Who is Jimmy Nardello?

One of my favorite vegetables that I was introduced to three years ago in my Survival Seed Bank is the Jimmy Nardello’s Pepper. (I know, I say that pretty much all of them are my favorite. But this one really would make the top three.) From outward appearances, you may assume that this 10″ inch long pepper, which turns from kelly green to scarlet red when it is ripe, is a pepper that will produce heat on your tongue. But it is actually not hot at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. These peppers are deliciously sweet and can be munched raw, right from the garden.

Last month, while harvesting my sweet peppers, I held one of the crimson gems between my thumb and forefinger, and pondered its name. “Just who is Jimmy Nardello, anyway?” I wondered. Thanks to today’s internet, it was easy for me to find out.

The lad for whom my peppers are named grew up in southern Italy, in a rocky and mountainous region called Basilicata. He was the son of Giuseppe and Angela Nardiello, (the family later dropped the “i” in the last name) and had ten brothers and sisters.

For several years in Basilicata, gardeners Angela and Giuseppe nurtured their favorite variety of sweet pepper. They then brought a handful of these seeds with them when they immigrated to Connecticut in 1887. Their son James is said to be their only child who inherited his parents’ love of gardening. He planted peppers as his mom taught did herself in southern Italy, in terraces, and grew hundreds of peppers, but the sweet pepper that his parents nurtured remained his favorite.

Jimmy Nardello passed away in 1983 in his hometown of Naugatuck, Connecticut. But before he died, he donated some of his prized pepper seeds to the Seed Savers Exchange  (SSE) in Decorah, Iowa. The SSE specializes in protecting and preserving heirloom seeds, and has over 11,000 seed varieties that they keep in special climate-controlled vaults.

When you add a crop of Jimmy Nardello’s peppers to your garden, you are adding a pepper that is delicious, versatile, and even somewhat rare. The seeds are listed as  endangered by the Slow Food USA’s Ark of Tastes  (the vegetable version of the endangered species list). One of the best ways to preserve this crop, however, is to grow it yourself and harvest the seeds.

Once you harvest your sweet peppers, (which in the Northern Hemisphere, you can do in July) you will find a whole array of ways to use them. Like I said before, they are good and sweet just eaten raw. But this kind of pepper is most popularly known as a “frying pepper” because of the tastes that come out when they are fried- they turn deliciously sweet, creamy, and flavorful. Try simply slicing them and frying them up in olive oil with a tad bit of garlic. This makes a terrific topping for meats such as steaks, burgers, and chicken. These peppers are also excellent in chili and salsa. They also are great in Mexican dishes such as fajitas, and classic Italian dishes such as antipasto.

To preserve your peppers, pickling is an excellent option. For an even easier alternative, try drying them. Jimmy Nardello himself discovered that a great way to preserve his peppers for wintertime consumption was to dry them. In order to do so, string them onto a thread using a regular sewing needle. Be careful not to pierce the fruit itself. Pierce only the stem. Then, hang your threaded peppers on a porch, or near a sunny window. As a bonus, they will keep their red color and look very pretty as they dry out.

To consume your dried peppers throughout the winter, just fry them up in a bit of olive oil and add them to your favorite dishes. They add a distinct flavor, sort of like peppery popcorn, and even hold their texture and shape while cooked.

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