Surprisingly easy to grow, chillies add fire and flavour to a wide variety of dishes – and the plants look just perfect on the patio. Rachel Green advises on how to grow chillies
There are over two hundred varieties of chilli, and they are all surprisingly easy to grow. Look beyond curry and use them for salads, stir-fries, barbecue fare and game suppers, encourages Rachel Green, as she shares her tips on how to grow chillies.
For cooking inspiration, look through The Field’s website. Our pheasant chilli with black beans and chocolate is spicy, rich and satisfying, or add extra heat with our poached pheasant with ginger, garlic, chilli and lime.
HOW TO GROW CHILLIES
It is a typical early spring morning as I write, the cold air holding the mist captive and low on the grass, the sun starting to break through to warm the trees. It’s a perfect setting in which to be inspired by chillies.
As a chef, herbs and spices are the most important ingredients in my kitchen. Fresh or dried, they add flavour to dishes both savoury and sweet but chilli must be my favourite. Behind the instant kick of heat, which can be fiery hot or melodically warm, there are fruity, earthy, smoky, bitter and sweet notes that cannot be replaced by any other ingredient.
All my working life, I have cultivated and cooked with chillies. This spring I will be planting at least eight varieties at home and I can’t wait to take the bounty of beautiful fruits into my kitchen for use throughout the rest of the year. Those who are adept at growing vegetables and herbs will know that chilli is surprisingly easy to grow. For those of you less sure of yourselves in a garden environment, let me introduce you to these fabulous plants and explain how to grow your own at home.
Chilli seeds are sown early in the year, most growers recommending that you sow seeds between February and March. It is important to note that germination varies from plant to plant, some varieties taking up to five weeks to germinate and more than 100 days to mature. The Habanero chilli is a great example of this, so have a little patience and you will soon start to see the first signs of your chilli plant appearing. If you want to speed up the process a little, keep the soil warm and when you water them, use warm water. Chilli seeds like a nice, cosy environment of 27°C to 32°C to get going. As soon as your plant has germinated, it can be transferred to a 3in pot until it is up to 6in tall. Find a spot where it will be kept nice and warm and it will reward you with a harvest of beautifully colourful, ripe fruit.
When your plant grows to a point where it has around five pairs of leaves, it’s time to repot it. Find a 9in to 12in pot and it should be happy there for a long time. The other rule of thumb is to check its root system; as soon as you see the roots diving through the drainage holes in the pot, it is time to move it to a larger space.
Ideal for people with busy lifestyles, chilli plants are perfectly content in a pot on a windowsill or patio. I grow mine in my polytunnel but if you are growing them on your patio, its best to bring them indoors from September and they should continue to fruit until December.
If you are growing your chilli plants indoors, remember that they need insects to pollenate the flowers and bear fruit, so as its guardian you will need to help this process along. Buy a brush from an art store and when your chilli plant flowers, tickle each one with the brush, moving from bloom to bloom just as an insect would. Indoor plants can also be susceptible to aphids. If you see any on your plant, either pop it outside for some fresh air or rub the leaves between your fingers to remove any unwanted invaders.
Your chilli plant may go through several colour stages as it ripens, before it settles on pillar-box red. Try harvesting a few chillies when they are green – this will encourage your plant to produce more of these deliciously hot fruits and you will find they taste different, too. The intense heat of a red chilli is sweeter when it has matured. Don’t be fooled into thinking that an early harvest of your chilli plant will mean a reduction in heat. They will still have the power to make your eyes water, even at this early stage.
As a chef, I am always conscious about using the right level of warmth in my dishes. The Scoville scale (developed to identify varieties along the heat spectrum) helps to select the right chilli for individual tolerances and dishes, and is a great tool for selecting the right chilli plant to grow. Talking of heat, if you want to drop down the intensity of chilli in your cooking, make sure you scrape both the seeds and veins from the pods, which will help to lessen its punch. Whether cooked or uncooked, the level of heat will remain unaltered, so add a little bit of chilli first, taste your dish and then add more if you need to because once your dish is too hot, it is not easy to cool it back down again.
There are more than 200 varieties of chilli to grow, and some have more distinct flavours than others. Most people are quite familiar with the Chipotle chilli with its mild, smoky flavour – commonly used in Mexican cooking and for barbecue sauces – or the Bird’s-eye chilli, a small but immensely powerful green and red chilli prevalent in Thai and South-East Asian cooking. And, of course, there is the Scotch Bonnet – a chilli that is definitely not for the faint hearted.
However, there are other varieties that are great for cooking with. Let’s take Fresno, for example; slightly larger than the Jalapeno, it starts life dark green, turning red as it matures. It has a mild heat and is perfect for pickling, which means if you get a glut of fruit none will go to waste. The Apache chilli, in comparison, produces a mass of small, 3cm-long fruit with a medium heat that would be perfect to cut through the richness of chocolate in an indulgent chocolate brownie or preserved to make sweet chilli jam.
For a bit of fun, try the Tri-colour chillies. They are stunning and produce a lot of mini fruit that range from purple to yellow and red. They look amazing as a pot plant on their own but, be warned, they are hot, so use them sparingly.
If you want a chilli plant that could be grown in a hanging basket, try Summer of Fire. This prolifically fruiting variety will be dripping with small, hot fruits. They are ideal to use fresh but can be easily dried by hanging each fruit from a strong thread in a sunny, airy spot. Once dried, you can keep them whole or finely chop them and store in a jar ready for use while your next crop is ripening.
For me, the perfect use of a glut of chillies will always be a scorching hot chilli sauce that can be used in many different dishes, including stir-fries, barbecue fare, salad dressings, dips, Asian cooking and much more. I use home-grown chillies to pickle, to make Mexican hot sauce, chilli vodka, raspberry and chilli jam, and I dry them to make chilli salt and chilli wreaths for Christmas. My recipe for chilli sherry is more unusual and is the perfect ingredient for a Bloody Mary or to spice up a warming game soup when we are out in the field.
CHILLI AND GAME
Chilli and game are two of my most favourite ingredients, they are a perfect marriage in the kitchen. Chillies are a great way to enliven game. They seem to balance the robust flavours of game while adding not just heat but a fruity and sometimes smoky note to a dish. I love cooking venison with chilli and chocolate – the richness of the venison goes perfectly with these exciting flavours, it’s a classic pairing. I also often make Middle Eastern- inspired game dishes such as spatchcocked partridge with rose harissa and chickpeas or, another favourite, Kashmiri roast pheasant with yoghurt. I prefer cooking game dishes with chillies and spices rather than the traditional sauces. My family love all the different flavours and heat that each type of chilli brings. It’s a useful tip to bear in mind that when using chillies, you get a hot, tangy freshness to the dish but when you add dried chillies or chilli seeds it adds more earthy, smoky tones.
I hope this small introduction to the vibrant world of chilli encourages you to look at a chilli plant or pack of seeds in a different light and not just as an ingredient for use in a good curry – the humble chilli should never be underestimated.
Rachel Green is a chef, author and food campaigner. Find out more about her at: www.rachel-green.co.uk