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Fat Of The Land - Who Is Jimmy Nardello?

Sarah West

And Other Travels Through The Sweet Pepper Patch

Say the word pepper and one of two things likely comes to mind: the table shaker filled with black and gray dust, and the flamingly red and famously spicy crop we either crave or avoid, depending on our culinary disposition. Thirdly, some of our minds may drift to that molar of a fruit, glossy and green as spring grass: the bell pepper. In a typical North American produce aisle, it (and its yellow, orange, red, and purple siblings) is the sole pepper not relegated to the ‘ethnic’ produce section and the only one I tasted until a shamefully late age. ≈I grew up in the Germanic and Scandinavian influenced cuisine of the upper Midwest, but that is not an entirely sufficient explanation. Peppers, imported to Europe from the Caribbean and Central America by Columbus and his successors, spread widely through the well-established trade routes of the time, each culinary tradition choosing what they liked from the pepper’s plentiful genetic archive. Though northern Europeans are certainly not known for their peppers, they ate them, more often as dried powders (paprika) or as immature (green or yellow) fruits.

I blame my pepper ignorance on my own singular obsession with the green bell—something of an anomaly in the pepper world, their mild, watery flavor and crisp texture yields easily to nearby flavors. I used them often as a budding young cook in the few recipes I’d successfully mastered. It took a lot of practice to build the confidence needed to branch out, and until then I had no reference point for the nuance and diversity of pepper flavor, no clue at all as to what I was missing.

The first pepper that really stumped me was the Jimmy Nardello. It turned everything I thought I knew about peppers inside out, hung it to dry under an unfamiliar and illuminating sun. These skinny things, bright and lustrous red, looked like a sleeve of capsicum fire. “They’re not hot,” I was told, but my eyes, after years of dedicated chili pepper avoidance, refused to believe it. I cooked a few up, alone in the frying pan as I was instructed. Their thin walls softened quickly, their delicate skin blistered into oil-crisped bubbles, their sizzle unleashed soft, cherry-scented steam.

They were not hot. What spice they had was the citrusy kind, pinching their expansive flavor with compassionate sharpness. The rest was full-throated, candy sweetness and a quality of fruit deeper and darker than the best tomato. That enlightened moment led to many other fried Jimmies, to pickled Jimmies (my favorite), to roasted and grilled Jimmies. My freezer always has a bag of sliced raw Jimmies to add to off-season sauces and stews.

Jimmy Nardello himself would also dry his family’s now famous pepper, strung and hung in the shed for winter the way his mother, Angela Nardiello, likely taught him. Inheritor of her family’s slender red frying pepper, she brought its seeds with her when she immigrated from the southern Italian town of Ruoti to the United States in 1887. Jimmy was her fourth son and the one, if legend holds true, that was most interested in gardening. He kept the family pepper alive until he died in 1983.

Lucky for us, Jimmy shared his beloved peppers with the newly founded Seed Savers Exchange not long before his death. In the subsequent thirty-two years, they’ve become something of a cult sensation—seducing gardeners, small-scale growers, and in-the-know home cooks and chefs with their alluring set of traits. As easy and productive in the garden as they are quick and straightforward to prepare, I was not the first to be swayed by a single bite.

I have made other discoveries since then. Red bell peppers, with their diluted sweetness and juicy flesh, have nothing on the pimiento. A pepper type usually associated with Spain, these plump, round fruits (also called cherry peppers) have unusually thick walls for their size, their flavor a mix of Jimmy Nardello richness and caramelized sugar. Though they are traditionally dried and ground into sweet (or smoked) paprika, they are one of my favorite peppers to eat raw.

Then there are the roasting peppers, Italian in origin (going by the name Marconi), perfected most recently by Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed, with variety names like ‘Stocky Red Rooster,’ or ‘Gatherer’s Gold.’ Bred for oven and fire roasting, they peel with relative ease, leaving behind meaty strips of tender, delicious flesh. Northern gardeners appreciate their ability to ripen in quantity despite a climate that is not always accommodating to this tropical native.

