Spicy or sweet, peppers are the life of
the party when the fall harvest comes around
By Jamie Collins
Illustrations by Dina Clark
Recipe by Kim Solano
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER AND NOVEMBER
Fruits: Apples • Asian Pears • Avocados • Blackberries** • Cactus Pears • Dates • Feijoas**** • Figs • Guavas**** • Kiwis • Kumquats • Lemons • Limes*** • Mandarins**** • Melons • Nectarines** • Oranges • Peaches* • Pears • Persimmons • Plums • Pluots • Pomegranates • Pomelos**** • Quince • Raspberries • Strawberries
Nuts: Almonds • Hazelnuts • Pecans • Pistachios • Walnuts
Vegetables: Beans • Beets • Bok Choy* • Broccoli • Brussels Sprouts* • Burdock • Cabbages • Carrots • Cauliflowers* • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Collards • Corn • Cress • Cucumbers • Dandelions • Eggplants • Endive • Fennel • Garlic • Herbs • Horseradish • Kale • Leeks • Lettuces • Mustard Greens • Okra • Olives • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas • Pea Shoots • Peppers • Potatoes • Radishes • Rhubarb • Rutabagas*** • Salsify • Scallions • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Squash, Summer and Winter Sunchokes • Sweet Potatoes • Tomatillos • Tomatoes • Turnips
* = September only
** = Only through October
***= October and beyond
Fish: Abalone • Halibut, Calif.# • Lingcod • Rock Cod/Rockfish • Sablefish • Sardines • Sea Bass, White Sole • Spot Prawns# • Squid, Market# • Tuna, Albacore
Note: Fish species marked with # are rated “good alternatives” in terms of sustainability by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Seafood Watch considers the rest “best choices” for sustainability.
Who doesn’t like a little spice in their life? The best tasting peppers are harvested in fall, after they have had all summer to soak up the sun and ripen on the plant. Allowing a pepper to ripen fully before picking ensures that the whole pepper changes color and the characteristics of the particular pepper—whether it be sweet, smoky or spicy—fully express themselves.
I am a huge fan of all peppers except the dreaded green bell pepper. Green bell peppers are actually unripe red, orange or yellow peppers. They are bitter and can even be upsetting to the stomach when eaten in large amounts. I would bet that green bell peppers were promoted as a great pizza topping and stir fry addition to create an early market for unripe peppers. It takes another month or so for a green pepper to fully ripen into its colorful and flavorful true glory.
The local fever for peppers is so strong that their numbers are multiplying in home gardens, on restaurant menus and in artisanal products alike.
Friend In Cheeses Jam Co.’s Tabitha Stroup, for example, uses not just one but two local peppers for her Smokin’ Padron Jam, part of her Drought Responsible product line. After roasting Homeless Garden Project padrons, she adds orange, grapefruit and lemon juice, cane sugar, sea salt and ghost peppers, which she says add notes of cinnamon, sumac and bay leaf along with intense layers of heat.
Peppers are one of the stars of the annual Mole & Mariachi Festival occurring this year on Sept. 19 at Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, which it benefits.
And perhaps the most exciting recent development for local pepper lovers is the launch this year of Fire Tongue Farm, an organic chili pepper grower in Hollister that will soon start selling its founders’ obsession: smoked chili peppers.
Friends since their undergraduate days at UC Berkeley, Ryan Silsbee had most recently studied sustainable agriculture at the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden and Levon Minassian had been an apprentice at an organic farm in Petaluma.
This past summer they planted their own 8-acre farm with their first crop of 12 rare, open-pollinated varieties of chili peppers, including red rocket, Joe E. Parker and cyclone. Their plan is to rotate the pepper crops with grazing sheep to maximize the health of the land.
And in a sign of the enthusiasm out there for the project, it took the pair just 24 hours to raise enough capital through Barnraiser, a crowdfunding platform, to build the smokehouse where they will use local pear and apple woods to smoke their peppers.
Fire Tongue’s smoked peppers will be moist and pliable and sold online, directly to chefs and through local markets and Eating with the Seasons’ CSA. Fire Tongue will also sell its peppers fresh and dried.
Peppers are in the Solanaceae family, and are nightshades like tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. There are hundreds of types of peppers, but the core group of peppers I chose to plant this year is a mix of varieties of sweet and slightly spicy, with an emphasis on smaller peppers that can ripen only a few miles from the coast.
My favorite sweet peppers are the Italian corno di toro (horn of the bull) and corno di toro giallo (yellow horn of the bull) because of their rich and slightly spicy undertones. They are also less watery than a typical sweet bell pepper, making their flavors more concentrated. Tapered to a point like a bull’s horn, they grow 8–10 inches long and 3 inches wide, and their plants continue to produce for several months.
