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The Pepper People
Family Farming Specialty Peppers in the San Francisco Bay Area Since 1980
Chile heads can understand that Judy Sheldon carried a torch for a pepper that captured her heart in a foreign land long ago.
While in Spain on a walking tour in the early 1990s, the San Francisco gardener ventured into tapas bars where she met the muy simpatico pimiento de Padron. That mildly sweet green chile from the Galicia region, fried in olive oil and served by the plate, also headlines a village festival in its honor.
Before heading back home, Sheldon's thoughts turned to smuggling seeds across international borders but in the end fortified herself with the hope that she would encounter the Padrons again in her homeland.
"I never forgot them," Sheldon recalls. And she never saw them again, either.
Until two years ago. That's when she spotted the pepper among the rainbow mix of 30 varieties sold by Happy Quail Farms at the farmers' market at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco. She reacted to the initial sighting with denial.
"Oh, my gosh -- it couldn't be the same thing," she exclaimed.
Ah, but it was. Now on her weekly visits to the market, the Padron is the only purchase she makes at the stand, reaching across the flamboyant chocolate,
purple and golden bells to grasp a tiny sack or two of the comely newcomer. That scene is repeated by other faithful Padron fans at other Bay Area markets where David Winsberg of Happy Quail Farms sells peppers into late fall.
Winsberg started growing the Padron in East Palo Alto in 1997 with seeds a friend brought back after a visit to Spain. Today, he may be the sole commercial grower in the U.S., although this season the chile team of the Master Gardeners of the UC Cooperative Extension included the Padron among the 40 varieties of chiles planted in their vegetable project in Santa Clara. (Their harvest can be sampled at a free public tasting Aug. 17; see sidebar for details.)
Unremarkable in appearance the chile curves and grooves a bit and is somewhat ruddy. While regarded as a sweet chile in its early stages, now and then a spicy pod will surprise the eater. "It's only in the last couple of years that the Padron has hit its stride in Spain," Winsberg says.
The first restaurants to serve Winsberg's pimientos de Padron were El Mason and El Farol, both in Santa Fe. At El Meson, a plate of pimientos de Padron consists of about two dozen chiles, enough for sampling by several diners. The peppers, fried with garlic chips, are served with a small jug of extra virgin olive oil and a bowl of fresh bread on the side. Sherry is the recommended beverage.
Within each batch of a dozen or so chiles, Madrid-born El Mason chef David Huertas finds a hot pod has slipped through. "That's the fun thing when you're sharing them with friends -- to see who gets the spicy ones," he says.
In San Francisco, Zarzuela restaurant also serves pimientos de Padron fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with kosher salt.
In East Palo Alto, grower Winsberg's operation is anchored by a 28,000-acre greenhouse where the Padron makes up a fraction of the one ton of specialty chiles -- old Hungarian varieties, bells, Italian Longhorn and cayennes -- harvested each season.
The Master Gardeners in Santa Clara County tried several European sources and finally obtained some Padron seeds. At the half-acre site they cultivate at BAREC they are finding the Padron to be prolific and fast growing.
Some mornings, the Master Gardeners wrap up their work day with a Padron fry on a portable grill in the shady doorway of a shed. Following the formula shared by chef Huertas, they cook the chiles until they blister all over and collapse when taken from the burner. The chiles are not ready if they retain too much air and fail to buckle after being removed from the heat. With the long stems left on the pod, the chiles are gripped by loving hands and nibbled on by admirers besotted with this chile they carry a torch for.
Pimientos de Padron
Here's where to find pimientos de Padron:
The Spanish Table, 1814 San Pablo Ave. (near Hearst), Berkeley; (510) 548-1383.
Zarzuela Restaurant, 2000 Hyde St. (at Union), San Francisco; (415) 346- 0800.
