Mid-September at Southern California farmers markets is time for some flamboyant scarlet and orange produce juggling. Apples and pumpkins are flooding the stands and late-season chile peppers are piled like ordnance, including the Cherry Bomb peppers at Underwood Family Farms, which are available for a few more weeks.
Craig Underwood, 76, a fourth-generation farmer tends land across Ventura County (where his family has farmed since 1867), with produce stands and U-pick fields in Moorpark and Somis. He’s been growing Cherry Bombs for 15 years. The peppers are gorgeous squat things, somewhere between a golf ball and a shooter marble in size, with a Scoville rating of between 2,500 and 5,000 heat units, a bit milder than jalapeños. Because Cherry Bombs are uniformly round, with thick flesh and a finish that leans sweet rather than incendiary, they’re great for stuffing and pickling.
Underwood has a long history with peppers, specifically a nearly 30-year partnership with Huy Fong Foods Inc., the Irwindale-based makers of Sriracha, for whom the farmer grew jalapeños — lots of jalapeños — until that partnership collapsed. After a breach-of-contract legal battle, Underwood was recently awarded a hefty $23.3 million. The farm began making its own pepper sauce earlier this year — though not, I should add, with Cherry Bombs. That’s your job.
What: In addition to Cherry Bombs, other Underwood hot peppers include jalapeño, Santa Fe, Anaheim and poblano chiles.
Where: Underwood Family Farms comes to 16 Los Angeles area farmers markets: Altadena, Brentwood, Calabasas, Camarillo, Culver City, Encino, Hancock Park, Hollywood, Pacific Palisades, Pasadena, Santa Clarita, South Pasadena, Thousand Oaks, Westlake and two in Ventura.
When: Underwood’s Cherry Bomb season started July 24 and will run at least through the first week of October. Up next: pumpkins and Underwood’s 22nd annual Fall Harvest Festival, which includes pick-your-own fields and a pumpkin patch.
Tip: As I’m too lazy to can rows of Mason jars, as my late mother routinely did, I just drop the Cherry Bombs into a jar with garlic cloves and black peppercorns and fill it with vinegar. After a while, this nicely approximates the bottles of fiery sauce that, in the early ’90s, an Amazon River boat tour guide served us with plates of fried piranhas. True story. Grilled catfish and rice are pretty good too.