Down Time

Ah, January. One of my favorite months. Not only because its often snowy and sunny at the same time, like today, but because I don’t have to be doing doing doing every minute of every day. I’m speaking as a gardener when I say there is always something to be doing in the garden. Except in January.

This is my down time. The time when I get to relax and just think about the garden. I can plan what steps I need to take in the spring. I can lay out my vegetables on my garden plan. I can shop seed catalogs. I can daydream about it, or not, but I don’t have to show up every day and get my hands dirty.

Sure, there are other things to be doing in January, like shoveling snow, but I don’t feel the urgency of things needing to be done yesterday, the crisis of time passing while weeds are growing, that I feel in the warmer months. It feels nice to relax.

It’s also wrestling season, another one of my favorite times. Well, not the wrestling part, actually, that isn’t terribly pleasant. The part I love is watching my 17 yo son kick some booty on the mat. That part is super fun. He’s really good.

Since this blog is about gardening and eating (mostly), you’re probably wondering what is on the table at Winter Farm this snowy season. Well, we are enjoying the moose meat that my son, (also a world traveling hunter) brought back from Newfoundland this fall. We have a bunch of duck, goose, pheasant and venison in the freezer too. I’ve been having fun cooking from Hank Shaw’s cookbooks Duck Duck Goose, and Buck Buck Moose. https://honest-food.net/ He’s a terribly clever chef of wild game.

So what am I doing with all my free down time? I decided to write a novel. Ha ha, I know. I can hear you all laughing. As you should. I don’t really know how to write fiction, and so I’m learning as I go. Playing catch up and realizing it is nothing like I though it would be. Hard work. I have a whole new respect for authors. Anyone out there with advice for a wannabe author?

Just peachy

Life isn’t always just peachy, but on those rare occasions when life goes right, it’s important to celebrate.  Just so seasonal peaches.  The peach harvest isn’t always perfect, and indeed some years are so poor the peaches need to be scrapped altogether.  But when everything goes right, and the Spirits of Fruit bless us with an abundance of perfect peaches, it is our pleasure, nay, our obligation, to enjoy and preserve that gift so we can savor it long into the future.IMG_0787

Peaches are one of my favorite fruits.  Many a summer past I have looked longingly at what is on offer at my local supermarket in June, or even July, and imagine it might be tasty and delicious.  I imagine it’s sugary juice and perfectly ripe density as I bite into it.  I’ll pick up a peach and gently prod its unyielding flesh or bring it to my nose in hope of catching the sweet aroma of summer.  Foolishly, I may even be convinced to pay the outrageous sticker price for one or two with the notion that this time will be different, that these peaches were perhaps allowed to stay on the branch a little longer than most, or better yet were picked nearly ripe.  I’ll gently take the fruit home and set it on the counter to fulfill its natural destiny of becoming delicious.  When it’s stiffness finally yields under my thumb, it smells like actual peaches, and I deem it ripe enough to eat, I bite into its softness and feel tasteless mush coating my tongue like wallpaper paste.  Into the compost they go.  How did I get fooled again?

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The only good peaches are the ones you pick yourself, ripe from the tree.  And not always those.  Years past have given us hard nuggets that never ripen or worse, fall off the tree when they are the size of walnuts.  We’ve seen fruit with thick hairy skin and crunchy flesh, as well as wormy bland fruit that has the consistency of blueberries and leaves a slimy film on the tongue.  Timing and weather play important roles in a successful peach harvest, and only one of those things is within our control.  You make your own luck, my dad used to say.  God helps those who help themselves, my mom’s voice calls out from my past.  Every gardener knows those expressions are only partly true.  If nature won’t cooperate, and inclement weather strikes at in-opportune times, no amount of hard work can fix it.  A frost after the trees blossom will kill a harvest overnight.  Excessive heat, too much rain, blight, insects and many other things can ruin peaches.  But some things are within our prevue, and timing is essential.  Choosing which days to apply horticultural oils to protect the blossoms from egg laying insects, fertilizing the trees at the proper times, deciding when to thin the fruits; all these things can affect the harvest.  Once the fruits are established and ripening it is time to decide when to pick.