Padrons and shishitos are tiny peppers that grow 1–2 inches in length. A great snack or appetizer, while still green they can be cooked with no prep time and be on the table within 5–7 minutes. If left to ripen to red, they will be much spicier. Padrons originate from Spain, where they are grown in greenhouses in the Municipality of Padron and are served as tapas.
Shishito peppers are similar to Padrons but are a bit sweeter and originate from East Asia where they are typically skewered and grilled, pan fried in oil or stewed in a soy sauce or dashi-based broth.
Poblanos are harvested when dark green and 5–6 inches long. This pepper is most often used for chile rellenos in the United States due to its zesty, mild flavor. When dried, poblanos are referred to as ancho chiles.
Ghost peppers are used as a spice in fresh or dried form to heat up chutneys, curries and pickles with a distinct flavor. They are so powerful that in India they are smeared on fences or made into smoke bombs to keep wild elephants at a distance. Ghost peppers have gotten a lot of press in recent years due to their reputation as the hottest of peppers; gastromasochists have described this pepper, which carries a rating of 462,400 on the Scoville Heat Unit Scale, as molten lava on their tongues. But eventually it was discovered that the naga viper is even hotter, and plant breeders are at work developing even spicier varieties.
HEALTH AND NUTRITION
The vibrant colors of peppers are not only a feast for the eyes but, also, they offer a plethora of vitamins and a concentrated source of carotenoid phytonutrients that are evident in their red, orange and yellow skins. These compounds are powerful antioxidants; for example, the lycopene found in red peppers is good for the heart and lungs, and the orange and yellow pigments are rich in alpha and gamma carotene, beneficial for good vision. Peppers are also an excellent source of vitamins C, A and B6. Unsurprisingly, green bell peppers have none of the antioxidant properties because they don’t have the red and orange pigment in the skins.
While this is a perfect time of year to harvest and eat peppers, if you’d like to grow them, your next opportunity won’t come around until spring. Peppers are planted in our area as early as April 15 and as late as June 1. Plant seedlings 12–18 inches apart in well-composted soil. Fertilize with liquid fish or kelp every two weeks and amend with calcium and potassium one month after planting to increase fruit set and yields.
CHOOSING, PREPARING AND STORING
Choose heavy peppers with smooth, unwrinkled and taut skin. Avoid fruit with blemishes as they could indicate the beginning of decay. Peppers should be ripened all over to a uniform color to get the flavor representative of the particular pepper. Partly green peppers are going to taste unripe if you choose a red sweet pepper.
If a hot pepper—like a jalepeño—is supposed to be green but is turning red, that could mean it will be even spicier than usual. Air causes peppers to lose their vitamins and to become soft and bitter, so it is best to enjoy them within a day or two of buying.
Store unwashed peppers in the refrigerator in a plastic bag and be sure to squeeze out as much air as possible.
COOKING WITH PEPPERS
Pepper sauce: Roast peppers for 45 minutes at 375° F. Remove from oven and cover with a towel to steam. Once cool, peel off skins, remove seeds and blend with olive oil and salt into a thick sauce. Freeze in small amounts for use throughout the year. This flavorful concentrate can be added to soups, slow cooker meat dishes or used as a spread—just add some soft cheese and herbs. Or use to cover stuffed poblano peppers.
Oaxaca-inspired stuffed poblano peppers: Roast peppers, peel off skins and remove seeds. Mix shredded chicken, chopped walnuts, raisins or currants and sweet corn kernels together with enough chicken broth to coat and cause mixture to stick together. Sprinkle with sea salt, saffron and crumbled queso fresco. Stuff peppers with chicken mixture. Mix some cornmeal flour and eggs together for the batter. In a pan, heat avocado or another type of oil with a high smoke point. Dip the stuffed peppers in the egg and corn meal mixture and place in hot oil until they brown, then flip. Remove from pan and drain on a towel. Serve hot. Reheats well.
Grilled peppers preserved in olive oil: Grill whole sweet-to-mild peppers. When cool, pull off skins, remove seeds and slice. Pop them in jars with a few sprigs of basil and some cloves of garlic. Cover with olive oil, ensuring peppers are fully submerged. Top with a splash of apple cider vinegar. Keeps in the pantry for 3 months.
Corno di toro vinaigrette: Blend 4 skinned and seeded roasted peppers (or fresh if you desire) with ¼ cup of lemon juice, 1 head of fresh peeled garlic, 2 cups of extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and ½ cup of water.
Pan-fried Padron and shishito peppers: Blister in hot walnut oil and serve hot with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt. Every eighth pepper packs some heat so be prepared for Russian roulette. I realized by accident that the calyx—the part of the pepper that surrounds the stem—is super tasty and should be included in your bite.
Pepper powder: Dehydrate peppers and pulverize with a clean coffee grinder or highpowered blender into a powder that can be used as a seasoning.
Jamie Collins is the owner of Serendipity Farms and has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley since 2001. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.
from The Haute Enchilada’s Kim Solano