It may already be hot pepper season where you live, but here in the coolish Monterey Bay where I am, August is the beginning of hot chile season. Now is when I get to harvest some hot peppers from my garden as well as buy them at our local farmers’ markets. Jonathan on Facebook asked me how to best use the summer’s bounty of chile peppers, and I got the idea to write a little something on it.
First, how do you get your hands on some really good hot chiles? I’m not just talking about jalapeno and serrano, which are commonly found but unusual chiles that are offer fruity heat and fragrance. You want chiles with character. Summer is when the chile heat is on. (I think I’m perspiring just thinking about it!)
Seek out chiles to buy at your farmers’ markets and ask questions before buying. Are they spicy hot? Chiles like padron peppers, which are good for pan-frying and seasoned with coarse sea salt, tend to have heat when they’re mature. One of our local farmers grows padrons and some squiggly Portuguese peppers that I actually prefer for panfrying.
On an annual basis, I ask our farmers to recommend the right pepper for my needs –- whether they’re for cooking or eating raw. There’s variety in the kind of chiles and each year’s planting. For example, Last year’s Fresno chiles, one farmer told me, turned out perfect looking but lacked punch. I avoided them in 2015 but this year, he said he’d plant a hotter kind. One Hmong farmer was selling chiles by the piece (we live in a chile-averse community) and I told her I’d like to buy them by the bag and she gave me a deal.
You never know what you’ll find at a regular supermarket. Above are long (aka “finger” or Dutch) chiles from Safeway. I bought most of what they had because the hard-to-find chiles are amazing for making chile sauce and dishes in the Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian repertoire. You find similar ones in Vietnam too. They’re juicy and moderate in fruity heat. They’re not superhot. In late summer, Whole Foods usually carries cayenne; they often have lovely Thai chiles too.
And if you happen to a Southeast Asian market, there will be chiles sold by the quart-size bag. At one Hmong market in Fresno there was about 20 feet of shelf space devoted to hot chiles because they’re grown nearby. I swooped in to find some wonderful little fiery ones (at the top), as well as these unusual bishop’s crown peppers. They look like flowers and mild but had a floral heat that left quite an impression when I pan-fried the peppers. They were good skewered and grilled too.
Grow your own chiles. If you haven’t started, you may get lucky at nurseries with mature plants that have fruits on the verge of ripening. It’s like you let the nursery grow them for you, plus, the plants may be at a discount.
I found an edible “ornamental” Thai chile plant at Home Depot that has proven to be prolific. I’m waiting for an organic, locally grown Thai dragon to mature. And, I have several Super Hot chile plants purchased from Orchard Home Supply. Asian markets in Little Saigon enclaves often sell chile plants too; one year I grew intense black chiles. Look for them as you’re shopping.
Chile plants need lots of sun, monthly feeding, and water. That’s about it. Last year we had a humongous, dying tree removed from our yard and with all the extra sunshine this year, the chiles are doing well for the first time since we’ve lived in our house.
Share your wealth. If you’re fortunate to have a lot of chiles, your friends and family may enjoy some of your bounty. I have twice received chiles in the mail from people in the Viet World Kitchen community. The most recent chile gift came from Jay, who grew very cool Latin and Caribbean chiles. He priority mailed a sampler to me.
How to use up little hot chiles? My first inclination is to simply freeze them. That’s what I did with the ones Jay emailed. I also freeze what I buy by the bag, labeling them by the year because that reminds me to use them up! Frozen chiles last for a good 6 months, sometimes a year if you’re careful. I sometimes dry the excess chiles.
With larger, moderately-hot chiles, I make Sriracha or other kinds of chile sauce. (If you have mildly-hot chiles, add some hot little ones to your chile sauce to balance out the heat.) Hot chiles can be pickled in a brine of vinegar and water (try a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of distilled or rice vinegar to water) and kept in the fridge for a very long time.
Chile recipes on the site to fire you up:
Don’t be afraid of buying or harvesting lots of chiles this time of year. Keep them around for the cooler months when you’ll be looking to brighten up things up.
What chiles are you growing this year? What are your favorite ways for using up hot chiles?