If you see a bunch of rotting peaches under the tree, you’re too late.

Start testing the fruit once one or two peaches have dropped on the ground.  If you are impatient, give the tree a gentle shake and see if any fruit falls off.  Once the first fruits drop the time is right to test the peaches for ripeness.  A gentle press with the thumb on the bottom flesh will give you an idea of the readiness of the peach.  If the flesh doesn’t yield, its not ripe.  When the bottom yields under the thumb, check the top of the peach near the branch.  This should just give under the finger.  If it is still firm-not ripe.  If it yields, give the peach a twist.  If it pops off-hurrah, it’s ripe. If the tree gives some resistance, perhaps it’s not ready to give up the fruit yet.  It’s telling you to wait another day.  Accept it.

There is only one reason to pick the peaches before they ripen on the tree and that is if the birds find them first.  Once the crows and their cronies get a taste of those lovely peaches, it’s all over.  They have an maddening way of pecking only the ripest part of the fruit, usually where the sun hits it, and leaving the harder unripe side intact.  They go from peach to peach and ruin each one, leaving the unprotected flesh open for fruit flies, ants and other pests to crawl in and spoil the fruit.  If you don’t want to share with your feathered friends I suggest that at the first sign of beak marks, you pick the fruit that’s unblemished and mostly ripe.  A few days on the counter, covered by cheesecloth to protect it, will eventually ripen the fruits.  Better yet, net the trees to protect from the birds.  IMG_0773

Once the fruits start to ripen on the tree, they come like a wave.  At first there are just a few ripe ones to tempt the appetite, eaten just rinsed in the sink, or grilled. As the days pass they ripen by the basket full, and soon the counter is covered with fruits in various stages of ripening, too many to eat each day.  Soon fresh peaches are a part of every meal, and the pies and kuchens and cobblers feel more like an obligation than a treat.   It’s time to put up the abundance so that when colder breezes blow, a mouthful of sweet deliciousness will recall to us the sun and warmth of humid August days.

All the ways to preserve the harvest start with the same first steps.  Jammed, jarred, frozen, liquored, candied, dehydrated, or even salsa-fied , the peaches must first be relieved of their fuzzy skin.  This is done by blanching the peaches in boiled water for 1 minute, and then plunging the peaches into cold water.  One minute.  Time it.  Longer and the peaches will begin to cook and become mushy, and then your only choice is jam.  Less and the skins won’t slip off.  You can tell during this first step if your peaches are indeed perfectly ripe because if they are, the skins will slide off leaving smooth peachy flesh underneath.  If they are a bit under-ripe, the skin will peel off taking some of the flesh with it, and the peach will be nubby looking.  See the difference in the picture below.

 

Once they are blanched there are endless choices for using or saving them.  If I have too many to process and not enough time, my first choice is to freeze them sliced into quart bags.  This is fast and easy, and allows for more creative uses when I have more time to spare.  Take care to fill the bags only partway full or they won’t stack well in the freezer.  To minimize the mess, I roll the top of the bag over to fill it.  Freezing the peaches does not require the use of citric or ascorbic acid to protect the color, but if you might want to jar them at a later time I suggest using it prior to freezing.  When they thaw out the bright peach color will tend to brown slightly, and pretty jars lined in the pantry look so much better if the peaches have been rinsed in a bit of acid first.  I use Ball brand Fruit-Fresh.

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Canning is another way to keep them safe for months to come, but it does require more effort, and some specialized equipment.  While you don’t need a pressure cooker for canning peaches, it does shorten the processing time. I can my peaches in a very light syrup if they were allowed to ripen on the tree.  I want to taste peach, not sugar, when I open the jar.  IMG_0795

If you are not patient enough to grow your peach trees, or don’t have the space, don’t despair.   Take a trip to a pick-your-own orchard, find a farmers market, or as a last resort, buy some from your market when it is peach season in your area.  Ask the provenance of the fruit and if it is local, give it a try.  Smell is the best way to judge ripeness in market fruits.  If you can find good fruits, it’s wise to invest now for a payout later.  Buy a bushel. Winter peaches are worth it.

