. Good quality tomato paste – saute with a little olive oil first to create a deep, tomato flavor then add to the sauce
  25. Diced, sautéed or roasted mushrooms – they add not only great texture, but flavor
  26. Garlic powder – great substitute for fresh garlic, add to the sauce and stir in well
  27. Anchovy paste – it brings a saltiness and a hint of the sea… anchovies are great for more than Caesar Salad dressing or a topping on pizza
  28. Drizzle of honey – adds a subtle sweetness to balance out acidic tomatoes

    grated parsesan and parmesan rind

    grated parsesan and parmesan rind

  29. Parmesan rinds – add a couple of rinds to the sauce and simmer for a depth of flavor (remove rinds prior to serving)
  30. Grated parmesan – add  1/2 – 1 cup after removing sauce from heat… stir in well
  31. Dried poultry seasoning – if you don’t have any fresh herbs on hand, add one teaspoon to the sauce
  32. Smoked paprika – this seasoning will add a wonderful, deep smokey flavor… plus a little heat
  33. Vegetable pulp from juicing (omit seeds, stems, and thick rinds) – add 1 cup of vegetable pulp to a saute pan with a little olive oil… saute for a few minutes then add the sauce
  34. Vegetable or chicken stock – add 1 cup to the sauce and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken
  35. Cook pasta according to directions on the package, minus two minutes – then add pasta to the pasta sauce and finish cooking in the sauce… the pasta picks up the flavor of the sauce within the pasta itself

    finish cooking the pasta in the sauce

    finish cooking the pasta in the sauce

Whether you are starting with your own homemade sauce or a jar from the grocery store, you can always enhance the flavor.  But one thing to keep in mind as you try the hacks… taste as you go.  Maybe the base sauce is sweet enough as it is.  Looking for a more robust flavor?  Perhaps cook some meat on the bone in the sauce?  Looking for a brighter, fresher flavor?  You can’t go wrong with fresh herbs.  With these 35 hacks, you can create a pasta sauce to suit your needs.