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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Early Blog #8 (Peppers)

Here's another early blog of mine from over two years ago:

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2009 7:00 PM, EDT

Tuesday afternoon. Until this moment, I have been supervised since my surgery. I feel fine as long as I stay horizontal, and even though I should probably be with someone around the clock for the next few weeks I had no problem sending MJ off to rehearse downtown. My post-op instructions actually encourage me to make reasonable attempts to try a few normal things from time to time, as long as I can easily get back to a couch.

Plus, I know how to dial 911.

She kissed me goodbye a few hours ago and said, “Stay put, right?”

“Right. I’m on the couch. Got my book, and thank you notes to send.”

“All right.”

When I heard the garage door close, Noah began whimpering. His dinnertime was still an hour away, but I wondered if he needed to go outside. He didn’t. Maybe I needed to go outside.

I went out the back door into the cold air. A few feet away, our raised bed of pepper plants looked completely withered and pathetic, hit with a few nights of freezing temperatures so all the leaves now drooped lifelessly with a sickly dark green. The peppers underneath, however, were more robust and could withstand a few nights of cold before they too begin would begin to rot. Peppers are my favorite vegetable to grow (you plant them once and leave them unattended for months) and I did not want to let a year’s crop get away from us because of some dumb brain surgery.

Before my operation, I planned on harvesting all of them — maybe the day before as a kind of new-age spirit-building experience — but my stamina weakened so much I put it off indefinitely. As I inspected the dead plants now, I saw I still had a chance. A few peppers were gone, but so many were still good.

The raised bed is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long, with one large plant every square foot. 32 total plants, 8 different varieties. The benefit of growing them yourself (especially hot varieties) is you never need to buy them at the store, and you will be stocked all winter with as much as you need. Frozen hot peppers are so easy to pull out of the freezer, chop up, and throw into a pan with onions, garlic, or ginger, and that creates a base for most of the great, zippy recipes MJ uses to form the staple of our late dinners.

The hard part is keeping track of the hot ones versus the sweet ones. Every year I begin with a system marking the plants, knowing which long peppers are mild, better for salads, which do better adding zip to soups, which fry up better, which go better on my pizzas. It seems easy in the beginning, but by the time harvest rolls around they always end up in the same bin, looking so similar to one another. They are sorted instead by size and shape, mixed in together, put in Ziploc freezer bags, and then the rest of the winter MJ and I enjoy what is basically a pepper heat lottery.

A recipe of Mexican scallops she makes often with lime, cilantro, and peppers is sometimes pleasantly mild, and sometimes so bracingly hot it can be hard to swallow.

“I only put two of those little ones in!” she would say. “Last time I used six bigger ones and it still wasn’t enough.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, I love it,” I always reply. And I mean it. I do love it both ways. I have a high tolerance for heat, and it is good for my blood pressure anyway. It’s fun. Food you grow for your own consumption is food for your soul.

As I inspected the 2009 crop, which had perhaps another few days before complete annihilation, I decided to harvest. I felt completely fine. I was rested and strong. In ten seconds I could be inside on the couch if I needed to be. To completely safeguard, I took the phone outside with me, made sure I saw the numerals 9-1-1 clearly, then took the shearers out of my pocket and clipped the first pepper plant at the base and turned it upside down. One by one, using this method, the peppers revealed themselves by popping away from the dead leaves draping around them. So many good peppers get lost in the shuffle if you don’t do it this way. In no time, I had filled two baskets and I brought them inside. I felt okay, then went out and filled another two baskets. A little dizzy this time coming in.

Now Noah was standing by the door, so I put him outside. I took the shearers out with me, clipped and harvested all but the last four plants, which were Thai pepper. Noah roamed the yard on his tether, not doing anything in particular, just wanting to enjoy the cool air. I was quite dizzy now, I realized. Time to stop.

I brought the peppers in, steadied myself, and went back out to see Noah. He was sitting, surveying his territory peacefully. The four Thai plants at the end of the raised bed still beckoned to me. They were large plants but yielded tiny peppers which are the most labor-intensive to separate, so I simply clipped them at the bases and brought them inside to deal with later.

It was now time for Noah’s dinner, so he came in and I fed him. As he chewed his rawhide dessert, I relaxed and lay down horizontally in my safe position. I dangled the Thai plants over my head, admiring the red and green slivers revealing themselves to me like lit ornaments on a dwarf holiday tree. I clipped the tiny peppers away one by one with scissors so they fell on my chest. It was not strenuous, just peaceful feeling those hot drops against my heart. Before long, everything was done: dead plants in one pile, and a few generous handfuls of tiny Thai peppers in another pile. I sat up, picked out the remaining dead leaves and put these potent little heat bombs in with the rest of the pepper harvest, sorting everything by size.

The hot ones and sweet ones are once again mixed together, so this winter will be another fun adventure with unpredictable pepper heat. I’ll make the same mistake in sorting them next year too. It’s one of the ways I enjoy my life.

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