If you have an interesting way to preserve peaches, or a receipt to share, post it here.

Morning Score

This morning, as I walked up the cool dewy driveway to feed the horses, I noticed something in their pasture that hadn’t been there yesterday.  The pasture grows rocks;  I know because I pick them up and toss them over the fence regularly, yet there still seem to be plenty around.  This didn’t look quite like rocks though, or any of the other paraphernalia the horses lose in the pasture, so I walked down to investigate.

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Hooray!  It was what I was hoping they might be…some puffball mushrooms.  They must have blossomed in the field after the hard, much needed rain we had yesterday afternoon. The horse had stepped on some of them, but I managed to salvage some good mushrooms  “for the pot”.  I didn’t have my camera with me, so I can’t show you, but there was clear swath of darker color in the grass where the fungus was growing, like a big comma, and there was a sweep of puffballs, the fruit of the fungus, blooming right down the center.

As I walked back home with my loot I got to reflecting about mushrooms, for which I have a deep fondness.  They often grow in dead or dying material. In other words, they are a product of decay.  It amazes me that nature is structured in such a way  that life flows naturally from death.  Take compost, for instance.  I have a compost pile into which I tossed a rotting pumpkin last year, as well as all my other garden waste.  This year I can’t see my compost pile for the hybrid squash/pumpkin Audrey III growing there.  Abundance from decay.  And yet we still see death as a finality.

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Back in the kitchen putting away the mushrooms, I was chagrined to remember that I have two dozen jalapenos, 10 ripe tomatoes, 4 cabbages, 6 cucumbers, 2 giant zucchini the size of my arm, 3 peppers, a basket of green beans and a watermelon already stuffed in the fridge.  Why can’t I find a score of puffball mushrooms in February, when there is nary a fresh thing in sight?  So I’ll make some hot sauce, roast the tomatoes for the freezer (a yummy trick I learned from my mother-in-law)  whip up  some coleslaw for dinner, jar some pickles, freeze the green beans, and leave the zucchini in my neighbors car, but I am definitely having a mushroom omelet for breakfast.

MUSHROOM OMELET

2/3 cup mushrooms of any kind, diced

2 fresh local eggs (3 if you are hungry)

2 tsp. butter divided

1 oz. goat cheese

Salt and pepper

Heat a nonstick pan on medium low heat.   Crack the eggs in a bowl and scramble lightly with a fork.  Saute the mushrooms in 1/2 the butter until tender and most of the water has evaporated.  If the mushrooms dry out before they are cooked through, add a tablespoon of water to the pan and cook until it’s dry again.  Add the eggs and the rest of the butter and cover for 2-3 min.  When the eggs are mostly cooked, add the cheese to one side and gently fold the eggs onto the cheese. Turn off the heat. Cover again for a few more minutes until eggs are cooked through.

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Pretending, and other stuff.

Hello friends

You may have wondered whatever happened to me and my sometimes blog.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Last spring I was offered my dream job.  I was hired to design, build and manage a teaching garden for the Marvelwood School, a small Connecticut private school that both my sons attend.  I get to spend part of each day planning, organizing and actually digging in the dirt.  It was a very successful first season, and it just keeps getting better.  I was offered the use of a small greenhouse on the campus so I can continue puttering about with growing things this winter.  I’ll tell you a little secret…I’m experimenting with aquaponics too!  I already have 8 little goldfish working hard to produce nitrogen for my sprouts.  Well, they actually produce ammonia that will turn into nitrites that will turn into…that’s a story for another day, though.  Today we’re gonna talk about a freakishly warm December.

It’s freakishly warm, right?  What the heck!  I waited until late late late in November to plant garlic, which I usually plant in the end of October, and still the garlic has sprouted and is 4 inches tall.   Further disturbing evidence of this unusual weather is the fact that my parsley is actually growing.  I have been pulling it in fist-fulls to use in the kitchen, but still it grows.  Hard not to when it’s 60 degrees out.  IMG_0679

I have still been able to plant narcissus bulbs, as the ground isn’t nearly frozen yet, and whenever I hit one that’s already there I find it has sprouted and is trying to pop out of the earth.  My strawberries have actual flowers, for crying out loud!  What gives?  Anyone?  Even I, who loves growing things, am ready for the season to end.  Enough already.

