One Ingredient: Chilis

Chilies in bowl.jpg

Photo by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty

I tend to go overboard when picking out seedlings for my Cape garden. Sometime around Easter I start making lists: what we loved in seasons past, what was successful and what we can live without. Did we really need four different varieties of eggplant? Three leggy cucumbers? And why didn’t we plant more beans last year? Everybody loved them in ’13. Better get another packet of seeds.

We grow tomatoes, eggplant, cukes, zucchini, haricots verts, salad greens and herbs. We’ve occasionally grown kale and potatoes, and we always pop in some early peas—it’s a pretty straightforward kitchen garden. But in recent years, chili peppers have been given more and more real estate in my tiny plot.

By Memorial Day, the map is set and I hit my local garden center for seeds and seedlings to get into the ground. Year after year I buy too much, but I always put all the plants in anyway—when they’re tender and tiny, it’s so hard to imagine the space they’ll hog by August. When late summer rolls around, my garden is a forest of harvestable veggies, and I like it that way. Smaller plants hide underneath larger ones, surprising even the gardener who put them there!

Last summer on Father’s Day weekend I brought my dad to visit a tiny, home-based chili pepper nursery called Nobska Farm in Woods’ Hole. There, Rooster and his wife, Mrs. Rooster, grow over 50 varieties of chilies, planted in neat rows of mulched beds in their yard around the house. Chickens roam freely, and they’ve got a mean strawberry patch, too. It’s a pretty idyllic situation. I had met the Roosters at the Wayland Winter Farmers Market and we got talking about my new obsession on menus around town: shishito peppers, those short Japanese peppers with thin skin, lots of seeds, and very minimal heat—perfect for frying and snacking on whole. I like some spice, but can be pretty wussy when it comes to truly hot chilies. Rooster promised to save a few shishito plants for me, so the first time we were on the Cape together last season, my Dad and I headed to Woods Hole to pick them up.

When I got the plants to my garden it was already pretty full, having been planted in late May. I had found room for the single padron pepper plant I’d come across at a Cape nursery a few weeks before, but the shishitos would have to go in a container. They got a nice sunny spot away from the wind and I began to dream of my abundant harvest. Meanwhile, back in the garden, I completely forgot about that padron plant for the rest of the summer, allowing a lush sungold cherry tomato to dominate it, completely obscuring any view of the growing chilies beneath.

By early August, I had a full harvest of shishitos ready to pick from the container, and we enjoyed them all in one evening, blistered in oil, topped with shavings of bonito flakes and a sweet soy drizzle, not a hot one among them. They were just so good—but then they were gone! More blossoms were appearing, so I knew I’d get another crop, but I’d have to wait. And then I remembered the padrons. There they were, tucked away under the tomatoes, looking every bit as delicious as the shishitos before them. Thankfully I remembered some important advice before cooking them up: With padrons, a diner must heed some warning. For every 12 padron peppers on a plate, at least one will be firey hot and mouth-burningly spicy.

With slight trepidation, we cooked them. And we burned—wow, were they hot. Every single one of them. We sweated through the heat and then ate some more. Milk was drunk by the pint and brows were wiped. And I was hooked.

My garden this year has a whole section dedicated to chilies. (Many gardeners warn not to plant chilies in the same plot as sweet peppers, as cross-pollination will develop heat across both species, but I’m not a grower of sweet peppers so I think I’ll be safe.) I planted jalapeños, habaneros, Hungarian Hot Wax peppers and some more padrons. Hopefully this year’s shishito seedlings are waiting for me at Rooster’s place. And I went on the search for some recipes from local chefs for what to do with what I can only imagine will be my ample harvest.

Fry them, mince them, use them in salsas and sauces, grill or roast or just eat them raw. But if you have too many chilies on your hands this year, here are two fantastic recipes for how to preserve them into the fall and beyond, a spicy reminder of the summer’s heat.

"Growing up I spent a lot of time with my Grandpa (or, as I like to call him, G-Pa). Given that I was a rambunctious little guy, my G-pa put me to work. During the winter months I remember riding on the back of his tracker to the woods to cut down trees and split wood so that he could keep his home warm. Once the thaw hit and spring was upon us he would always tend to his garden while my cousin DJ and I would get distracted and start playing on the old rusty farm equipment. He’d always yell over telling us to “get the heck off that” before we fell and killed ourselves… He was a very blunt man, which I’ve grown to appreciate. As the weeks passed we would help him pull weeds from the garden. He mostly grew tomatoes and banana peppers, along with an assortment of other veggies, but without fail he always had his tomatoes for sauce and the banana peppers for pickling and marinades. Every Sunday G-Pa would put those tomatoes to use by making pizza for the family. He was a great cook and it was always something to look forward to… except I never would eat the one with the peppers. I was a strictly cheese kind of kid. Now as a chef, I’m all about spice, and I actually use my G-Pa’s pickling recipe for the banana peppers that we use in our calamari at the Rail Trail. This is a simple recipe that takes no time and once you’ve made them correctly they can sit in your pantry for years if need be.

NOTE: when pickling and canning, sanitation comes first. Here are some quick tips that will make this process easy. 1—Make sure jar has been washed pre-pickling. 2—Your pickling liquid must be at least 180°F before filling the jar. This will kill any bacteria that may be left after the jar has been washed. 3—Cover tightly and then put the jar in an ice bath to cool rapidly. You can keep it in your pantry for pretty much forever, but be sure to refrigerate after opening."

Special equipment: instant-read thermometer and a 1-quart Mason jar

2 pounds fresh banana peppers
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups water
peeled zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon salt
½ tablespoon sugar
5 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Remove seeds from the banana peppers and slice into rings, then layer them into the 1-quart jar. Combine liquid and dry ingredients in a pot and bring contents up to 180°F, using an instant-read thermometer. Pour hot liquid into jar over peppers, then top with the lid and chill in an ice bath.

"At the persuasive urging of a valued customer, Jon Nourse created this bestselling jelly over 15 years ago. Made exclusively from Nourse Farm peppers with just the right amount of sweet and spice, this zesty combination tantalizes taste buds from Massachusetts to California. This unique jelly can wake up your bagel and cream cheese or warm up your Brie with its fiery finish."

¾ cup pureed sweet red bell pepper (deseeded)
¼ cup pureed Red Cherry pepper, or red jalapeño (with seeds)
6½ cups white sugar
1½ cups distilled white vinegar
1 pack of Certo (fruit pectin)
5-6 small, sterilized jars with clean ring lids

In a bowl, stir together the deseeded sweet bell pepper purée and Red Cherry bell pepper purée. Combine peppers, sugar, and vinegar in a medium-sized pan. Heat over medium to high heat and bring to a hard boil. Add one Certo pack, bring to boil, and stir while boiling the jelly for 1 minute. Stir again and remove mixture from heat. Ladle the jelly into jars, leaving ¼-inch room at the top. Cover tightly with a lid and store for the winter.

This story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.