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100 Vegetables and Where They Came fromby William Woys Weaver
Aji Dulce Pepper [Venezuela]
Botanical name: Capsicum chinense
Aji is the South American word for pepper. Dulce means "sweet" but aji dulce (pronounced AH-hee DOOL-say) possesses two broader meanings, for it is both a variety and a type of pepper. On the one hand, aji dulce can be any one of a number of sweet peppers, and depending on the country where one lives the word may be used interchangeably with aji morrón, morrón, aji colorado dulce, and many other regional variations. This can make reading South American cookbooks a challenge, even for Spanish-speaking readers.
However, in Venezuela, aji dulce means only one thing. It is a native variety of Capsicum chinense that is closely related to the so-called habaero peppers now scattered throughout the Caribbean, but sans the infamous heat. For those who are tired of hot pepper overkill and the sensation of fiery lava flowing through the body, aji dulce comes to the rescue. Best of all, it possesses that unique smoky flavor found in its hottest cousins.
The history of this pepper is obscure, but since wild peppers are naturally hot this variety must have developed as a landrace over the years among farmers by simple selection of seed from milder and milder fruits. Landrace is a term commonly employed to describe noncommercial or "backyard" varieties that have been under cultivation for a very long time. They are the real ingredients of peasant cookery and often provide regional cookeries with their distinctive flavors. In Venezuela, aji dulce is now one of the cornerstones of the national cuisine, and seed is available from a number of firms here in the United States.
The fruit of aji dulce can be used green or ripe, and it can be seeded and frozen for use over the winter, a technique that also preserves its rich flavor much better than drying. The Venezuelans commonly use aji dulce in preparing hallacas, a mixture of meat, peppers, raisins, almonds, capers, olives, and yellow cornmeal that is steamed or boiled in plantain leaves. This rich and delicious dish is normally served at Christmas. Hallacas flavored with aji dulce made its debut in North America at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and like the apricot tomato it proved wildly popular.
I employ the pepper to flavor a hearty Paraguayan dish called sooyosopig or sopa paraguaya. It is made by stewing chopped meat, chopped onions, chopped peppers, and chopped tomatoes in water. Rice is added to thicken it. Similar rice-and-meat stews are made in other parts of South America, but none of them attain the wonderful character of sooyosopig made with Venezuelan ajíes dulces.
All of the chinense species of pepper are slow growing, and many of them prefer semishade. Gardeners who want to grow large quantities of aji dulce, or just one in a pot for occasional eating, will do themselves a huge favor by digging up the peppers in the fall, pruning them severely, and then overwintering them in a cool, dry environment. This will mimic the tropical dry season when the peppers are naturally dormant. The following year, once they are reestablished in the garden, the peppers will yield huge crops all season long and can be picked as needed. And don't forget to grind a few to add to Bloody Marys--every gardener deserves a break from hard work now and then.
Aji Limón Pepper [Bolivia and Peru]
Botanical name: Capsicum baccatum, var. pendulum
There is a certain faction in this country, notably in New Mexico, that insists on calling peppers "chiles." This is perhaps influenced by Mexican ways of categorizing peppers, and maybe also by a tad of gringo commercial chauvinism, because the rest of Spanish America does not view peppers in quite this way. South of Panama, peppers are aji (and Chile refers only to a long, narrow country west of Argentina). North of Panama, in Latin American nations like Honduras or Nicaragua, the word chile is not as broad in meaning as it is farther north in Mexico but instead denotes only the hot peppers. So there is no warning at all in aji limón that this little yellow lemon-flavored pod from the western slopes of the Andes mountains is nothing short of an Inca hand grenade. It is a blast of heat and flavor that makes one of the most distinctive salsas in the Western Hemisphere. I am not exaggerating.
The Peruvian original is a sweet but hot yellow salsa that includes mango, generous quantities of aji limón, and mustard. I make my own salsa de aji limón and do not fail to add a little lime basil and desert tarragon. However it is prepared, this fragrant pepper has a rich piquant flavor that matches well with fish, white wines, ceviche (fish marinades), and indeed with any foods that blend nicely with lemon flavors or that themselves have a citrusy taste. Those flavor combinations should be kept in mind when cooking with this pepper. But cooking with aji limón also means wearing gloves, and breathing the cooking fumes can be deadly, so caution is recommended.
We may wonder how it was that the indigenous peoples of the high Andes took pleasure in eating food that was so excruciatingly spicy, but whatever the case aji limón predates the Spanish conquest of Peru and belongs to a species of pepper that has been under cultivation in that region at least since 400 b.c. The speakers of Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas, do not call it aji but rather uchu, a word that adds an additional layer of regional and dialect names for this pepper.
Aji limón is actually one of a triumvirate of baccatum peppers that form the cornerstone of indigenous Peruvian cuisine. It is found in local markets along with a pinkish, orange-yellow pepper called aji amarillo (or aji Cusqueo, meaning "Cuzco pepper") and a long, wrinkly mildly hot green pepper called aji escabeche since this latter pepper is used primarily in ceviche. The amarillo, which is normally sold dried, possesses a rich peach or apricot flavor and losses much of its heat when cooked; the escabeche ripens red and actually acquires a sweet taste that is quite pleasant. Aji limón just gets hotter and more concentrated as it cooks.
