Full Belly Files: My Hot Pepper Habit

From Pickling to Persimmon Sauce, What We Do After Picking Pecks of Backyard Chilis

Credit: Matt Kettmann

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Eight years ago, when we bought a suburban home out toward Goleta that had, among other backyard perks, a raised garden bed, I tried to relocate a green thumb that had mostly faded during a few years of living in a downtown condo while wading through the early days of parenthood. 

Credit: Matt Kettmann

Various crops went in — lettuces, squash, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, cabbage, etc. — and most did somewhere between okay and total failure. Only one survived and thrived with any sort of reliability — chili peppers, and I’ve since grown them every year, sampling new varieties and colors and origins, from Latin America to Asia to Hungary. I’ve dabbled in so many different types — a few of which don’t actually bear peppers until the following summer — that I often forget what was actually planted by the time my mouth is on fire. 

There have been tiny orange ones — maybe bird peppers? — that start green and point skyward; resilient green and red serranos that pump chilis for two years, sometimes three; near-fluorescent habaneros that barely ripen before they start to mold; conical green chilis that I assume are Thai; yellow wax peppers that aren’t as hot as they look.

Neighbor Steve enjoys similar success in his adjacent yard, and last year, he passed me a small cutting that he’d grown from seed he was given by a Vietnamese friend. I planted it in the front yard as part of a COVID garden last summer, and it grew but produced no crop. This summer, right when I realized that the plant was still alive, it shot crinkly black chilis out sideways, which then turned green before going red. More recently, Steve gave me a couple handfuls of Carolina Reapers that look like the devil put on a pepper costume while melting in the halls of hell. 

I prefer to try these chilis all alone at first, slicing off a tiny chunk to see what flavors emerge. They tend to be very spicy, but usually not unbearably so when just a small slice is sampled. The Vietnamese ones have very chili-focused flavors; the tiny orange ones offer a slightly citrus note; the Reapers are more like cracked peppercorn with a bell-pepper kick, in addition to the wicked heat. I frequently toss the diced chilis on anything I’m eating, particularly leftovers, soups, or stews, which spring to life as the heat kicks in. 

Credit: Matt Kettmann

More of a challenge is what to do with them beyond “freshly sliced.” We can’t eat the peppers fast enough, and they quickly start to occupy too much of the kitchen counter. There are obvious moves, like salsa verde with roasted tomatillos or the avocado-lime crema that I prefer on breaded and fried fish.

I’ve also done plenty of quick pickling, usually with simple white vinegar, garlic, ginger, salt, and whatever other spices I have sitting in the cabinet — sometimes the vinegar is heated up, and sometimes it’s just thrown in cold. Those often start extremely spicy but mellow fairly quickly with time. 

More creative have been the times when I mix the chilis with fruits, such as the permission-orange-pepper sauce, or “POP Sauce,” that I tend to make around the holidays when persimmons inevitably get dropped off. I’ve written about that one a couple times (here and, when Metropulos used my ideas for their own version, in a roundup story here).

My most consistent use is simply turning them into dried chili flakes, to be sprinkled on pasta,  pizza, and whatever else. Most of the work for that is done by the sunshine and air, which tends to dry them out pretty well without much rotting risk. If they need help, I’ll toss them in the toaster oven at a low heat and just keep my eye on their drying status. Once they’re crunchy, they fall apart easily, becoming part of a solera-style chili-flake concoction that goes back at least half a decade. They’re way hotter than the paper-pouched stuff that comes from pizza joints, so use with care.  

Credit: Matt Kettmann

This year’s chili crop was right on par: tiny oranges, twisty blacks, reliable reds and greens. Some are just starting to emerge as you read this. However, there was a new twist to our garden box in 2021, when I put my son, Mason, in charge of the tomatoes. For the first time ever, compared to my occasional success with cherry tomatoes in the past, these actually worked, pumping out medium-sized tomatoes from June until even now. Chilis, I’ve since learned, also go well in gazpacho. 


This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on September 10, 2021. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.


From Our Table 

Credit: Courtesy of Farm Day
  • Speaking of farming, the second-ever Santa Barbara County Farm Day is happening on September 18. I interviewed its founder, Mary Maranville, as well as Santa Maria–based  farm owners Alexandra Allen of Main Street Produce and Jeff Lundberg of Babé Farms about what attendees to the free tours can expect. See what they said here
  • When contributor Alex Ward wasn’t interested in writing about a historic bar recently changing hands, I inquired whether he was into bourbon. Indeed, he is, so he wrote this story about how The Tavern at Zaca Creek is celebrating the legendary brown spirit throughout September
  • John “The Restaurant Guy” Dickson, whose online blog we run in print every week, broke the news this week that Woody’s BBQ is closing for good later this month. He also reports that the same team will be taking over the old Timbers property way out on Winchester Canyon Road, but that the Woody’s menu won’t be carried over.

    I went to Woody’s quite a bit in the late 1990s during my college days, which seemed to be its heyday. We’ve been back in recent years, almost always for season-ending Little League parties, and it was just okay.

    I’m not sure whether my taste buds evolved, the quality of barbecue elsewhere improved, or Woody’s was just slipping a bit, but I do wish them well at the Timbers. It will be cool to see that place operational for the first time in a very long time. 

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