I’m trying to pretend it’s winter.  Despite the fact that they are still green and healthy, I pulled out my leeks today.  IMG_0677They last almost as long in the fridge as in the ground, and I keep telling myself there has to be a hard freeze soon, so I might as well get them out now.  Of course I was wearing a T-shirt while I dug, so it really was pretend.  I could have probably left them in another month.

I decided to make a real one pot winter style meal tonight with some of the leeks and other put-up foods to try to get in the winter mood.  I used the parsley, some potatoes and onions I have in the cellar, and some pheasant leg meat I had left over from a broth I made.  IMG_0682

I also had the good fortune to trade a venison sirloin for some guanciale with my good friend Sarah.  For those of you who are scratching your head (like me the first time I heard of it), it’s a pork jowl.  That’s right…pig cheeks.  and I’m here to tell you that it’s one tasty item!  It’s an Italian specialty food traditionally used in carbonara, and it is super yummy.  More delicate than pancetta, and with a stronger taste than bacon, it ramps up the flavor of any dish.  Here I sauteed it until crisp, removed it with a slotted spoon and cooked the leeks and onions in the fat left in the pan.

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The potatoes I diced and cooked until soft in salted water, added them to the leeks and fried them until a little crispy.  After that I added the removed guanciale, the parsley, the pheasant, salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of cayenne and finally shredded Havarti on the whole thing, covered it and turned off the heat.  Meanwhile I had a nice winter cocktail to get me in the holiday spirit.  Nothing wrong with rum and eggnog, am I right?

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The final product was a stick to your ribs one-dish meal that made everyone happy.  It’s still about 50 degrees out, but I’m going to go decorate my Christmas tree and pretend.  Happy Holidays!

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Pheasant Season

As I’ve mentioned, fall is one of my very favorite seasons, in part because beginning in late October and running through Christmas, Connecticut hosts a hunting season for pheasant.  Throughout the state there are controlled releases of birds on state land at irregular times during the week.  These are then hunted by upland bird hunters, usually with dogs to help them find, or flush, the birds.  Peasant is by far my all-time favorite animal to hunt, and I look forward to the beginning of the season all year.  They not only are a blast to hunt, but they make a delicious addition to the November menu!

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I first hunted pheasant, as well as chukar and grouse, with my dad.  I was perhaps in my twenties (I can’t remember because it was SO very long ago!) when he invited me along on a private hunt.  At a private club, the way it works is that when you arrive you determine how many birds you want to hunt, usually 2-4 per person, and the guides will set them out for you in the hunting area.  The birds are raised in huge pens nearby.  You relax for a while and then off you go to find the birds.  We didn’t have our own dogs then, so we used the dogs that came with the guide service.  This may seem to some like an unfair advantage over the birds, but let me assure you it is not.  Pheasant are not like wild chickens.  They are crafty and very fast and can often outsmart a dog by leaving a confusing scent trail, running in circles, or just generally blending into their environment the way God made them.  It is neither easy to find the wily creatures after they are freed nor is it easy to fell them, although I must say that pheasant are slower in the air then the average game bird. That’s one of the reasons I like to hunt them!  I need all the advantage I can get.

Back then with my dad I was an average shot.  I remember missing the first bird, but I got some that day.  Over the years when I lived in Colorado, my husband and I would often head south and east to Blanca in the fall and hunt birds there.  I was never a crack shot, like he was, but I hit most of what I aimed at.  Recently, when we were back in Connecticut, he and I decided to tune up our game by going over to Millbrook  New York and spending the day at the Orvis shooting grounds called Sandanona.   http://www.orvis.com/sandanona  They have a world class sporting clay course for wing shooters.  This was a real treat for us, and not something we could do very often.  100 clays at 20 stations each to practice on.  By the end of the day we had sore shoulders and tired arms, but we were smiling. He was smiling somewhat more than me, as he had schooled me at each station, hitting  approximately 70% of his targets to my somewhat less then 50%.  Needless to say I was a bit discouraged.  So the following Christmas, after a whole bird season of listening to me gripe about what a bad shot I was, my darling husband gifted me a trip to the Sandanona shooting school, where I would be taught the proper techniques and principles of wing shooting in a half day class with an expert.  I couldn’t wait.

