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On The Chili Trail

Many local farmers grow one or more types of sweet or hot chilies. Here is a round-up of some of the county's major producers, with a wide array of varieties and chilies processed in myriad ways.

Beet Generation Farm, Sebastopol
Fresh sweet peppers and hot chilies; grilled peppers; chipotle powders and paprikas.
Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, Wednesday and Saturday
CSA program

Bernier Farms, Healdsburg & Geyserville
Fresh sweet peppers and chilies.
Healdsburg Farmers Market, Wednesday and Saturday; Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, Saturday; Cloverdale Farmers Market, Tuesday.
Farm stand, 3192 Alexander Valley Rd., Healdsburg, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Min-Hee Hill Gardens, Sebastopol
Fresh sweet peppers and hot chilies; wide variety of dried and ground chilies.
Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, Wednesday and Saturday; Windsor Farmers Market, Sunday.

Hector's Honey Farm, Santa Rosa
Fresh sweet peppers and hot chilies; dried chilies.
Multiple markets year round.

Ortiz Farms, Santa Rosa
Fresh sweet peppers and hot chilies; chili ristras and wreaths.
Multiple markets year round.

Soda Rock Farms, Healdsburg
Fresh hot and sweet peppers.
Healdsburg Farmers Market, Wednesday and Saturday; Santa Rosa Community Farmers Market, Wednesday and Saturday; Petaluma Farmers Market, Saturday; Windsor Farmers Market, Sunday.

Tierra Vegetables Farm Stand
651 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa
Fresh sweet peppers and hot chilies; dried chilies; smoked chilies, hot sauces, chili jams.
CSA program
Farm stand hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Triple T Ranch and Farm, Santa Rosa
Fresh sweet peppers and very hot chilies; hot sauces.
Santa Rosa Community Farmers Market, Wednesday and Saturday; Marin Civic Center Farmers Market, San Rafael, Thursday and Sunday; Sebastopol Farmers Market, Sunday.

The North Bay is awash in colorful chiles, with dozens of varieties, from tiny pale lemon drops and bright orange habañeros to plump green poblanos and big sweet bells.

And the season has not yet peaked. Among farmers who specialize in fresh chiles, dried chiles or both, September is a waiting game.

Sometime this month, jalapeños and serranos, fairly low on the Scoville scale of heat but high on recognizability, will take on their first blush of red. When all the chiles have a crimson glow, it will be time to pick them for decorative ristras and wreaths, to dry them for sale next year and to smoke and grind them into the chipotle powders, paprikas and other mixtures that spice up our soups, sauces and stews all year.

The season for fresh chiles will continue until October or November, whenever the first frost sets in.

“Sometimes we can anticipate the first frost,” said Zureal Bernier of Bernier Farms in Geyserville, “and then we pick everything we can. Chiles store well at room temperature, and we can extend the season a bit this way.”

Bernier Farms specializes in sweet peppers, chiles with a depth and nuance of flavor but not a lot of heat.

This year, the farm is harvesting Piccante Calabrese, a pretty little heart-shaped chile that has a bit of heat; Corno de Toro Rosso and Carmen, two fairly large tapered sweet chiles; Jimmy Nardello, which is thin, long, fleshy and sweet; Hungarian Cheese and Red Ruffled, types of mild pimentos known as Cinderellas because of their squat pumpkin-like shape, and Lunch Box, a sweet chile perfect in school lunches.

The farm also has Padrons and Shishitos, though they’ve pulled back on quantity since so many farmers now grow them, and Friggatello, an Italian chile similar to the Spanish Padron.

Bernier knows Padrons so well that he can tell just by looking if one has the heat that accounts for the chile’s nickname, “Russian Roulette,” a reference to the one in 10 or so that can surprise your palate.

“Size is a clue,” Bernier says, “but so is a waxy appearance. The waxier the chile, the more heat it will have.”

All Padrons, left to mature, will develop heat.

Until recently, Padrons were little more than a rumor, a tale of delicious tapas in Spain but unavailable here. Then a number of years ago Jill Adams of Crescent Moon Farm in Santa Rosa grew some, though not enough to keep up with demand. The next year, another farmer joined in, and today they are everywhere, in farmers markets, supermarkets and restaurants, where they’re typically seared, sprinkled with coarse salt and served neat or with aioli for dipping. Shishito, a similar chile from Japan, has joined them, and the Friggatello is increasingly available.

On Saturday in Santa Rosa, Libby Batzel of Beet Generation Farm in Sebastopol was a whirlwind of energy as she turned the crank of a basket grill where Padrons, Shishitos, Poblanos and other chiles tumble as their skins blackened. Customers nibbled them as they shopped and took them home to enjoy raw or use in other dishes.

Batzel worked alongside Jill Adams before Adams closed her farm and moved to Maine. She is the rightful heir to the fabulous chipotle powder Crescent Moon produced. Soon, there will be a new batch, as this year’s processed chiles overlap with fresh chile season.

Min-Hee Hill Gardens of Sebastopol currently has both fresh chiles and ground powders made from jalapeño, serrano, Korean and Poblano chiles. This year, Min-Hee Hill and her husband Damon Hill will experiment with Hungarian chiles, too. As their chiles ripen, they process them at the farm, store them in a cool place and package them as needed.

“We expect production to begin in the middle of September,” Hill says about the chiles she nurtures.

If it’s heat you’re looking for — and hot peppers are both a spectator and participatory sport, with passionate advocates of both — you want to explore Triple T Farms selections.

By the end of August, the east Santa Rosa Farm was harvesting 30 varieties, the majority of them searingly hot.

The heat of chiles and other pungent foods is measured by what is known as the Scoville scale, developed by Wilbur Scoville. It measures the impact of chiles on our palates, offering a range of units for each type of chile because actual heat varies based on location, soil and seed.

