I love a good cooking show, and Beat Bobby Flay is a frustrating but fun one to watch. In it, chefs from around the country try to beat Bobby at making their “signature dish.” Way too often, Bobby wins. After watching many, many episodes, I figured out that Bobby’s secret was to use a few really flavorful ingredients over and over. One of those ingredients is Calabrian chiles, which have become my pepper obsession.
The trouble was, none of my usual seed sources sold seed for Calabrian chiles. After digging around the internet, I found a small company in the Pacific Northwest that advertised seeds for Calabrian chiles. Success! I planted them in pots in 2021 and, wowza, so pretty, so prolific, so tasty. No wonder Bobby loves them!
What a Pepper!
The plants for my pepper obsession are tall and lush and the peppers grow straight up from the top of the plant, turning from green to purple to a bright crimson when they are ripe. They look like a bouquet of pointy red flowers. They have the absolute perfect level of hotness, too. When you first taste them, they have a bite but the finish is sweet. That first year, I made my sweet red pepper relish with a hefty dose of the Calabrians instead of jalapenos. It was so good that the jars vanished off the pantry shelf at twice the usual rate. I harvested dozens of peppers off just a few plants.
But everyone I know who was an adventurous cook looked at the peppers and said, “Those are not Calabrians.” And, they were right. The jarred Calabrian chiles I found at the store were squat and round, not at all like the 3-inch fingers of deliciousness that I grew. I wondered if there had been a mistake at the seed purveyor, so I saved seeds from the peppers and grew them in 2022.
Pepper seeds are easy to save. Just wash them off (wear gloves when handling pepper seeds!), dry them on a towel and store them in an envelope until spring. My 2022 crop was also great and I saved the seeds again. This past year, I did most of my gardening in a community garden that had less-than-stellar light so my pepper crop was just so-so. Fortunately, I gave a bunch of seeds to my brother-in-law, who grew them on their hobby farm in Wisconsin. It was a terrific crop and I was able to share in the harvest.
What Kind of Pepper?
When I praised the peppers to another garden writer, she told me straight up, “those are not Calabrians.” She suggested they were a ‘Facing Heaven’ pepper, a medium hot pepper that is native to Central America but is popular in Chinese cooking. Facing Heaven does resemble the Calabrians, but I could tell they were not the same. Too short, too squat at the base.
But searching for Facing Heaven, led me to the right pepper. It seems Calabrian chiles come in three varieties: carasella (cherry sized) naso di cane (nosed shaped!) and the ones I grow, sigaretta rista. My Italian is nonexistent, but Google translate says that means something about cigarettes. Given the shape of the pepper, I get it.
The good news about my pepper obsession is that Heirloom Seedhouse in Portland, where I first bought them, is still selling Calabrian chile seeds. If you like a pepper that’s hot and sweet and will make every dish you cook with it good enough to beat Bobby Flay, get your seeds and grow them next year!