Dirt on Gardening

Peppers always seem to hit their production stride in the late summer and early fall. I believe the peppers like the cooler days and nights. Not only do the pepper plants become loaded down with fruit, the fruit on the plants turn a brilliant red.

In New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest, peppers — particularly hot peppers — are dried into ristras. Chile ristras are long strands of peppers that are strung together to make brilliant decorations. The peppers in the ristra are also edible!

Ristras are made from peppers that are fully ripe and red. Green peppers, although ready to eat, are actually too immature to be dried. Immature peppers will wither and turn an odd orange color as they dry.

Any type of pepper can be used to make a ristra, but typically they are made with thick skinned pepper like Anaheim, Thai, Serrano or other pepper that has an elongated pod of at least six inches. It takes a lot of peppers — about four pounds or three-quarters of a bushel — a ball of sturdy twine or a roll of fishing line, a long piece of thick wire or sisal rope to make a full size ristra.

Clusters of three peppers must be held by the stems and the string wrapped around the stems three or four times. Then, wrap one loop of the string over the base of the stem and pull the string around the peppers tight. Continue this with three more peppers, tying the peppers about three inches above the last one.

After all of the peppers have been grouped together and tied up, the sisal rope or piece of wire should be hung from a door knob or long nail. Braid the chiles around the rope like a child’s hair is braided. The rope or wire acts as one strand and the stems of two peppers are the other strands. Push the peppers down and braid the next cluster. There should be no empty spaces in the ristra.

To preserve the ristra for a very long time, the dried pods can be sprayed with a clear lacquer. Remember, lacquered pods cannot be eaten. Pods that are not lacquered can be eaten and processed as needed.

Chiles will continue to dry and will turn dark red and become brittle as they age on the ristra. If the ristra is not placed in direct sunlight, the peppers may last for a year or more. Ristras should be hung in a well-ventilated area so the chiles do not rot or attract insects.

Ristras can be used for decoration with a ribbon, a piece of evergreen or other decor may be added to the top of the ristra. In the Southwest, a ristra is hung in a home to represent luck. Ristra are also used as décor for the holidays in the Southwest in the place of holly or poinsettias.

Questions or comments related to gardening? Contact Joleen at missourigardener@hotmail.com

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