All three of these Andean peppers are perennial in their native habitat and can be grown in pots or tubs in North America. They develop woody trunks that can be pruned and shaped into small bushes that are quite ornamental when the fruit is ripening. The aji limón plant, however, is small, rarely growing more than two feet tall, so it is even better adapted to container culture than the others. The plants can be brought indoors to overwinter and can be maintained this way for many years.
The fruit of aji limón is also small, about three inches long, flat, tapered to a point, and somewhat three-sided. The pepper is well named because it ripens to a brilliant, glowing lemon yellow. The pods, which hang in clusters of two or three, come on in such an abundance that the plants are likely to fall over unless they are staked. But one or two plants are plenty for one family because the salsa goes a very long way.
All-Red Potato [United States]
Botanical name: Solanum tuberosum
Many heirloom potatoes were created by regular folks in backyard gardens, and their homey appeal never seems to wane. I can think of Purple Cow Horn, a wonderful baking potato which came out of a New Hampshire garden about 1905, and such perennially popular multicolored varieties as Candy Stripe, a sport or mutant that David Ronninger of Moyie Springs, Idaho, discovered in a patch of Red LaSodas in 1983. My all-time favorite, however, is All-Red, also known as Cranberry Red.
This is a really big midseason potato, with tall robust plants about eighteen to twenty-two inches high, big dark green leaves resembling those of the famous Brandywine tomato, and what must be one of the largest and handsomest lilac purple flowers found on any potato. It is tempting to grow it just for the flowers, except that the plant needs lots of space, and the best part comes when it dies. Underneath the ground is a veritable cache of huge red tubers, some weighing more than half a pound. What makes All-Red so special is its color, inside and out.
The genes that control color in potatoes also have an unhappy side effect: dark skins or dark flesh are sometimes so bitter from traces of glycoalkaloids that the potato is truly unpleasant to eat. This is especially true of wild potatoes, which use these toxins as protection against wild animals that might eat them. Developing a bitterless red potato, one that is red-fleshed, has been one of those much discussed goals of potato enthusiasts for quite a while. Granted, for a long time Americans only wanted white potatoes, but interest in exotic vegetables and potatoes of many colors has put the discussion of an all-red sort out in front.
It took a lot of careful selecting to find a potato that would hold its red color when cooked and not taste bitter. All-Red passed the test and borrowed its name from All-Blue, a somewhat smaller blue-fleshed potato that is commonly seen in upscale markets. All-Blue was developed as a "marker" potato, which growers planted in potato fields to show where one variety stopped and the other began so that they would not become mixed during digging. All-Red is of a somewhat more noble origin.
All-Red was developed by Robert Lobitz, an avid breeder of plants in Paynesville, Minnesota. In the course of our correspondence, Lobitz explained that his All-Red was a seedling of a popular breeding potato called Bison and that he was the person who gave his creation its original name. After he released it to the public through Seed Savers Exchange in about 1984, the potato was picked up by several seed companies and sold under the name Cranberry Red. Cranberry Red and All-Red are indeed the same potato, although Cranberry Red as a name may have slightly more marketing appeal. The new label might seem entirely appropriate since the skin of the potato is a rich cranberry and, like the French potato Roseval, rather startling in intensity when it first comes out of the ground. Raw, the flesh of All-Red is a powder pink. When steamed, it deepens to a pale beet rose, which looks terrific in potato salads. The flavor is rich, like English walnuts, and fulsome, even a bit earthy. Walnut oil in the salad dressing is a perfect match and a good way to enhance the flavor.
Another nice way to cook All-Red is to cut up the potatoes into thin slices. Saut, some chopped onions with olive oil or butter in a large skillet or saut, pan and when they are soft, add the potatoes. When the potatoes begin to brown, add some chicken stock or well-flavored vegetable stock, white wine, chopped green onions, and minced rosemary. Cover and cook for about ten minutes or until the potatoes are tender, then add salt and pepper and serve with grated cheese sprinkled over the top. Your guests will salute you!
All-Red itself is a culinary salute to the determination of growers like Robert Lobitz who create wonderful new things for the common good without remuneration. In a world where all things seem measured in terms of money, All-Red remains a testimony to a higher opposing value. What Robert Lobitz did not know when he sent his creation out into the world is that his potato is also one of the most drought-resistant varieties around. It has been known to yield an embarrassment of riches even when it does not rain for two months. Farmers who lost everything in hybrid soybeans might want to look more carefully into potatoes like All-Red, and home gardeners who appreciate excellent food will not want to be without it. I still wish Robert had called it something more poetic like Minnehaha or Chippewa Rose. No matter, it's the taste that counts.
Use of this excerpt from 100 VEGETABLES AND WHERE THEY CAME FROM may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:
Copyright c 2000 by William Woys Weaver. All rights reserved.
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