Grower David Winsberg sells pimientos de Padron and other chiles at the following farmers' markets:
Winchester Blvd. (at Forest Avenue, kitty corner to Valley Fair shopping center) in Santa Clara. In addition, 115 varieties of mostly heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables can be sampled. Call (408) 299-2638 between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for more information
The Master Gardeners will host another chile tasting from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 7, at Prusch Park in east San Jose. The park is located at the northwest corner of Story and King Roads off Highway 101. Master Gardeners support the educational activities of UC Extension by promoting horticultural education and service to the community and by providing continuing horticulture enrichment for members. For more information on the Master Gardener program visit www.mastergardeners.com.
This is considered an early (temprano) salsa because it does not depend upon ripe tomatoes. All ingredients are readily available in the spring -- except quilquina. This aromatic herb is hard to find and you probably will have to grow it unless you know somebody from Bolivia or know of a store catering to the South American community. Cilantro is a good substitute.
2 cups minced serrano chiles
2 tablespoons chipotle powder
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin seed
1/3 cup diced sun-dried tomatoes packed in garlic olive oil
1 sweet onion, diced
1/3 cup minced quilquina or cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Mix together the serranos, chipotle powder, salt, pepper and cumin. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, onion, quilquina/cilantro and garlic.
Cover and refrigerate overnight so flavors can blend.
Yields about 4 cups
PER TABLESPOON: 5 calories, 0 protein, 1 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 220 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
ROASTED RED PEPPER SAUCE
This colorful sauce is good spooned over steamed new potatoes or potato wedges, or over cooked cauliflowerets.
2 large red pimiento peppers, or any sweet non-bell type
Several unpeeled garlic cloves
1 large onion, quartered
Salt and pepper to taste
Flame-roast the red peppers, then place in a plastic bag, seal and set aside while you roast the garlic and onions.
Put the garlic and onion quarters on a baking sheet and roast in a 350 degrees oven until blackened, turning from time to time with tongs.
Peel and seed the peppers. Roughly chop the flesh and place in a food processor.
Squeeze the garlic flesh from the skins into the processor.
Add the onion and process until pureed.
Season with salt and pepper.
Serve at room temperature.
Yields about 3 cups
PER TABLESPOON: 2 calories, 0 protein, 1 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 0 sodium, 0 fiber.
SAUTEED PADRON PEPPERS WITH TOASTED GARLIC CHIPS
Serve with a small jug of extra virgin olive oil and a plate of crusty bread on the side. What to drink? Sherry is customary. From chef David Huertas of El Meson cocina de Espana in Santa Fe, N. M.
Extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, slivered
25 young pimiento de Padron chiles
Coarse sea salt to taste
Pour enough olive oil into a skillet to cover the bottom. Add the garlic slivers and place over medium heat. Cook until the garlic is lightly toasted. Using a slotted spoon, remove the garlic to paper towels to drain.
Add the chiles to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes,
until blistered on all sides and they take on a bit of color. Transfer to paper towels to drain briefly. The chiles will collapse on the plate if ready. "If they don't lose the air, they're still raw," Huertas says.
Arrange the chiles around the perimeter of a serving plate. Heap the garlic chips in the center. Sprinkle with coarse salt.
Serves 4 to 6
PER SERVING: 100 calories, 4 g protein, 18 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat (0 saturated), 0 cholesterol, 13 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
FRESH CHERRAPENO SALSA
Sprinkle in quesadillas or eat with tortillas chips.
3 to 4 cherrapeno chiles (see Note), or substitute serrano, Fresno or jalapeno chiles
2 Roma or 1 beefsteak tomato
1/2 red onion, or 2 green onions
6 to 10 cilantro sprigs
1/2 small avocado (optional)
Dice all ingredients and combine in a bowl. Stir to combine.
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Best if eaten within 24 hours.
Yields 1 1/2 to 2 cups
Note: The cherrapeno pepper is a cross between a red jalapeno and a Cherry Bomb pepper. It's a new hybrid and not on the market yet.
PER TABLESPOON: 3 calories, 0 protein, 1 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 1 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
Laramie Trevino, a Menlo Park-based writer, is producer of the video "Un Mundo de Chiles" and a Master Gardener with the UC Cooperative Extension.