How to grow and dry your own chillies

Grown worldwide, chillies are by general definition the more petite varieties of the genus Capsicum. Green chillies are the unripened, immature fruit; when left to ripen further they turn a vibrant red. Through natural selection the “heat” of a chilli has developed to defend its seed pods against invaders. Capsaicin is the alkaloid found in the soft tissue of a chilli. It contains the irritant that gives chilli its distinctive heat. This alkaloid is measured in different ways around the world, with the most common method the Scoville Heat Units system developed in the United States. This system measures how long it takes for the capsaicin to dissipate after ingestion.

In Asian countries where chillies are common in everyday cuisine, the Bird pepper or Bird’s eye is the hottest, while American variety the Carolina Reaper was measured at more than one million times hotter than a jalapeno chilli.A chilli will not lose heat once it is picked, so frozen or dried chillies are a valuable asset to any kitchen.

Chilli plants are annuals and easily grown in warm areas. A glasshouse is ideal to get the best out of the growing season. For gardeners, many different seeds are available including Anaheim or Ancho St Luis, milder Mexican varieties; Hungarian Yellow Wax or banana chillies, usually some of the mildest chillies and generally eaten raw; Asian fire crackers such as Bhut Jolokia, Bird’s Eye or Thai hot; through to the hotter Cayenne, Habanero, Padron and Serrano.

Alternatively, fresh chillies can be bought from a good grocer. Such varieties include Dutch red, or versions of the Jalapeno and the very mild Hungarian Wax are commonly found.

Dried Ancho chillies, Cascabel, Guajillo mulato, Pasilla (dark brown), Habaneros, and jalapeno pods are usually available through specialised Mexican or Asian food stores. For a subtle chilli flavour, smoked paprika powder, chipotle powder and even chilli pastes will give the base flavour and heat a dish may need.

Always handle chillies with respect. As capsaicin is not very soluble in water it won’t wash away easily, lingering on your skin to cause havoc. Some people may be more sensitive than others. Wearing gloves is the best defence against getting the alkaloid on fingers and self-inflicting pain elsewhere. The best tip for soothing the stinging heat in your mouth when eating a chilli is to balance it with sweet – caramel, fruit or even a sugar syrup are better than water, milk or lager.

If you have grown a large amount of chillies and wish to dry them out for later use, follow these simple steps:  Sort through and discard the chillies that have mould or soft squishy bits. Wash and dry the remaining fruits with a clean towel. Place in a 50°C oven for 24 hours or a use dehydrator and follow the instructions.

Ample chillies can be threaded together using cotton and left hanging to dry, or leave them in the sun for a few days of constant sunshine. Air-drying will only work in climates that have dry air and no humidity. These chillies are just as gorgeous in a floral display as they are hanging in the kitchen.

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Grow your own edible garden with Isabelle Palmer’s tips

What inspired you to create The House Gardener? 

My new book, The House Gardener, came to mind over the winter months, while looking out onto my two small balconies in my north London apartment.  I have always kept a few houseplants but not in any concentration and I really wanted to evoke that feeling of green indoors as I wasn’t spending much time outdoors. It also made me think, “what if you didn’t have any outdoor space at all, how could you bring a garden indoors?” So my attention was greatly focused on bringing nature to life inside the home.

What are your top tips for those wishing to grow herbs in cramped spaces, like a city apartment? 

Planting a herb garden is a great way to start container gardening, if you like in a small apartment. Not only do you get the satisfaction of growing your own produce but they are great for adding to your cooking. Mint, chives, rosemary, parsley and a salad mix are good varieties to start with.

The key thing to remember is that plants are living things, they need light, water and regular food. The most common reason that people kill their plants is watering – they either water too much or too little, check with your finger – if it’s moist up to your knuckle then you don’t need to water your plant for a couple of days, if it’s dry then water slowly and moderately until moist.

We love your use of recycled bottles for the hanging plants! What are some other recycled products that work well?

Using unexpected objects as containers, as well as recycling old ones, is a wonderful and inventive way to show off and exhibit houseplants. I use everything from old pots to milk jugs and pitchers, there is always a way to update and recycle unwanted objects. I love trawling through junk shops and antiques markets, searching for something unusual and fun.

And what about recycled products to grow herbs/ edible plants in?

Try using an old wooden crate or even an old drawer. Ask your local pizza restaurant for discarded tomato and olive tins – these are catering size so larger than normal and usually have colourful designs on the front – perfect for bright flowering plants. You will achieve a really individual look and give a product another lease of life.

Just make sure, whatever you use, that you have a couple of drainage holes at the bottom.

The House Gardener by Isabelle Palmer published by CICO $49.95 available in stores nationally.

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