Thursday, December 8, 2016

Peppers with a Purpose

By Chuck Richards

In late November, I finally committed to the bittersweet task of cleaning up what was the backyard edible garden. Being the Northern Hemisphere’s time to weather the Earth’s 23 degree tilt away from our energy source, my tomato stakes came down, and the remaining plant material went to compost. In the midst of this annual exercise of mind and body, I once again found humor in the absurd amount of hot peppers that I produce annually. By the time I was finished the chore, I had a more than fifty final hot peppers for 2016.

If my wife, our two toddler girls, and I solely ate hot peppers, I would never again have to wait behind that guy at the Giant who uses self-checkout with an overflowing shopping cart when the rest of us behind him have a few things in a small basket. But outside of me, no one in this house eats hot peppers. One can only push so many hot peppers on friends, family, and colleagues before people begin to talk. So, each year, I am committed to finding creative ways to utilize all those hot peppers and, lately, equally committed to being pleasant in the self-checkout line at the grocery store.

After I have made as many salsas as I can dream up, or tried every sandwich or variation of grilled chicken or burger with roasted hot peppers, or even spiced up a tomato sauce; eventually, there are still too many peppers and not enough time. Since they don’t keep forever, I have a few favorite ways to utilize them throughout the winter and all the way into the next growing season.

Crushed Red Pepper

I use my bright red cayenne peppers to make homemade crushed red pepper.  It’s very easy to do and pays long-term dividends with the spice and flavor it can add to many winter meals.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Remove stems, and cut the peppers in half;

2. Spread the peppers across a cookie sheet. Feel free to include some seed too;

3. Bake at 200° F (or less if your oven settings and time allow) for several hours. Use a fan or crack the oven door when you can, as air circulation is important for the process;

4. Crush! When the peppers are fully dried, place in food processor or take a rolling pin or knife to them;

5. Place crushed pepper in a shaker (I just clean out a used shaker and make my own label).

That’s it. It’s that easy. Just make sure they are fully dry, or they are more difficult to crush/dice.

Diced Peppers for Freezing

I use freezer sphere molds…banana, jalapeno, cayenne, serrano, habanero, etc. They are such a simple “add” to any dish throughout the winter when all you have to do is open up one of these molds and stir them in as you begin cooking or thaw and utilize uncooked in many different meals.

Save the Seeds

You can use these seeds for next year’s plants. I’ve been planting for years without buying any seed. Simply separate all the seeds and set on a surface to dry for a few days. Then, put them in a small paper bag, label it, and put it in a plastic storage in the back of the fridge until it is time to plant in the spring!


I think the most important tip is to be careful throughout these processes. I’m often too stubborn to use gloves, but it is a good idea to use some sort of protection from the capsaicin, which is the oily chemical responsible for the "hot" in peppers (genus capsicum)

Capsaicin is difficult to wash/scrub off as it is hydrophobic, and even after you think you are in the clear, you’ll rub your eyes and be instantly and very uncomfortably reminded why you should have been less stubborn.

If you are using the oven to assist your drying process, be sure to either have a window cracked for good circulation, and consider evacuating loved ones and pets prior to oven drying. That capsaicin can begin permeating your living space to the point of irritability. 


Search “OC Spray” on YouTube for a few examples of what a military/law enforcement dose of a capsaicin-based spray does to these poor individuals. Sure, these are extreme examples, but maybe they’ll help you remember these safety tips.

Hopefully this helps you enjoy these healthy and delicious hot peppers year-round!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Passyunk Gardens

A view of Passyunk Gardens from across Wharton ST.
Still productive in late October. 
By Stephanie Rukowicz

In addition to the productive edible food demonstration garden at the Horticulture Center, a second MG edible demonstration garden was added to the project list in Spring 2015: Passyunk Gardens. Located in South Philly at the corner of Wharton ST and East Passyunk AVE, this demonstration vegetable garden is maintained by volunteers.

Established in 2011, the garden is all container. It began with high-raised beds that have no contact with the ground and, over time, additional tub containers have been added to maximize the use of space. Increasingly, perennial plants have also been added around the containers to develop a permaculture.  It is an interesting experiment in what's possible with these true urban conditions.

Passyunk Gardens is a community garden yet different from a typical community garden. All beds and containers are tended and harvested collectively. This togetherness allows for more community interaction, rather than the traditional community garden where individual plots are assigned and the majority of time spent at the garden is by individuals working in and harvesting from individual plots. Produce is shared with neighbors, gardeners and partner organization United Communities. In 2016, the garden donated over 200 lbs of produce to United Communities' food pantry.

A view inside the garden in July 2016.
Photo from garden's Facebook page

One of two murals that brighten the garden space.
PHS City Harvest program provides plants and gardening supplies which are supplemented by neighborhood donations and the support of Passyunk Square Civic Association. Plants are selected with community member interests in mind and experiments are encouraged. The garden has an established bed of hops (which are turned into beer for the annual neighborhood holiday party), grape vines, berries, horseradish, sunchokes (aka jerusalem artichokes), and a variety of perennial pollinator plants.

Trials have included store bought garlic vs. seed garlic, growing tomatoes in woolly pockets and hay bales, experimenting with sorgham from the Experimental Farm Network, a three sisters garden in 2015 and a four sisters garden in 2016 (sunflowers, corn, pole beans, squash), and testing different methods of planting potatoes and sweet potatoes in containers.

There is an extensive herb garden that features flavors from the diverse cooking traditions of its neighbors including lemongrass, papalo, and basil. The garden has also coordinated with neighborhood chefs from East Passyunk Avenue to feature plants of special interest to seasonal menus. Garden leaders are always ready to make bed or container space for new and interesting growing projects.

Make Music Philly Event at Passyunk Gardens in June 2016.
Photo from garden's Facebook page

Workshops and demonstrations are held at the garden during the growing season. Topics have included: seed starting, companion planting, seed saving, organic pest control, wintering the garden, cooking with an herb garden, and sauerkraut making and canning. The garden also hosts nearby schools and youth organizations for tours and hands-on workshops. Art and music events, potlucks, barbecues all play a role in the success of community involvement in this demonstration garden.

During the growing season, workdays are scheduled the first Saturday of the month. All Master Gardeners and trainees are welcome to join.

The garden hosts open hours throughout the growing season on Sundays from 4:00-6:00pm and all who pass by are encouraged to stop in and enjoy the space: an oasis in South Philly.