The class was super fun, and I learned a ton about how to shoot.  I learned that my gun doesn’t really fit my body.  It’s too short, and canted too little to line up with my eye when I draw it up.  But I love my gun.  My dad gave it to me and I’ll never get rid of it.  I learned that even though I am right handed, I am “left eye dominant”, which means that my left eye leads and my right eye follows.  I learned that because of this I should be shooting left handed.  So I tried that.  It’s like walking with shoes on the wrong feet tied together. Not even safe.  I learned that I could compensate by using a patch over my left eye, to force my right eye to work.  I tried that and actually fell down. With a loaded gun. My shooting went below 30%.  I spent the next season practicing closing my left eye instead of my right while I draw.  Draw, close, aim, fire.  I hit a few birds, but didn’t even make my bag limit for the season.

What now?  I’m trying to get back to a place where I can forget my limitations and just shoot.  Where I can let instinct take over for ability.  I need to un-think shooting.  I’m trying to be OK with the fact that, for whatever reason, I’m just not a very good shot, and I’m trying to remember that even though I love to shoot, what I really love is to walk in the woods on crisp fall days with my husband and my son and my dog.

Here is a recipe for one of our very favorite fall meals.  If you want leftovers, you had better make 2.  It takes a bit of work, but is well worth the effort.  FYI the easiest way to get the meat off a pheasant is to cut the skin of the breast and peel it back, and then filet the breasts off the bone.  Then continue to pull the skin down over the thighs, exposing the legs.  Break the leg joints at the end of the ‘drumstick’ and again at the hip.  Use a knife to separate the legs from the body.

Pheasant Pot Pie

6 cups water

1 pheasant, breasted, and legs skinned

salt and pepper to taste

1 tsp parsley

1 tsp. thyme

1 bay leaf

1 cup diced potatoes

1 cup diced turnips

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced leeks

1/2 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup chopped onion

4 tbs butter

3 tbs flour

1-2 bullion cubes

1 pie crust.

In a stock pot, bring the water to boil and add the pheasant and the spices.  Reduce heat to low and simmer the pheasant for 20 minutes or until cooked through.   Allow to cool, reserving the liquid.  Meanwhile, chop the vegetables and mix in a large bowl.  In a heavy cast iron pan over medium heat melt the butter and then add the flour, stirring constantly until the roux begins to darken.  Stir in the bullion.  Add about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the reserved liquid broth to the roux and stir until you have a smooth gravy.  Freeze the remainder of the broth for future use.  Mix the gravy into the vegetables.  Cut the pheasant into bite sized pieces and mix into the vegetables.  Put all of it into a pie plate or a 9″ round cake pan,mounding to fit.  Cover it all with the pie crust, sealing the edges to the pan.  Bake in a 350 oven for 1 hour.  Serve warm with a nice salad.

Greens, and Other Garden Leftovers

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As a gardener I am still reeling from the summer growing season, and while this recent frost didn’t take me entirely unaware, It did make me realize that it is time to wrap it up.  And what is left in the garden in nearly November?  More than I’d like to acknowledge.  If I identify it, then I’m obligated to address it.   If I can ignore something, then I don’t have to do anything about it, right?  Isn’t that just the way of human nature?   Well, I have been ignoring too many things in the garden this fall, and now I have to put up or shut up.  Let’s take my hot peppers.  (https://eattheseason.com/2013/04/25/garden-planning/) What was I thinking!  Who needs that many varieties and plants of pepper?  I have singed the tongues and fingers of everyone I know with baggies of peppers and gallons of hot sauce this fall and yet the peppers still proliferate.  Thank goodness for the frost.  I lost about 3 gallons of hot habinero, Aji and serrano this last weekend and yet I still spent hours jarring what I was able to pick.  Well, they are done.  All that is left to do is pull out the plants.  

