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Hoppin' Jalapenos

Jalapenos add sizzle to meals around the globe. Jalapenos rank about a 5 on the Scoville Unit scale, with sweet bell peppers ranking zero, and orange, lantern-shaped habanerosthe hottest peppersranking 10. The best part about jalapenos is they pack as much flavor as heat.

Growing jalapenos in home gardens is a cinch, and because the plants maintain a small bushy size, they are also well-suited for growing in containers. Their firm, dense texture and smooth skin make them easy to slice and diceand you can eat the entire pepper, except for the tough stem. They're equally tasty raw or cooked or pickled. They add bright green or red color to Mexican salsas, relishes and guacamole, as well as Indian curries, omelettes, and nearly any other cuisine that benefits from a kick of heat and pepper flavor.

Pico de gallo is an uncooked Mexican salsa made of jalapenos, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and lime juice. This flavorful garnish is used to top nearly every other Mexican food. Jalapenos add extreme flavor and nice heat when included in cooked salsas, sauces, soups and casseroles. Make sure to only use the amount of jalapeno pepper in your dishes that your entire family or dinner guests can tolerate. Jalapenos do vary in heat (the spice comes from the veins), so it's best to sample a small amount before adding to your recipes. Also be careful: jalapenos can sting the eyes when cooking.

You can grow jalapenos from starter plants or seeds. There are early-season maturing varieties, as well as those that produce fruit throughout the season. If you start your seeds indoors, plant around 6 to 8 weeks prior to your last frost. Sterile, soiless planting medium will ensure the best resultsand always provide adequate air circulation and 14 hours of sunlight each day, to give your young plants the healthiest start and the smoothest transplant outdoors after the last chance of frost has passed. Choosing a high quality organic seed or healthy starter plant is key to a bountiful pepper harvest.

Jalapeno plants thrive in well-drained, rich organic soil and bright sunshine. Make sure to water deeply, about once a week after plants are established. Frequent or shallow watering will cause roots to reach for the surface, rather than growing deeply into the soil to provide nutrients and stability for the plant. Don't overdo the fertilizer! Too much nitrogen can cause curled, misshapen leaves and unhealthy growth of the plant and fruit. Too much salt in the soil, as contained in many inexpensive, synthetic plant foods, will cause root burn. An organic, water-soluble fertilizer higher in phosphorous and potassium will produce the best fruits, but follow directions on the container to use the correct amount.

Pick jalapenos at nearly any growth stage, but most people prefer mature peppers, when the fruits are an inch across and 2 1/2+ inches long. You can harvest when green, when the skin corks (or starts showing brown veining), or fully ripe and red in color. Harvesting does promote more fruiting, so if you have a variety that produces throughout the season, pick ripe fruit often!

Jalapenos are delicious raw, chopped and cooked, or stuffed with cheese and baked. They can be dried in an oven or commercial food dehydrator, as well as air-dried to make flakes or chili powder.

If you want to kick it up all the way, adding the most spice and heat to your dishes, see what habanero aficionados are raving about. These peppers are also available in plants or organic seeds.

Always be sure to wash your hands and utensils after handling cut peppers. One rub of the eye after slicing the spicy fruit, and you'll never make that mistake again.

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