Baccatum Bacchanalia! Growing and Cooking with Ají Chiles

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By Dave DeWitt

Chile Pepper Bedding Plants… over 500 varieties from Cross Country Nurseries, shipping April to early June. Fresh pods ship September and early October. Go here

Chile Pepper Seeds… from all over the world from the Chile Pepper Institute. Go here

(Editor’s Note: This is a flashback to my 1994 chile pepper garden.)

Sometimes it’s difficult being a chilehead.  More and more recipes–including ours–are calling for the specific chiles that are authentic to the dish being prepared.  But where do you find all of them?  Fresh habaneros are now available in the summer and fall in many supermarkets, but where do you locate rocotos or ajís?  In your own garden, of course, and that’s the direction chileheads are taking because commercial production and distribution of many varieties lags behind our desire to experiment with them–both in the garden and in the kitchen.

As usual, I had a chile-growing project for the summer of 1994, and it involved growing out and cooking with a number of baccatum varities–nineteen of them, in fact!  But before we grow and cook with them, let’s take a look at this interesting species.

From left, ‘Monk’s Cap’, ‘Bolivian Long’, ‘White Wax’, ‘Amarillo’,
‘Hot Pepper Tree’, ‘Dedo do Moca’, ‘Limon’, ‘Bird Ají’
Photo: Dave DeWitt

Baccatum Background

The baccatum species, familiarly termed “ají” throughout South America, originated either in Bolivia or in Peru and, according to archaeological evidence, was probably domesticated in Peru about 2,500 B.C.  Extensive baccatum material found at the Huaca Prieta archaeological site in Peru shows that the species was gradually improved by the pre-Incan civilizations.  From tiny, berry-like pods that were deciduous (dropped off the plant), the fruit size increased, and the fruits gradually became non-deciduous and stayed on the plants through ripening.  There are two wild forms (varieties ‘baccatum’ and ‘microcarpum’) and a domesticated form (variety ‘pendulum’).  Note that these are not specific cultivated varieties but rather botanical designations. The domesticated forms have a great diversity of pod shape and size, ranging from short, pointed pods borne erect to long, pendant pods resembling the New Mexican varieties of the annuum species.

Writing in Chile Pepper, Mary Dempsey noted: “Ají is a banana pepper-shaped chile called “ají amarillo” when it is yellow or orange and “ají colorado” when red, a distinction that is important only in the hue of the dish being prepared.  When dried, it is often referred to as ‘cuzqueño’, after the city of Cuzco.  Piles of the orange, gold, and brilliant red peppers are found in every outdoor market in Peru, tossed in jumbled piles, stacked in pyramids by more enterprising vendors or divided by color upon handwoven cloths.”
The baccatum species is generally distinguished from the other species by the yellow or tan spots on the corollas of the flowers.  No other species has these spots, and they are a key to field identification. The large-podded baccatum plants, such as the ají amarillo varieties, tend to stand out in the garden like small trees, growing as tall as five feet. One variety of ají, puca-uchu, grows on a vine-like plant in home gardens in Peru, but I’ve never seen it grown in North America.  The growing period of ajís is up to 120 days or more, and the plants can produce 40 or more pods.      

Selecting the Varieties

You can always identify a baccatum by the brown spots on the corolla. Photo: Harald Zoschke

Only a few seed sources have any baccatum material at all, so by necessity I utilized a key resource for all chilehead gardeners, Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.  By using their 1994 Yearbook and looking through the list of collectors and their seeds, I was able to order (for a mere dollar apiece), packets of baccatum seeds from numerous gardeners. The varieties were identified by either a “PI” number or a vernacular (or common) name, and sometimes both.  The “PI” number is the USDA identification number given to a collected variety, such as PI 441551 for a Brazilian Bell. The state of baccatum nomenclature is where annuum nomenclature was a hundred years ago–a mess of common names with few, if any, official cultivated varieties.  Collectors get their hands on seed one way or another, grow out the baccatums, and give them names like Peruvian Long, Peruvian Dark Red, and Ecuadorian Light Green.  Some names seem more authentic, like Kellu Uchu, Cochabamba, and Kovinchu, but so little is known about South American chile cultivation practices, we simply cannot speculate about whether the names are locale-oriented or are simply slang terms.

From Craig LeHoulier came Christmas Bell and Valentine (since these are just common names and not officially recognized cultivated varieties, I am not putting them in single quotes).  Steve Edwards provided Ají Escabeche and Alice Yeaman sent three varieties of Peruvian and Ecuadorian ajís.  Suzanne Ashworth sent Kovinchu, Betsy and Bob (sorry, I spaced their last name) sent Cochabamba from Bolivia, Tom Beckett sent the wild variety baccatum var. baccatum, and John Swenson sent Brazilian Bell and a brown pendulum.  Jim Ault, who was such a big help with 1993’s chinense grow-out, provided five varieties, including Kellu Uchu, a Peruvian Yellow, and another wild variety.