Not so for every other thing still growing.  I have piles of leeks that happen to be very frost hardy.  My endive are still clinging to life despite the frigid temps at night and I can’t pull them up until the greens all die back or they won’t force into cornichons properly.  My parsnips as well as carrots will happily ride out the cold under their layer of mulch until the ground actually freezes, so I can ignore them for a while longer.  What is calling out for my immediate attention are the beet greens.

I have a love hate relationship with greens of all kinds.  From kale to spinach, collard and mustard, I have grown and eaten them all.  I know they are a super food and oh so good for me, and I love the bitter, pungent taste of them well seasoned, but they take so very long to prepare that my shoulders droop at the thought.  Washing each leaf, checking for bugs, soaking and washing again…it is so tiresome.  I plant them because they are hearty, healthy foods that should be in all our diets, but come fall, when I have no choice but to eat them of throw them out, I sigh and march out to the garden with my clippers.  

The beet greens I have been able to ignore all summer.  In the spring they are too tiny to clip, and I tell myself not to damage the plant until the beet is fully formed.  In the summer the greens look like crap, all wilted and hot looking, covered in dust.  I’m more interested in the brilliant garnet gems under the greens.  Cold borsht, beet salad with chevre, these are the things that grace the summer table.  Greens are a fall dish, to be served with venison roast or grilled chops.  And now it’s fall, and the greens look bright and lively with the cooler air.  There are still plenty of them out there, as I pick only the largest of the beets, and the ones that were planted too deep tend not to erupt.  They still have verdant greens but not much of a beet.  And so I clip.

I came across this recipe for beet green soup that is super simple and interesting.  I happened to have some barley so I gave it a try.  Perfect for a fall evening served with cheesy bread.   Make sure to use a very wide (at least 10″) stockpot for this recipe. That way the eggs stay on the top and don’t sink down in the soup and into oblivion.

Beet Green Soup with Barley and Poached Eggs.

2 TBS olive oil

1 Medium Onion

4 cloves Garlic

8 cups Broth 

6 cups stemmed beet greens chopped to 1 inch.

3/4 cup of barley

salt and pepper to taste

4 eggs

Parmesan cheese

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft and fragrant.  Add the broth, the beet greens and the barley.  bring to a boil and turn down the heat to simmer covered for 30 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Crack the eggs and let them poach in the soup until done to desired consistency. (I like a firmer egg so I cooked mine about 6 minutes)  Serve and sprinkle with the cheese.

 

The Season of Bounty

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It’s that time of the year when a quick evening browse around the garden with a cocktail yields a colorful basket of produce.  For a little while this early summer, I could get away with gathering into my upturned shirt, but with the warmer days and rainy afternoons, the harvest has begun in earnest, and I try to remember to bring out a basket along with my drink.  Garlic and green onions, early tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, carrots, early beets, peas and peppers are all coming in by the handful.  I always try to balance my desire for fresh produce with the realization that if I leave it a while longer, it will grow bigger, but there is nothing like the taste of sweet baby carrots and tender beets steamed with a bat of butter on a steamy summer evening.  My favorite dish of the early summer is, of course, a simple salad of fresh newly picked veggies.  The thinly sliced Peruvian white habanero adds a super kick to this tasty dinner.Image

I am surprised to see the blueberries ripen so early this year, as I usually think of late July as blueberry season, but I predicted this to be the year of the berry, and it seems I have called it right.  Even the tangy and delectable wild black raspberries in the hedgerow are beginning to ripen early, and I got a sticky purple handful this morning for my trouble.  Unfortunately, as they grown amongst the nettles, I also got a prickly wrist.

On another note, for those of you who read “the Doctor is in”  I’m happy to report that my pepper plants are all thriving.  Many of them lost all their dark green foliage to the cold snap we had in May, but the smaller, lighter green leaves are beginning to thicken out the plants, and on many there are the first blooms.  Some did better than others and are already fruiting, hence the spicy salad, but most peppers like the heat, and will produce best from late July into early September.  During this pepper heyday, you will find me in the kitchen, gloves on, chopping peppers for hot sauces and salsas as fast as I can.