2019 was not a good gardening season in West Michigan. First we had a very wet, cold spring – the cold weather reached deep into May. Then we had a hot, largely dry summer. This meant most of us had to plant our vegetable gardens twice, and water profusely. Then, at least at my house, just when I got things up and coddled along a bit in June, what seemed like the entire rabbit population of Allegan County decapitated most everything.
Plans are already in motion for next year to move the main garden closer to the house, away from critter hiding brush (and within range of my .22), and also to put in an electric fence. But in the meantime, I am left with what few survivors I have.
Those survivors were mainly the tomatoes, herbs and peppers that I grow in planters on my south facing deck. (Rabbits don’t usually climb steps).
One of the new peppers I tried this year was a Habanada, just because the description in the catalogue intrigued me – a heatless habanero!
Now let me state right here that I am not afraid of hot peppers. I love hot sauce, and firmly believe that there’s hardly anything it doesn’t improve. I grow serranos every year.
But since habaneros are so insanely hot, one goes a really, really long way. I would probably only be able to find use for maybe a half dozen in total – so why grow a plant that would produce 30 or 40 plus? But habaneros have, in addition to their heat, a unique, fruity, almost melon like flavor – so I thought that a heatless version that let that flavor shine through would be interesting to try.
I was not aware of the background of this pepper until I started looking for recipe ideas, but its back story is pretty interesting.
The Habanada was created by a Cornell University plant breeder named Michael Mazourek, who created it as part of his doctoral research. He got the idea when he found a unique heatless pepper whose genetics were very different from the sweet peppers like bells. Its genetics were more like hot peppers, but it had somehow lost whatever made it spicy.
This original pepper tasted kind of bad, so he cross-pollinated it with a habanero, and after a couple generations he was left with a pepper with the aromatic qualities of a habanero, but minus the heat. This was around 2007, but the Habanada has only been known beyond academia in the last few years.
Today, access to Habanadas is pretty much limited to chefs – they are sold to restaurants through distributor Baldor Foods, who gets them from Ark Foods, which, last I checked, was the only commercial grower. So, if you want to try them, you can either hope to find them in a restaurant, or do like I did, and grow your own. Most of the major seed and plant catalogues have them available.
So what’s it like? I can truly say that it really does taste fruity, pretty much melon like, as advertised. It’s really quite surprising – unlike any other pepper I’ve had. The flavor is intense enough to really be called aromatic.
So what do you do with them? I’ve tried halving them, filling them with some burata cheese, topping with bacon crumbles and baking till the cheese melts. This seemed to complement the fruity flavor quite well. I would also imagine that given their melon flavor, they would pair well with prosciutto (think prosciutto and melon). I’ve also sauteed them in butter with shallots. I’ve also heard of some chefs doing Habanada sherbets and jellies. I will probably have another 20-30 or so of these to use yet, so I’ll continue to try to come up with ideas.
Hopefully this unique little pepper will become better known and more widely available. In the meantime, if you have a chance to sample and/or grow some, do it!