Peppers to please every palate

The debut of Red Hot Roundup on Oct 16 is just around the corner, where we’ll be featuring a host of special hot sauces, including the hot sauce 3-pack from Happy Quail Farms. A quail farm, producing peppery products, you ask? Dave Winsberg, chief pepper producer at this East Palo Alto urban garden, explains how he went from raising quails to farming peppers for some of the region’s world-renowned restaurants and chefs.

How’d you get from quails to padrons? I stopped raising quail about 30 years ago. We realized we were having more success selling the vegetables and the manure than the actual birds. We kept the name because it’s more representative of the small urban farm that we are.

So, what do you grow now? I might call myself an artisanal producer. We grow a variety of peppers; bells and a lot of other chili types, for a total of 50 different peppers. Mexican, Spanish, a number of varieties.

Is it true you were the first commercial farmer in America to grow what’s now the beloved and well-known pimiento de padron pepper? Yes, I started that in 2001. Pretty much up until then, they were unheard of. At the same time, Gourmet Magazine had just published an article by Calvin Trillin lamenting his inability to find the padron anywhere in the United States. So I wrote a note to him, and then things took off. We supply authentic Spanish restaurants more than any other. It’s a pepper that has to be grown in a specific environment; not supposed to be a painful pepper – occasionally, but not every one.


We see that Osteria Coppa, in downtown San Mateo, is one of the restaurants that purchases your products? Yes, Chef Kamen has been buying from us for the last three or four years. They’ve used padrons, as well as red peppers for their roasted pepper sauces and such dishes. In San Mateo County, we sell to a number of other restaurants, including Sam’s Chowder House.

What four peppers are tops for growing locally? There are a lot of nice ones that do well in our climate here. Ones I like are elongated, sweet peppers. “Italian friers,” they sometimes call them. A sweet pepper, but it looks like a hot one. They’re bull-nosed or pointed tip. There’s also the Aruba pepper and the Biscayne. These produce very well from very early in the season to very late. With our products, we can start picking as early as May sometimes.

So, what’s the best way to use peppers in dishes? The simplest way is in a peperonata. Take sweet peppers, slice them fairly finely, like you might shred them or put them in a slicer or with a mandolin. Saute them with onions and garlic. Very simple, but that’s all you really need. Some people put tomato on it, as a stand-alone or on top of a piece of bruschetta. They’ll often pair well with burrata. It ends up being a very sweet taste. When peppers are very ripe, they have a lot of sweetness. So, peperonata is our single, stand-alone favorite. We sometimes make it fancy, with mushrooms and other ingredients from time to time.

Not a Michelin-starred chef or gourmet restaurant? No worries; you can still enjoy Happy Quail Farms products. Catch Dave and his family farmers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays or in Menlo Park on Sundays.


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