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Vintage California Cuisine: 300 Recipes from the First Cookbooks Published in the Golden State








The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia: Everything You'll Ever Need To Know About Hot Peppers, With More Than 100 Recipes
Dave DeWitt

Mark Miller - Great Chile Poster (Fresh)
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Forget the chiltecpins, shishits and Cubanelles. Most shoppers stick with bell peppers.
Some Like 'em Hot, but Most Prefer Their Peppers Sweet

The Possibly Futile Quest for a Sweet Jalapeno

Shoppers' Favorite Hot Varieties

'People love them," insists JoAnna LaForce, of the Santa Barbara Heirloom Nursery, referring to habaneros, one of the 17 varieties of peppers that she grows on her farm near Santa Barbara and sells at area farmers markets.

Habaneros? To eat!? It would be hard to imagine that more than a tiny, iron-throated fraction of the population could stomach habaneros, which on the heat scale for peppers clock in at 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville units, 30-50 times hotter than jalapenos.

"They’ll buy them just to use as an ornamental because they are so pretty," LaForce adds, clarifying her point. The puffy, little, bright orange peppers are indeed cute, with a nickname to match: Scotch bonnets.

For those looking to eat their pepper purchases, LaForce and others who grow a large selection of peppers for farmers markets agree that there is a hands-down favorite with shoppers: the colored bell peppers, especially red but also yellow and lavender.

The unbroken reign of bell peppers -- albeit colored ones -- could be taken as a cause for disappointment to those who have gone to the trouble of growing and marketing the pasilla, cubanelle, cayenne, and Corno di Toros, chiltecpin, shishit, gypsy peppers and dozens of other varieties grown for California farmers markets. But the growers don’t see it that way. Plenty of shoppers, albeit a minority, are venturing beyond bells.

One of the most popular unusual varieties is the Lipstick, an attractive, compact, cone-shaped pepper that’s as sweet as an apple. But many other shoppers adventurous enough to look beyond bells seek peppers with heat.

Among the hot peppers, says LaForce, whose pepper crop is half hot, half mild, there’s a clear favorite: poblanos. They are tasty and come with some, but not too much, heat. Poblanos are the traditional pepper that are stuffed with cheese, breaded with a corn meal batter, and fried to make in chiles relleno.

Two other especially popular hot peppers are the jalapeno and serrano, says LaForce.

A slow shift toward hotter peppers was reflected in sales at Shepherd Seeds, says Wendy Krupnick, who formerly worked for the seed company and also manages the farmers market in Felton, which gives her another window on trends in peppers. "Sales of hot peppers continue to increase in both volume and variety," she says, citing the emergence of Chile Pepper magazine and the fact that the annual Hot and Spicy conference "keeps getting bigger" as further confirmation.

Some big players in the chile pepper business don’t necessarily buy that. They are now working to develop a jalapeno devoid of capsaicin, the fiery compound in peppers. San Antonio-based picante sauce maker Pace called its clandestine plant-breeding program that yielded such a pepper Operation Big Chill.

Pace will use the new pepper to replace bell peppers in its new line of extra mild picante sauce because it reportedly retains the flavor profile found in Pace’s mild and hot salsas.

Krupnick has tried out heatless peppers. She is not impressed. "We trialed one at Shepherd Seeds. We didn’t like it," says Krupnick, of the Senorita, which was touted as a mild jalapeno. "It was so mild it just didn’t have any heat at all," she says.

Tam is another variety that is supposed to be mild, but in reality it’s just erratic. One plant is hot, one almost devoid of heat.

"Apparently that gene for the heat is a hard one to tone down," remarks Krupnick. "It’s either on or off."

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef