ONE INGREDIENT: CHILIS
PHOTOS 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 bring down to the Cape and 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, homebased 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. He'd have a few shishito plants he could save 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 a 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. But 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 jalapenos, 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.
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Sarah Blackburn is a home cook, recipe developer, vegetable gardener and managing editor of Edible Boston. She can be reached at email@example.com