The Grow-Out

All in all, out of the twenty-two baccatum varieties sent to me, nineteen germinated and were grown out to ripe pods, which isn’t a bad average.  Most were grown in the garden, but I also experimented with growing some varieties in pots too.  I gave them no special treatment, using aged manure as the fertilizer and newspaper as the mulch.  There were no insect pests or diseases to stunt their development, and as is typical with the species, no matter what the growing venue, the baccatums responded with vigorous growth and abundant flowering and fruiting. Some of my ajís had as many as a hundred or more pods, especially the wild varieties and the smaller yellow and red ajís.  In fact, I have had more success with baccatums than any other species that I’ve grown over the years and I predict that if seed companies begin carrying enough varieties, the species will become very popular in North America.

Interestingly enough, Ed and Jan Eckhoff, who were growing out seven different varieties of chiles for seed in Woodland, California, discovered that the ají variety ‘Kellu Uchu’ (also called ‘Ají Amarillo’) was incredibly prolific.  In fact, just twenty plants produced as much seed as ninety-six Congo Pepper plants from Trinidad!

One of the more interesting ajís was the wild variety, called “Ají Bird.”  In contrast to the chiltepin (the wild annuum) which grows upright like a tree, the growth habit of the wild ají is low and sprawling.  The pod size and shape was similar to the Arizona chiltepins from Douglas, but the heat level was milder.

The ají’s legendary reputation to withstand mild frosts was put to test in late October when a unique situation developed in my garden.  We live in a particularly low part of the South Valley in Albuquerque and thus have a colder microclimate than areas just a mile away.  The temperature hovered right around freezing all night, and in the morning I surveyed the damage.

The New Mexican chiles were badly damaged and the jalapeños were killed outright.  But the ajís survived that night with only minor damage. Chiltepins were the only other chiles to survive similar conditions that night and the following nights.  As is typical for New Mexico, the weather warmed up and the surviving chiles lasted another couple of weeks until the nighttime temperatures dropped below thirty degrees.

Cooking with the Ajís

Ajís are cultivated in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia, so it’s not surprising that they appear often in the recipes of these South American countries.  They are used fresh in salsas and the small yellow varieties, are prized for their lemony aroma. They are also used fresh in ceviche (lime-marinated fish) along the Pacific coast. The pods of all ajís are also dried in the sun and then crushed into powders. If you can’t grow the ajís, yellow wax hot chiles or jalapeños are the best substitutes.  The following recipes are from Hot and Spicy Latin Dishes, the only detailed examination of ají chile recipes, by myself, Mary Jane Wilan, and Melissa T. Stock (Prima Publishing, 1995).

Ají Molido
(Ají Chile Paste)

Photo: Aaron Sandoval

This South American paste can be used as a substitute whenever fresh chiles are called for.  It will keep for two weeks or more in the refrigerator; for longer storage, increase the vinegar and reduce the amount of olive oil.

20 fresh yellow ají chile, stems and seeds removed, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree to a smooth paste.
Yield: About 1 cup
Heat Scale: Hot
Variations:  For a red paste, substitute 15 dried New Mexican red chiles, soaked in water.  For a green paste, substitute 10 New Mexican green chiles.  For a much hotter paste, add 2 habanero chiles.  All chiles should have the seeds and stems removed.

Ensalada con Quinoa de Peru
(Peruvian Quinoa Salad)

Quinoa is a very versatile grain. It can be added to soups, stews, and salads for additional nutrition and texture. It was a staple of the Incas, who called it “the mother grain.”  Quinoa was cultivated on the terraces of Machu Picchu, as it successfully grows at high altitudes. Today, it is still an important food in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Its flavor has been compared to couscous or wild rice. In the U.S. it is commonly available in natural food supermarkets and health food stores in several forms: the whole grain, flour, and pasta. It is called a complete protein because it contains all eight essential amino acids.

2 cups raw quinoa
2 quarts plus 1/2 cups water
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
2 fresh ají chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped fine
2/3 cup olive oil
2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1 large tomato, seeds removed, cubed
8 green onions, white part only, thinly sliced
1/3 cup minced fresh Italian parsley
1/3 cup minced fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 heads bibb lettuce, shredded
Garnishes: 3 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced; 2 fresh ears of corn, cooked and cut into 2 inch rounds; 1 cup black olives, thickly sliced

Rinse the quinoa under cold running water until the water runs clear. Combine the quinoa with the water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until all the grains are translucent. Drain, transfer the quinoa to a bowl and chill.
Whisk together the lime juice, the chiles, and the olive oil and set aside.