At the low end of the scale, you find bell peppers, with zero Scoville units. The poblano, which is known as pasilla once it is dried, has just 1,000 to 1,500 Scoville units. The common jalapeño weighs in at between 2,500 to 8,000 units; serranos are a bit hotter, with 10,000 to 23,000 units. Habañeros, with their 100,000 to 350,000 units, were once praised as the hottest chile around, though they have been surpassed by several chiles, including the Ghost Pepper, which hovers near one million units; the Trinidad Scorpion, which ranges from 1.2 million to 2 million; and the Carolina Reaper, which tops out at a whopping 2.2 million Scoville units. (Pepper spray, by comparison, has about 2 million to 5.3 million Scoville units.)

Triple T has all these chiles, so if you want to test your mettle on the Scoville scale, this is your source.

Soon, the 2014 vintage of Triple T Farms hot sauces will sit alongside the fresh chiles at farmers markets through the North Bay. Two classic sauces, Jalapeño and 911, will be offered in 5-ounce bottles. Specialty hot sauces — last year’s Lemon Drop was delicious but dauntingly hot — will be available in 1.7-ounce bottles.

When it comes to chipotles and chipotle powder, producers have Tierra Vegetables to thank, both for the process and the popularity. In the mid 1980s, chipotles — traditionally ripened, smoked jalapeños, though now typically made with a blend of varieties — were nearly impossible to find. Latin markets carried canned chipotles in adobe sauce, but if you wanted the chiles themselves, you had to head to San Francisco’s Mission District, where you could find whole chipotles to grind yourself.

Then Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa made a batch of chipotle powder using an old refrigerator as a smoker. That first batch sold out, and the race was on. They could barely keep up with demand. This small-scale production had tremendous impact, eventually inspiring a nationwide industry, with major spice companies now offering a similar, though inferior, product.

Tierra Vegetables continues to make its popular chipotle powder, along with a variety of vinegar-based, Caribbean-style hot spices and other dried chile blends. It also sells a wide range of fresh chiles — Gypsy, Jimmy Nardello, Xanthii, Inferno, Paper Lantener, Beaver Dam and the fiery Ghost Pepper — at the farm stand in north Santa Rosa.


Stuffed New Mexico Chilies with Salsa Fresca and Corn Tortillas
Serves 4 to 6, easily halved or doubled

12 New Mexico chilies
Salsa Fresca (recipe follows)
6 ounces cheese, such as Bellwether Carmody, Redwood Hill Farm cheddar, St. George or local Monterey jack
12 corn tortillas, preferably cocktail size
1 lime, cut in wedges

Sear the chilies over a high flame or very hot burner, turning as their skins take on color and loosen. Set aside, cover and let cool.

Make the Salsa Fresca and set it aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Use your fingers to peel off the charred skins of the chiles as completely as possible. Set each chile, one at a time, on a clean work surface, carefully make a slit down one side of the chile and reach in to pull out the seeds. If necessary, gently rinse the cavity under running water to remove stubborn seeds. Pat the chilies dry with a tea towel.

Stuff each chile with a half ounce of cheese and set it on a nonstick baking sheet or a piece of foil set on a baking sheet. Set on the middle rack of the oven and cook until the cheese is melted, about 5 to 6 minutes.

While the stuffed chilies cook, heat the tortillas over a low burner or in a hot dry pan, turning them frequently until they soften and are completely hot. Quickly wrap them in foil and set over a very low flame to keep hot.

When the cheese is melted, remove the chilies from the oven and transfer to individual plates. Tuck a tortilla under each chile, top with salsa, garnish with a lime wedge and serve immediately.


Salsa Fresca
Makes about 1 ½ to 2 cups

1 pound small to medium tomatoes, a mix of yellow, orange, red, green and marbled, cut into small dice
Kosher salt
½ small red onion, cut into small dice
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 or 2 serranos, stemmed, seeded and minced
Small handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of ½ lime

Set a strainer over a medium bowl, put the tomatoes into the strainer, add about a teaspoon of salt, stir and let drain for a few minutes.

Transfer the tomatoes to a small bowl, add the onion, garlic, serranos and cilantro and stir gently. Add the olive oil and lime juice, taste, correct for salt, cover and set aside for a few minutes so the flavors mingle.

Store leftover salsa covered in the refrigerator for a day or two.


Although traditional Hawaiian foods are not typically hot, there is one condiment, Hawaiian Chile Water, that adds a kick of flavorful heat. You don't find it in high end island restaurants but cafes often have bottles on the table, next to the soy sauce. It is easy to make and is a great way to showcase and preserve the year's chilies. I always use a mix of thin yellow, orange, red and green chilies wiht a mix of heat levels. This makes a lovely homemade gift.

Hawaiian Chile Water
Makes 1 16-ounce bottle

1 to 2 teaspoons salt, either Hawaiian alaea or Kosher
2 teaspoons white vinegar of choice
1 garlic clove, lightly crushed
Several very thin fresh chiles.

Wash the bottle and its stopper thoroughly in hot soapy water and rinse well to remove all soap.

Set the bottle on your work surface and add the salt, vinegar and garlic.

Examine the chilies and wipe off any dirt and slip them, one by one, into the bottle.

Fill with water.

Add the bottle's stopper, shake and refrigerate for 2 days before using.

Use as a condiment on kalua pig, rice, winter squash, sweet potatoes and soups. As the water is depleted, top it off and add a bit of vinegar now and then. It will last, stored in the refrigerator for at least several weeks.

Michele Anna Jordan has written 17 books to date, including "Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings." You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. Email Jordan at michele@saladdresser.com.

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