Discovering Aji Amarillo Peppers

Reader Contribution by Fred Hempel
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In 2012, we were asked to grow Aji Amarillo peppers for one of our customers. They are used extensively in Peruvian cuisine, but here in the U.S. they are often in short supply, and chefs are limited to using imported Aji Amarillo pastes or dried peppers. It is now almost 3 years later and we still haven’t been able to deliver the Aji Amarillo for the customer who requested them. Paradoxically, however, Aji Amarillo has become one of our favorite peppers, although it feels like we are only scratching the surface of its potential.

Problems (and Solutions) Growing Aji Amarillo Peppers

The main reason we have yet to deliver ripe Aji Amarillo peppers to the customer who originally requested them is that, by chance, we started off growing the “wrong” cultivar of Aji Amarillo. In 2012, we got seeds from a couple of different sources, and the only seeds that germinated that year produced an abundance of 1- to 2-inch-long peppers. What the chefs expected were 5- to 7-inch peppers with much thicker flesh, and the peppers we produced were “too small.” It wasn’t clear, back then if the problem was that our peppers were not grown under the right conditions or if something else was wrong. But, it is clear now that the Aji Amarillo peppers we grew were simply a different strain (cultivar) of Aji Amarillo than the one our customers wanted.

An additional problem with our peppers, as far as our customers were concerned, was that our peppers were not the right color. Instead of being golden orange, they were mostly yellow. What we now know, is that Aji Amarillo needs a long, hot summer to ripen an abundance of fruit. Our summers in Northern California wine country are probably not quite long enough and/or not quite hot enough to produce large amounts of ripe golden-orange Aji Amarillo peppers. Typically, at the end of our growing season, most of the peppers are still more yellow than golden orange. Given these results, we had a couple of choices. First, we could call our Aji Amarillo project a bust, and stop growing them. Alternatively, we could find other uses for the very flavorful, unripe yellow peppers.

Aji Amarillos Make Great ‘Frying’ Peppers

Perhaps not surprisingly, particularly since this is a blog post about Aji Amarillo peppers, we decided to take the second approach, and find other uses for these peppers. One important factor, worth pointing out, is that we really liked the mildly warm flavor of the unripe Aji Amarillo peppers. They were fruity, and the flavor was bright and clean. We were so taken with these unique peppers that we took them home, and tried using them in different ways. We discovered right away that we liked them best as “frying peppers.”

In general, frying peppers, like Spanish Padron peppers or Italian Friariello peppers, have soft skins and clean flavors without bitterness. They are well-suited to frying in olive oil with salt, and eaten whole as appetizers. We found that we liked young Aji Amarillo frying peppers, as much as, or better than the other frying peppers we knew. Our customers were also easily convinced – particularly when we handed out fried Aji Amarillo peppers at our farmers market stand. So, for the past two summers, our unripe Aji Amarillo peppers have been the cornerstone of the frying pepper mix we sell.

This year we also discovered another great use for Aji Amarillo peppers – in this case the hotter ones. Although we still haven’t developed a significant market for our ripe peppers, we let some of the plants produce fully ripe peppers at the end of the year. We have done this mainly to collect seed.  But, we have also found that both the ripe orange peppers, and the not-quite-ripe yellow, can be oven roasted for use all-year-round. We use our roasted peppers to spice up winter soups and stews; to season eggs and quiche; and to add warmth and depth-of-flavor to teas.

Now that we have figured out some of the many uses for the version of Aji Amarillo we started out with, it is also time to explore the other Aji Amarillo pepper cultivars available. A few short years ago there was only one commercial source for Aji Amarillo peppers, now there are a few. This coming year we will be growing seeds we harvested from some large Aji Amarillo peppers we were given, as well as Aji Amarillo seeds from Trade Winds Fruit, Reimer Seeds and Midwest Chile Peppers. Readers interested in our little Aji Amarillo can find it at our online store.

Tips for Growing Aji Amarillo Peppers

Now for a few final suggestions, for gardeners and growers interested in Aji Amarillo:

1. Start your seeds early. The seedlings are slow-growing, even compared with other peppers.

2. Try eating Aji Amarillo at all stages of ripeness. The flavors evolve throughout ripening. You won’t know which version of this pepper you like best, unless you try them all.

3. Maximize warmth and light. Try to plant your Aji Amarillo plants against a sunny wall, or in a greenhouse, if you live in cooler or more northern climates.

4. Try frying young peppers in olive oil with sea salt. They really do make a great snacking pepper. Eat everything but the stem!

5. When roasting the peppers, we cut the peppers at the top, and remove the stems. Then we roast them at low heat (200 degrees Farenheit) in an oven for as long as it takes them to become yellow-brown and brittle.

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