Combine the quinoa, cucumbers, tomato, green onions, parsley, and mint and mix gently. Pour the lime jiuce mixture over the top and toss again. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

To serve the salad, place a mound of shredded Bibb lettuce on 6 or 8 individual plates and garnish with any or all of the suggested garnishes.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Heat Scale: Medium

(Ecuadorian Potato Soup)

In Latin America, nearly every meal begins with soup. The unique ingredients in this dish are the cream cheese and avocados, which make for a rich, smooth texture that slides over the palate, leaving in its wake a touch of the heat of the ajís.

3 onions, finely chopped
3 to 4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups chicken broth
4 potatoes, peeled and diced
1/8 teaspoon saffron
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground ají or substitute cayenne
3 cups milk
1/2 cup green peas
3 eggs
1/4 pound cream cheese
1 avocado, peeled and sliced

Saute the onions in the butter for 10 minutes. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Gradually add the broth, stirring constantly until boiling. Reduce the heat, add the potatoes, saffron, salt, and chile and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add the milk and peas and continue to simmer for 5 minutes.     Beat together the eggs and cream cheese and gradually add 2 cups of the hot soup, beating constantly to avoid curdling. Return the contents of the bowl to the saucepan and heat being careful not to let it boil.
Place a few slices of avocado in each soup bowl and pour the hot soup over them.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Ají de Carne
(Bolivian Peppery Pork)

The use of bananas in this pork dish is very typical of Latin American cooking. Bolivians have a reputation for liking spicy foods, and this recipe contains enough chile pepper to satisfy even the most jaded palate. Because this is a rich, one-pot meal, we suggest serving a salad of greens and sliced tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil.

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chopped onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/2 pounds boneless pork, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 cups chopped tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons ground ají, or substitute New Mexican, such as Chimayó
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups chicken or beef broth
4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 green bananas, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup heavy cream or coconut cream
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 cup finely chopped cashews or unsalted peanuts

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or casserole and saute the onions and garlic until soft. Add the pork, a few at a time, and brown. Add the tomatoes, saffron, salt, black pepper, chile, cinnamon, cloves, and broth. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the potatoes and bananas and continue to cook until the potatoes are done, about 25 minutes.
Stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer until heated through, taking care that the cream does not boil. Serve immediately.
Yield: 5 to 6 servings.
Heat Scale: Hot

Ceviche de Camarones
(Ecuadorian Marinated Shrimp)

Photo: Norman Johnson


This recipe comes from our friend, Loretta Salazar, who lived in Ecuador while she attended the university on an exchange program.  Serve the ceviche on a bed of bibb lettuce, garnished with black olives, sliced hard boiled egg, feta cheese, a slice of cooked corn on the cob, and maybe some crusty bread for a very appetizing luncheon or light dinner.

2 pounds frozen cooked shrimp
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ajís
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups freshly popped popcorn

Run cold water over the shrimp for a minute or two to defrost. Drain the shrimp thoroughly on paper towels to drain. Place the shrimp in a non-reactive bowl, either glass or ceramic, add the remaining ingredients except the lettuce and popcorn, and lightly mix. Marinate the mixture in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours.
To serve: drain the cerviche and serve on individual plates on beds of shredded lettuce. Garnish with the warm popcorn.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

Lima Beans with Ají Chiles

Lima beans were possibly one of the first crops cultivated by Indian farmers; limas were found in excavaions dated 5000-6000 B.C. in the coastal regions. The many varieties of limas include the very tiny, or baby, limas, to some limas that are 1 1/2 inches. This easy and delicious Peruvian recipe is a good side dish for any of the meat recipes because it is not overwhelming in its taste and will compliment all dishes nicely.

1 leek, white part only, finely diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 fresh ajís, stems and seeds removed, minced
1 pound (about 4 cups) fresh lima beans or frozen baby lima beans, thawed. Do not use dried beans!
1/2 to 1 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon lemon or lime zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Saute the leeks and ajís in 1 tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil for 30 seconds. Add the lima beans, water, and the citrus juice; bring to a boil, and reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes or until the beans are tender.
Mix the 1 remaining tablespoon of butter with the citrus zest and the salt and pepper.
Drain the beans, and add the butter mixture. Simmer for a minute and stir to coat the beans.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

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