Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Report: Caution! Hot Peppers!

Pick a peck of peppers with Taco Maria’s Carlos Salgado

In September, when much of the nation feels the evening chill of the autumnal equinox drawing near, Angelenos see the late summer heat arrive on market tables. This next week, habaneros will rear their gnarled fiery head alongside serranos, jalapeños, Padróns, pasillas, and Anaheim chiles.

At Wednesday’s farmers’ market, Chef Carlos Salgado collected a large haul of red fresnos, red jalapeños, and red Anaheims. This month, the chef/owner of Taco María in Costa Mesa says it’s time to focus on preserving peak-season chiles. Ripe, cherry-red fresnos are set aside for lacto-fermented hot sauce while other varieties will be smoke dried in the wood oven overnight and then dehydrated for storage. “It’s just a world of difference,” say Salgado of drying the fresh anaheim peppers. “They’ll just be so much better when we go to make mole later in the year. It’s a world apart from the dried stuff that we get from even the best of the Mexican dried chile suppliers.”

The challenge, is buying enough to preserve the season while utilizing the fresh chiles on the menu. Salgado admits, “We can’t get that far ahead on preserving the chiles because we go through so many of them.” During dinner service at Taco Maria, fresh serranos are treated like wasabi root and grated over sharkskin along with garlic for a powerful kick in carne apache (beef heart tartare). In a riff on campechana, jalapeños are juiced with tomatoes for a spicy tomato water consomme swimming with fresh octopus, abalone and geoduck clams.

An hour north of Costa Mesa, Corina Weibel is pureeing pasilla chiles with overripe tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and soaked white bread. The chef/owner of Canelé in Atwater Village serves her traditional Spanish gazpacho garnished with half an egg, some serrano ham, and a little dab of aioli. Across the Southland, no doubt piquillo and lipstick peppers are being tucked into Weck jars filled with brine as chefs and home cooks aim to capture this moment in time — the final product of summer’s long hot days.

Just like selecting fruit, vibrant colors indicate ripeness. Barbara Whyman of Tutti Frutti Farms explains that red, orange and yellow bell peppers all start out green. “As it gets riper it’s going to have more sugar,” she tells me. “That’s the reason green bell peppers don’t have any sugar.” She says the same is true for jalapeños and serranos. “When they are ripe they are no less hot but they have more sweetness to them so you get a little more combination.” Moral of the story:  if you want it sweet and spicy, go red.

Where to buy peppers in Los Angeles: Milliken Family Farms (Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica), Jaime Farms (Wednesday Santa Monica, Saturday Pasadena ,and Sunday Hollywood), Tutti Frutti (Wednesday Santa Monica, Saturday Burbank, Sunday Hollywood) Weiser Family Farms (click here for market locations) and Peacock Family Farms (Wednesday Santa Monica).