My favorite pepper color is now red, though the realm of the sweet pepper is host to many flavorful greens. Shishito, small frying peppers with undulating walls are best sautéed whole with oil and salt, and make a delicious drinking snack. Yellow wax peppers (also called banana peppers)—looking like a pale yellow, bulked up Jimmy Nardello—are tangy and bright, good raw or cooked, though if you’re expecting something mild, don’t confuse them with their spicier look-alikes, Hungarian Wax or Pepperoncini.

I was a toddler when Jimmy Nardello died, but I get to smell his kitchen each time I fry up a batch of the slender, transcendent peppers that bear his name. I still cook green bells when a favorite recipe calls for them, though I find myself delighted more often by the more particular pepper personalities, the ones that shine like a badge of someone else’s devotion and perseverance. Through flavors we can travel, and in this endeavor, the pepper—hot or sweet—is a vehicle so precise it can deliver us to one family’s garden, terraced more than a hundred years ago at the ankle of Italy’s boot.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

Pick A Pepper At Gales Meadow Farm

Sarah West


Gales Meadow Farm will have starts of sweet and hot peppers this Sunday at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market, including some varieties which are not found elsewhere in the Portland area.
Aci Sivri is an heirloom from Turkey, a mildly hot pepper which is also intensely sweet and flavorful. The fruit are shaped like cayenne peppers, only longer, brilliant red and a little wrinkled looking.
Black Hungarian is similar in shape to Jalapeno, a little larger, a little hotter, and shiny black in color for most of the season. By the middle of September, it starts to turn a deep brick red, and then it is sweet as well as hot. We make one of our hot sauces from Black Hungarian.
Purple Glow in the Dark is the hottest pepper we will be bringing to Hillsdale. It’s a beautiful plant. New foliage comes out neon green and darkens to deep purple. The peppers themselves, of which each plant produces a prodigious number, are fat half-inch purple cones.
Beaver Dam is spicy rather than hot. It’s shaped like an elongated bell, and good to eat from its early lime green stage. It ripens to a mix of yellow, orange and red. When it’s fried or roasted, most of the spice is gone, and a rich delicious flavor remains.
Bull Nose Bell was grown at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson. He probably did not do the work, but he surely appreciated this sweet bell, which is smaller and more flavorful than newer varieties. The stocky plant produces a dozen or more peppers. It will turn red, but we recommend eating this one green, as there are other peppers which ripen to red much earlier.
The earliest bright red sweet pepper is Jimmy Nardello, an Ark of Taste variety. “This variety of pepper was originally from Basilicata, a southern region of Italy.  It takes its name from seed saver Jimmy Nardello, who brought the seeds from Italy while immigrating to Connecticut in 1887.  . .  Jimmy Nardello’s pepper is sweet and light when eaten raw.  It is considered one of the very best frying peppers as its fruity raw flavor becomes perfectly creamy and soft when fried.” –  US Ark of Taste Slow Food USA (link)
Two years ago, about 2 % of our Jimmy Nardello pepper plants were noticeably sturdier. These surprised us by producing yellow sweet peppers, which have a lighter, less sweet version of the Jimmy Nardello taste. We saved the seeds, grew them out and of course, we call it Yellow Nardello. Growing this is a roll of the dice, as a small percentage last year reverted to the red color and a few even developed a bit of heat.We selected seeds only from the sweet yellow ones, so they should be more predictable this year.

Another yellow sweet pepper is Gatherer’s Gold, a variety developed by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds in Philomath, Oregon. It is bigger than Yellow Nardello, and a bit later to ripen, but well worth the wait for its flavor and beauty.
A new one for us this year is Sweet Red Cherry.  The description in the Nichols catalog is not exactly detailed, but we are hoping for a tasty sweet red pepper small enough to pickle whole.

We are growing more than fifty varieties of pepper this year; these are the ones which are ready for our last Hillsdale Farmers Market of the season this Sunday. Of course, we will also have more than fifty varieties of tomato plants, and starts of a number of other tasty vegetables.