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The Pepper People
Family Farming Specialty Peppers in the San Francisco Bay Area Since 1980
Mostly sweet—but sometimes not—Padrón peppers can pack serious heat.
Some pilgrims make the long trek to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela as a spiritual quest. Others, no less dedicated, come for the peppers: locally grown pimientos de Padrón that are scarfed down by the plateful at tapas bars all around the city.
Over the past few years, San Franciscans have developed a lust to rival any Spaniard’s for these silky-textured little peppers, now at the peak of their season. Says Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farm, who has hosted Padrón you-pick events for pepper-driven locals, “Spanish food is sexy now, and drinking never goes out of style, so we have a hungry market.”
AT THE MARKET
David Winsberg, of Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto, first introduced local cooks to Padróns. He started growing them eight years ago, after a friend brought him a few packets of seeds from Spain. Matured like the rest of his peppers, they turned out long, curled, and tongue-numbingly spicy—nothing you’d want to nibble on more than once.
It wasn’t until he read Calvin Trillin waxing rhapsodic in Gourmet about how pimientos de Padrón are served in Galicia, Spain—and lamenting the utter lack of home-grown Padróns in the U.S.—that Winsberg understood tapas-ready Padróns are meant to be “pubescent peppers,” harvested green and barely thumb-sized, before they develop a fiery bite. The farmer also realized that by bringing these Spanish peppers back to their new-world origins, he might have discovered the perfect niche product for his small-scale farm.
“It’s taken off,” enthuses Winsberg, who also grows dozens of other sweet and hot peppers, from rarely seen fresh piquillos and white jalapeños to Italian and Basque frying peppers, red, yellow, purple, orange, and brown bells, and a range of Mexican varieties. “Padróns are sort of the truffle of the pepper world,” he says. “They have a unique, nutty flavor. They’re very distinctive—no other pepper tastes like it.”
Most of the peppers Andy Griffin grows on Mariquita Farm, near Watsonville, are scooped up by restaurants (including Chez Panisse, Incanto, and Perbacco) and members of his CSA. Intre-pid cooks who score a place on his mailing list can find Padróns in the “mystery boxes” of produce that Griffin delivers twice a month to San Francisco. “I love to eat Padrón peppers myself, so I don’t find it very hard to evangelize on their behalf,” he notes.
When shopping for Padróns, remember that smaller is better: Look for grooved, deep-green peppers two to three inches long. Quarter-pound bags of padróns (about 20 to 25 peppers) sell for $6 at the Happy Quail stand at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market in San Francisco.
ON THE MENU
In Presidio Heights, Padróns make it onto both the lunch and dinner menus at Spruce (3640 Sacramento St., S.F., 415-931-5100). During lunchtime, a warm marble potato–and–Padrón pepper salad in sherry vinaigrette accompanies bavette steak in salsa verde. At dinner, says chef Mark Sullivan, they’re served with roasted halibut, marble potatoes, French beans, and a tomato gastrique. “They’re an easy sell. The waiters all love them, and the guests are addicted to them.
”Fried in oil and sprinkled with salt (the classic Spanish way), Padróns are a top seller at César (1515 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-883- 0222; 4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-985-1200). Part of the appeal—especially with a cold beer or glass of chilled cava at the ready—is the risk of hitting the lone spicy bite in the mix. Typically, only 1 pepper in 10 will be hot, so the odds are pretty good for anyone looking to prove his pepper-biting machismo.
IN THE KITCHEN
A hot pan, oil, and a little salt are all it takes to turn a handful of Padróns into an irresistible tapas plate. At Spruce, Sullivan tosses them in a sizzling-hot cast-iron pan doused with grapeseed oil, favored for its neutral flavor and high flash point. Once they’re lightly charred, the peppers are seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of coarse salt. Raw peppers will keep in the crisper drawer for up to 10 days—but they continue to mature off the plant, even when refrigerated, so stored Padróns may be hotter than freshly purchased ones.
To prepare, film a sauté pan with grapeseed or olive oil. Heat until oil is very hot, but not smoking. Toss in peppers and sauté, shaking pan frequently, until peppers are lightly blistered and beginning to char. Remove from heat. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. (Specialty salts, like French fleur de sel, work wonderfully here.) Serve immediately and eat whole, using the stem as a handle.