Sweet anticipation: Habenadas in November
Here it is early November and I’m still nursing along a pepper plant because I’m curious about its fruit. Almost everyone in my family is obsessed with mildly hot to seriously hot peppers. We stuff poblanos or roast them and add strips to chile con queso. We blister shishitos, sprinkle them with sea salt and serve them with drinks before dinner. We pickle and candy jalapenos for use as garnishes. And then we use those deadly hot Carolina reapers plus some milder serranos and jalapenos to make hot sauce and salsa macha. We just like hot stuff.
Several years ago, the Blue Hill Stone Barns Restaurant in New York began serving a new kind of pepper, the habenada (habanera + nada, meaning habanera that isn’t hot). For appetizers, they put slices of the peppers on thin rounds of cooked beet on top of small dry crackers. I wasn’t wowed, but apparently lots of other people were. Habenadas quickly became the must have new food with a reputation for being fruity, floral, sweetly tropical, and never hot. Not even a little.
I’ve been intrigued by the habenada, but hadn’t made any efforts to locate seeds and grow them. Enter my friend, who likes to grow lots of plants from seeds just because she can. In late August, she announced that she had grown some habenada plants and that she would give me several. I potted them up, put them in the sun, and grumbled at them every day that they didn’t have very much time to produce fruit and convince me that they were amazing. One plant sulked and refused to grow. The other, however, quickly quadrupled in size, flowered, and produced fruit at the end of October.
I wish I could say that I loved this pepper, but I just couldn’t. Fruity and floral? Grassy and blah. The essence of sweet tropical flavors? No, very mild green bell pepper. In my opinion, when the heat is removed, there is a major component of the flavor profile missing too. My most satisfactory way of serving them was to pickle them in a quick sweet brine and serve them with burrata and toasted breadcrumbs. But, then, everything is good with burrata.
In spite of my experience, if you have space in next year’s garden for something new, you might consider the habenada. It’s easy to grow and doesn’t require much space or attention. You might not miss the sweet fire that habaneros typically provide. And you’ll be right on trend with the latest gourmet delight.
DR. CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.