Peppers or Chile Picante

The secret of cooking Mexican food with its "unique" flavor is, without a doubt, the pepper. It is the strangely addictive ingredient which keeps Texans coming back for more. The names jalapeno, chile petine, serrano, ancho, pablano and other are commonly used in Mexican dishes. The term "chili" may often be used to refer to any or all of these peppers.

Peppers require about the same growing conditions as tomatoes. Peppers succumb to a light frost and do poorly when temperatures are in the 40° to 60° range. The extreme summer heat in most areas of Texas is too high for fruit set to occur. Fruit that sets at temperatures above 80° usually are small or poorly shaped. Very little fruit set occurs at temperatures above 90°. Best yields occur when temperatures are between 65° and 80° during fruit setting.

Peppers, like most vegetables, respond well to banding phosphate 2 to 3 inches below the seed at planting. This process is described in the onion section. Peppers require high fertility rates and regular side dressing. Like tomatoes, heavy manure rates also increase yield.

Several diseases attack peppers that reduce yields and increase production costs. The best control is a combination of practices that minimize the chances of these diseases becoming established. Once diseases are prevalent, they are difficult, if not impossible, to control. During periods of high humidity, which includes most of the spring in Texas, apply a fungicide weekly. The best fungicide to use is one containing chlorothalonil (Ortho Vegetable Disease Control or Fertilome Broad Spectrum Fungicide).

The major disease factor affecting pepper production in Texas has been the susceptibility of varieties to virus diseases. Virus infection causes leaves to curl, display a mottled (leaves spotted with green) appearance and drop blooms. The plant is severely stunted and obviously nonproductive.

The virus is spread from one plant to another by foliage-feeding insects. Since complete annihilation of an insect population is impossible, controlling the spread of virus, and subsequently its damaging effects, is impossible unless natural resistance in plants is utilized. There is no effective chemical control for virus infection once a plant is contaminated. The problem in developing a virus-resistant pepper is that there are several virus culprits rather than one which can cause damage.

Unfortunately, the king of peppers popular with Mexican food, the jalapeno, can be severely affected by virus. To remedy this situation, the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station's virology breeding program, under the direction of Ben Villalon, has produced varieties with resistance to at least four of the virus diseases which most commonly cause plant damage.

Dr. Ben Villalon, has created the no-complaints-possible pepper. It is the most versatile pepper ever. It is named TAM Rio Grande Gold. The fruit of this pepper is jalapeno - shaped and about twice the size of a large jalapeno. When the pepper plant sets fruit, the fruit is yellow. If left on the plant for several weeks the yellow fruit ripens to red. The peppers are sweet and can be used as a substitute for yellow or red Bell pepper to beautify cookery. "But," say you chronic complainers, "we want a jalapeno!" If you want to create a pickled jalapeno which is custom-designed to your heat-tolerance level, now is your chance.

Most people think that the heat of a pepper is associated with the seed. This is wrong! The tongue-twisting heat compound, capsaicin, is located primarily in the cross wall portion of the fruit. This is not to say that eating individual seeds may not "burn your innards" but the seeds which are "hot" were contaminated with capsaicin during processing. All processed pepper parts seem to contain much higher capsaicin levels than do raw pepper parts. This may be attributed to the thermal processing during pickling which allows capsaicin to spread freely throughout the fruit. It is also believed that the processing oil (sesame, soybean, etc.) tends to withdraw or release capsaicin from the fruit and into the pickled or "escabeche" juice. Using this process of the heat-compound movement and dilution throughout a container during pickling, you can create a custom-designed-heat-level jalapeno using Rio Grande Gold fruit. Simply harvest Rio Grande Gold peppers, prepare them for pickling, and before sealing the container put one (or some) regular, hot jalapenos on the top as inoculator fruits. The capsaicin (heat-causing substance) will spread to the rest of the peppers. The heat-providing pepper fruit at the top of the jar does not have to be cut. One hot pepper in a quart of Rio Grande Gold fruit should result in a mild finished product. Two hot peppers added equals burning lips to remember. For you tender- tongued types, I recommend that you substitute TAM Mild jalapenos for your inoculator peppers. Not only will you have a pepper designed for your taste but you will also have the first brightly colored jalapenos in town!

Several years ago, Dr. Ben Villalon, Texas A&M Plant Pathologist and Pepper Breeder, also created a breakthrough in digestive tract salvation--a mild jalapeno. It is resistant to several Texas endemic virus strains and has large, quality fruit. The peppers possess high levels of resistance to sunburn. Plants will set peppers at higher temperatures than sweet peppers such as the Bell types. The peppers have firm, thick walls and are ideal for nacho or pizza ring slices as well as longitudinal slices to be filled with cheese or other food items. The jalapeno is named TAM (Texas A&M) Mild Jalapeno.

He later bred and made available a mild serrano. One can always distinguish a transplanted alien when he brags about Mexican cookery using jalapeno peppers. A jalapeno is a good pepper but the connoisseurs of pepper cookery prefer the serrano pepper. It is the serrano which is ALWAYS used in Pico De Gallo. It is the serrano which is referred to in Mexican cookery recipe books as "chile" pepper. Dr. Villalon created the Texas A&M Hidalgo Serrano variety. It is a serrano which is twice-to-three times larger than the standard serrano fruit yet only 75 percent as hot. Beware! Tender-lipped Gringos may not be able to detect the 25 percent heat reduction!

Major insect pests of peppers in Texas are leafminers, cutworms, aphids, spider mites, flea beetles, pepper weevils and fruit worms. Pepper weevils are especially devastating to jalapeno peppers since the first sign of damage is the pepper lying on the ground, i.e., when the weevil punctures the pepper, it falls from the plant. Take preventative action with weekly applications of an approved insecticide.

Although pepper culture is similar to tomato production, there are some very important differences. First of all, peppers do not transplant as easily as tomatoes do. Transplanted plants may survive, but if transplant shock occurs, plants may remain stunted and nonproductive for a long period. Since younger transplants are probably less root bound these similar plants experience less transplant shock. Starter solutions high in phosphorus are a necessity.

Peppers are much more sensitive to cold soils than are tomatoes. Unless black plastic mulch is used to warm soils early in the season and wind protection is available, plant peppers several weeks after tomatoes.

Never cover pepper stalks with soil because they will not form roots as do tomato stalks. For pepper transplants cover only the root system and peat pot with soil. Instead of forming roots, pepper stalks covered with soil may rot because of soil fungus.

Maintain adequate soil moisture for optimum growth since shedding of flowers and young fruit occurs during soil moisture stress. Peppers recover slowly from anything that slows plant growth. Drip irrigation insures optimum yields because of the constant supply of moisture.

Peppers normally are harvested when they are full size and before they turn red or yellow. Quality peppers are firm, have thick walls and a dark green color.