I have to remind myself sometimes that Jimmy Nardello was a real person, not just a mythical character or a garden saint. The name holds a reverence in our speech, and we have been known to give a special toast of gratitude "to Jimmy" when we top a mid-winter pizza with roasted red peppers. But thanks to people to trace the history and heritage of foods, I have learned that Jimmy Nardello, the namesake of our favorite sweet pepper variety, was in fact the fourth son of immigrants from Southern Italy: Giuseppe and Angela Nardiello, who brought the seed of this particular pepper to America when they arrived in the late 1800's. He was, in his life, just as real as our farmer friend Chuck Straughan, who introduced us to the pepper variety just a few years ago.
Right now, as we have the luxury of eating these peppers fresh, roasted, and sautéed into everything we want, I am grateful to both of those men. Grateful to Jimmy for sharing his family's seeds with the Seed Saver's exchange in 1983, which helped preserve and make the variety available to farmers and gardeners today, and for Chuck for growing them in Oregon, where we met them just a few years ago.
The summer we met both Chuck and Jimmy (we do often refer to these peppers by first name) our growing space consisted of only a few raised beds on a town lot, and we were looking for ways to put up more food for our winter stores. We hit the Forest Grove farmers’ market on Wednesday nights with a larger mission than a week's worth of produce: we were on the hunt for farms that might be open to bulk purchases of grade-B produce, work-trades, or potential for gleaning after the market season was over.
After a few good market-booth conversations with Chuck, we had a sense that he might be just what we were looking for. By fall we had struck up a good rapport, bringing him samples of our roasted coffee, trading some of our favorite garlic varieties for his. When market season was over, he invited us out to his place to glean from fields that were still growing before the first frost. And that's when we really met Jimmy: under Chuck's hoop house, among the tomatoes and hot peppers, we plucked from row after row of these long, shiny, bright red peppers. He introduced us to Jimmy by name then, explaining that "they look like they might be hots, but they are a sweet Italian pepper--you won't believe how sweet they are. Here, try some..." Chuck was right: the peppers are fantastically sweet. I think we filled at least two whole paper sacks, which was enough to set us up for some long nights of processing.
We use them fresh, sautéed, and roasted--the latter being the best method we've found to preserve them for the rest of the year. When we manage to harvest en masse, like we did that fall from Chuck's farm, we roast large batches to freeze.
The roasting is simple: cut off the stem end, twist the knife blade inside to loosen the core and shake out most of the seeds (if you have plenty of time, you can cut them in half and get out all the seeds, but whole is good enough when you have bushels to process). Toss them in olive oil, adding some chopped garlic if you like, and roast them in the oven at about 400 until they are soft--10-15 minutes. After they cool, pack them solidly into pint or quart bags and freeze. Pulled out in winter, they go onto pizzas, pasta, stir-fries, soups, and sandwiches.
This is our first year growing Jimmy ourselves, and we've been delighted to find them hardy, prolific, and starting to really ripen and come in fast in the last week. They are listed in the seed catalogs at 76 days to maturity--perfect for the short summers we can have here in Missoula. We started them from seeds indoors back in March, and transplanted in May, keeping them under row cover until they started to flower, sometime in June. We’ve had such good results, it’s hard to imagine planting a garden now without including Jimmy.