ride the wild capsiacin, part 2: demon chili

The name is deceptive: Red Cap Mushroom Chili. It’s a mixed metaphor conjuring associations with a jaunty chapeau and mellow, savory fungi.

Ha. Pity the foolish and no doubt hungry mortal who first plucked the demon chili from its stem and popped it in his mouth. Meet the dragon, buster.

My Red Cap seeds arrived in the mail last March from my favorite source, Seed Savers Exchange out of Decorah, IA. Shortly thereafter they began their transformation alongside their less fierce friends in my greenhouse.

There is nothing here to suggest the vicious capsiacin factory they harbor. Like the other eight varieties of chili pepper I was growing, they sprouted well—a compact plant, deep green and glossy, robust.

I put a few test plants in the ground once the nighttime temps were cresting 55 degrees, which happened last year on the Front Range in mid May. In previous years I’d rushed this process, impatient to get the peppers transplanted. The result was that cooler nights, even one dipping down to 50 degrees, would stunt the plants. They eventually would recover, but not fully, remaining stubby and less productive when the high heat of July and August would have otherwise coaxed forth prodigious blossoms.

Not last year, though. I had built a small greenhouse, and gained a key advantage. I could sprout and successively transplant the seedlings in larger containers, keeping them warm enough to put on strong growth until the temps were just right. I had a surplus of seedlings and so, as noted, tested a few chili pepper plants in mid-May, but chill nights did indeed stun them. I’d kept in reserve my best ones, and those went in two weeks later.

For those who care to know, I marked down in my garden journal these dates: March 25—seed starting, followed by regular transplants into larger pots; May 16—first garden transplants, soon stunted by cool nights and battered by a hailstorm; May 30—second transplant (et voila!). Night temps were balmy at that point and the plants never missed a step, launching into the kind of growth that only June’s ascendancy can stimulate, the kind for which gardeners live.

Colorado’s Front Range climate is very good for growing many varieties of chili pepper, though of course much depends on the conditions in a given year. I’d never grown the Red Cap Mushroom Chili before. All summer long I marveled at how heavily the plants were hung with blooms, and how consistently those blooms produced hard, knotted, dark green fruits about the size of a squashed ping-pong ball. In the past, my efforts at super-hot chilies got this far but no farther; I hadn’t had a long enough growing season to let them ripen. Not so in 2011. The greenhouse, and the extra two weeks either side of frost that dastardly climate change seems to have engendered, were enough.

Note at the top, sitting like a crown on the pile, is a diminutive demon chili, its size all out of proportion to its punch.

I ultimately harvested about 70 healthy chilies from the several plants I grew. Some I gave to friends, hand in hand with a warning to beware. Others I used fresh in cooking—a sliver or two minced and added to scrambled eggs, a minced whole chili in a pot of soup or pinto beans, which was enough to light every spoonful with a pleasant flame. The rest I put in a basket and set it to dry in a cool, dark basement corner.

This morning, it was time. The chilies were uniformly crisp. So I got out my food processor, an empty spice jar, some latex gloves, and a bandana, and took all the gear out to the back porch. My dog and cat were curious, and for their own safety, I chased them off; they paced at a distance, looking hurt, but even more curious. Then I put the bandana over my mouth and nose, donned the gloves, and set to twisting off the stems and emptying the chili seeds, separating out the dried casings in a bowl.

Then, those went into the food processor and I turned on the machine, stepping a safe distance away. I let it run until the husks had been reduced to a relatively uniform consistency and after turning it off, I carefully removed the lid. Try as I might, I still got a snoutful of the fine dust. Immediately, my eyes watered, my nose and throat started burning, and my bronchioles seized. I moved as quickly as possible between sneezes and coughs to transfer the powder and flakes into a spice jar and screwed on the lid.

Then I stood aside and let my various membranes exude their mucous, as there was really nothing else to do. Within a few minutes I was back to functional and so I cleaned up and set my little bottle of hellfire in a snowbank, a perfect image of contrasts.
How will I use this chili powder? Carefully, and in small doses. My more daring friends may sprinkle a little on their pizza or over a bowl of buffalo chili con carne. I’ll pinch small amounts into a variety of stews and soups in place of ground black pepper—a little trick I’m surprised more people don’t know since it spills a subtle but assertive, almost liquid heat through things without a hint of the unfortunate, boorish tang of black peppercorn.

Here in late February, I’ve basically rounded the year of my experiment with the demon chili. I have seeds ready to start next month, and so will begin again. This is gardening and preserving, a slow food nexus that has been the norm for the 10,000 or so years that humans have cultivated and preserved agricultural products. I understand how we got to the point that so many Americans know ground chili pepper only as something that appears on a supermarket shelf in a small jar. I’m glad that some of us are working our way back to the source, and along the way, gaining so much that is good in the process.