STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
If Peter Piper were picking peppers from among Cindy Schroeder’s popular pack, he’d be one lucky pepper picker.
Most Saturdays from mid-summer to October at the Durango Farmers Market, Schroeder offers an array of peppers not commonly found at grocery stores, even during chile-roasting season when stores and produce stands are overrun with Anaheim green chiles from New Mexico.
Schroeder, who owns Cottonwood Creek Farm with partner, Mel Matis, grows nine varieties of garlic and almost as many kinds of peppers, but you’re not going to find a Big Jim Anaheim pepper or a common green bell pepper at this farmer’s stand.
Instead, she offers mostly heirloom varieties grown on the couple’s farm on Colorado Highway 172, a mile from Elmore’s store, but often bred in another corner of the world. With each purchase comes the option of free advice on how to roast, stuff or saute the crisp green and red-tinged beauties.
Six or seven years ago, a friend was able to snare heirloom seed that adapted well to the growing conditions and soil in Schroeder’s one-acre garden at 7,000 feet.
“Pretty soon I started seeing this type of seed in seed catalogs,” Schroeder said. She eventually planted about two dozen pimientos de Padrón, small barely hot mini-peppers she first enjoyed in Spain’s Basque country, quick-sauteed whole in olive oil and drizzled in salt.
Now she has a customer who buys 50 to 70 peppers at a time, week after week.
Schroeder said she prefers open pollinated seed to hybrid seed because she likes collecting seeds from plants year after year. She appreciates how well heirloom seeds adapt to local growing conditions.
Among her other favorites are Corno di Toro, or “horn of the bull,” and Ancho San Martin peppers. The Corno di Toro is an heirloom sweet pepper imported from Italy, much larger and ideal for stuffing or frying.
The Ancho San Martin, an heirloom poblano-type pepper, is ideal on the grill or stuffed and baked in the oven.
“It’s a mild chile relleno type of pepper that can be stuffed with a Monterey jack cheese,” Schroeder said.
A traditional chile relleno is a pepper filled with a mild cheese, dipped in an egg batter and fried – but oven roasting can pack just as much flavor with equally satisfying results, she said.
Schroeder finds the heat descriptions – depicted in seed catalogs by a corresponding number of pepper icons – “uncomplicated and fairly reliable,” she said, referencing the Scoville ratings that measure the amount of lip-puckering “heat” in peppers. She harvests according to when a pepper is at its best, which generally equals the actual number days to maturity predicted by seed suppliers. Schroeder said, however, that hot peppers such as Serranos will grow hotter the longer they stay on the vine.
As for the ubiquitous 10- to 12-inch Big Jims, “which are ideal for making green chile,” Schroeder said she leaves those up to the many producers who now are roasting them “everywhere.”
According to recent statistics from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and released from New Mexico State University’s Chile Institute, 66,610 tons of chile peppers are harvested annually on 9,150 acres planted in New Mexico, putting the crop’s estimated value at $41 million.
Indeed, green chile peppers are big business, with Hatch, a small community 40 miles north of Las Cruces, making a name for itself that is synonymous with the key ingredient that defines most New Mexican cuisine.
Danise Coon, of the NMSU Chile Institute, attributes the popularity of green chile to the rising popularity of cooking shows and New Mexico tourism.
“A large number of individuals come to New Mexico and fall in love with the food,” Coon said.
The economic value of green chile peppers has gone up, but the harvested acreage actually has decreased, Coon said.
The desert’s hot days and cool nights are ideal for growing New Mexico chile peppers, but night temperatures must be above 55 F and daytime temperatures below 95 F for flowers to set fruit, Coon said.
And if good taste and tourism influence aren’t enough to convert you, Coon reminds us that green chiles are nutritious.
“One green chile pod has as much vitamin C as six oranges,” she said. “A teaspoon of dried red chile powder meets one’s daily requirement for vitamin A. Hot chile peppers also increase your metabolism.”