The Local Ingredient: Spice it up

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Dried hot peppers from Ghost Island Farm. — Stacey Rupolo

About four years ago, tiny jars of dried peppers started appearing on the shelves at Ghost Island Farm. Some have familiar names like cayenne, habañero, and jalapeño. Others are not as common, such as Scorpion, Hot Pepper Lantern, Lemon Drop, and Ghost Red Pepper.

All of the spices have this in common, however: an amazing flavor and aroma of peppers dried fresh from the field. When you unscrew a jar and take a whiff, the scent is strikingly fragrant. That gives the cook an added tool in the kitchen, especially since many dried peppers offer heat, but little extra flavor. These offer both.

Sarah Crittenden, longtime partner of grower Rusty Gordon, took to making the spices as a way to use up an excess of peppers one season. “I think it was the mountains and mountains of hot peppers I was sitting on,” she recalls as the impetus for drying the peppers for sale.

This year, she estimates, she’s filled about 500 of the 1-ounce spice jars for the West Tisbury farm, located on State Road. This was despite a cold and rainy season that dampened growth of this year’s pepper crop, which thrives in hot and dry weather.

The peppers span the range of heat. The habañero, once called the world’s hottest pepper, has been surpassed by a variety called Chocolate Bhutlah; then Ghost Red Peppers. “Those [Ghost Reds] were the hottest peppers in the world maybe three years ago.” They also grow a super-hot pepper called Scorpion, but you won’t find this one on store spice rack this year. “It’s one of Rusty’s favorites; we really hoarded that for our own.” The milder ones, like ancho or pasilla, add flavor to foods without the same heat. Some, the Lemon Drop, add a little heat plus a citrusy flavor.

Biquinho peppers, a Brazilian variety meaning “little beak,” is new this year, says Crittenden, who likes to experiment and grow new varieties and heirlooms. Once dried, “they have a nice little spice and won’t burn your mouth off,” she says. The catalogue says Biquinho “adds a kiss of flavor to any dish you cook with it.” Another new one, Buena Mulata, starts as a thin pointy purple pepper that turns red as it ripens. “We’ve been loving the Buena Mulatas. They’re just delicious — a little hot and a little sweet.”

The pair says the peppers liven anything from scrambled eggs to tacos to pasta. “We have a stash on the table where we eat, and just sprinkle some on as we’re eating.” Cooks can also add a pinch or two during the cooking process, saving the time of chopping and adding peppers themselves, or just as a substitution for typical chili pepper or cayenne.

When first introduced, she said, farmstand shoppers and co-op members asked questions and showed some wariness of hot peppers in general. Once customers started trying the dried spices, she said, they began to sell: “Last year was the best year, and we did sell out. “

The spices now have a fan following, including a group of Island construction workers and this writer. The $6 small containers make great stocking stuffers.

“I think it’s the freshness of the peppers that gives it the real flavor,” she explains. “The flavor is just so much more intense.”

Crittenden says the process of drying the peppers is pretty simple, though time-consuming with the amounts they grow. “I will take fresh peppers and cut them up a little bit, and put them in the dehydrator until they are good and dry,” about 12 hours. Once dry, she grinds them in a regular blender, nothing fancy.

Crittenden finds some of the different types she grows from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., as well as Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Tomato Growers.: “I like keeping these old varieties alive. I think the world is a better place will all kinds of vegetables.”

And the Island is just a little spicier.

How long do spices keep?

The unusual vibrancy and flavor of the fresh dried peppers at Ghost Island Farm raises the question of the quality of home spices and how long they typically keep. Sources vary on this question, but there are some telltale ways to help you know. Karen Page, the author of “The Flavor Bible,” advises keeping spices and herbs for only six to 12 months. McCormick Spices suggests two to three years for ground spices ,and one to three years for dried herbs. All agree that spices and herbs do lose potency with time. Some spices, such as curry, can taste bitter with age. As a cook, I typically replace spices and herbs each year. One way to gauge your spices at home: Open the container and take a whiff. If you don’t smell much or nothing at all of your cumin or coriander or sage, it’s time to replace. If you can’t smell the flavor, you are not adding any flavor to your dishes, plain and simple. It’s best to avoid buying spices and herbs in large bulk containers, and instead buy in small ones. Or you can continually refill your empty spice jars, as I do, by shopping from bulk spice sections, say at Cronig’s Supermarket or Whole Foods Market.

Recipe:
Easy Guacamole

My guacamole now includes adding a pinch or two of dried pepper spice from Ghost Island Farm, along with a little citrus and pinch of salt. Any of the farmstand’s peppers will work here; it’s fun to experiment. You can always add some chopped cilantro if you have some in the fridge.

2 avocados
juice of half of lime, or more to taste
1 or 2 pinches of jalapeño, Lemon Drop, or other Ghost Island pepper spice
1 or 2 pinches of salt

Scoop out the avocado into a bowl. Mash with a fork or bottom of a cocktail muddler until creamy. Add lime juice, dried pepper, and salt, and mix well. Taste with a corn chip and make any adjustments needed. It will get a little spicier as it sits.