Most ethnic cuisines rely on a variety of peppers--dried or fresh--to add piquancy to traditional specialties. In addition to the influence in this area of Mexican cuisine, a surge in interest in Asian cooking styles has resulted in many lesser-known pepper varieties becoming easily available throughout North County.
Bell peppers, the mildest of the sweet peppers, were once associated with the color green only. Today, this superstar of the Capsicum family comes in a palette of hues. Green is still the most common, with red a close second, followed by yellow, orange, purple and brown.
A cousin of the bell, the green Anaheim chile, also called California green chile or chile verde, delivers a little more bite. Those who like to set their palate afire, however, favor the jalapeno, or, better still, the fiery habanero, which hails, as most chiles do, from Latin America and is reputed to be the hottest chile in the world.
Peppers, sweet or hot, are an important crop for local farmers, such as Michael Stanislao of Michel Produce on South Santa Fe Avenue in Vista. The longtime farmer has been growing bell peppers, as well as jalapenos and the milder banana pepper, organically since 1982. Although these pesticide-free methods require twice the labor of conventional ones, Stanislao says he knows he can offer customers a "clean product."
So does Scott Murray of Murray Farms in Vista, who is experimenting with 10 pepper varieties.
"Peppers are an especially chancy crop for organic growers," he said, "because of the type of weevil that can inhabit the fruit." To combat pests, Murray uses only organic bio-pesticides.
Organically grown fruits and vegetables are also the specialty of Stephanie Caughlin of Seabreeze Organic Farm in Del Mar. Farming is a far cry from Caughlin's former occupations as high school teacher, mortgage broker and commodities trader. Among the dozens of unusual products growing on her 2 acres are 12 varieties of peppers: habanero, jalapeno, Thai and Serrano, as well as multicolored bells.
She is also conducting seed trials for a specialty company on a white bell pepper from Holland. This is also Caughlin's first year of growing a mild, new green pepper called Slim Jim.
Years of trial and error have led her to double- and triple-crop her plantings of peppers, carrots and radishes. One plant provides the shade while its neighbor has barely begun to pierce the soil. "This saves nutrients as well as water," Caughlin said.
Rows of peppers fill the heavily mulched rows behind the Gourmet Gardens farm stand in San Marcos. Several fields, as well as the vegetable stand, were devastated by a tornado in early spring, but that didn't prevent Richard Borevitz from conducting his annual seed trials.
This year he is experimenting with a dozen new pepper varieties. Especially promising is the Gypsy, a sweet, red that is popular among Borevitz's Hungarian customers, who come to buy it by the box. It won an all-American award, making it an outstanding seed selection. In the meantime, Mary Borevitz, Richard's wife, tempts customers with a variety of colorful bell peppers displayed in large straw baskets at the stand.
At the Hanging Around Etc. nursery in San Marcos, peppers come in three flavors: hot, hotter and hottest. Customer requests led Ampol Orrungroj to start planting peppers from his native Thailand. He and his wife, Vipapan, a former seamstress, delight in introducing their American customers to the subtleties of these peppers, which are popular for cooking and as ornamental plants.
"Thai peppers are tastier and smaller than jalapenos," Ampol said. "They can grow in hanging baskets because they're so compact."
Indeed, most of the potted plants at Hanging Around bear fiery red beads that Thais know as pi ki no . Other bushes bear a slender jalapeno-look alike, "but hotter" said Vipapan.
A bell pepper averages about 35 calories and is rich in Vitamin C and potassium. Look for firm peppers with a smooth skin. Avoid soft spots. Fresh peppers are best kept refrigerated in a paper bag, or wrapped in paper towels. (Plastic bags retain moisture and cause the pepper to rot.)
To freeze bell peppers, blanch them for a few minutes in boiling water. Drain, seed and freeze. Wear gloves to protect your hands from burns or rashes when working with hot peppers.
Michel Produce, 2235 S. Santa Fe Ave., Vista 92083. 727-1385, after 7 p.m. Sells at farm stand and local markets. Peppers: 5 for $1. Jalapenos, $1.25 a lb.
Murray Farms, Specialty Produce Growers, 2562 Foothill Drive, Vista 92084. 481-2890. Sells at Del Mar farmers market, Saturday from 1 p.m.; Hazard Center farmer's market, Thursdays from 6 p.m. two large peppers or three medium for $1.
Gourmet Gardens, 2050 Sycamore Drive, San Marcos 92069. 744-5064. All bells $1.50 a pound. Sells through farm stand only.
Hanging Around Etc., 2247 Country Creek Road, San Marcos 92069. 471-2526. Open to public on weekends or by appointment. Call ahead for availability. Gallon cans are $3, 2-gallon cans are $6.