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Hold On for Habaneros

August 23, 2000|DAVID KARP

Whenever I travel, I carry, as ammunition against bland, boring food, a little jar of habanero pepper powder so explosively spicy and flavorful that its tropical fruit aroma could stun a moose. Seeking out its makers, I recently visited Neal and Carol Bratton, who call themselves the Backyard Dirt Farmers, at their home on the slopes of Murrieta's Hogback Hill.

As the rising sun peeped through the eucalyptus trees, they showed me four immaculately weeded patches, protected by chicken wire against rabbits and squirrels, where they grow 30 varieties of peppers: giant, sweet Corno di Toro; glossy dark green poblanos for stuffing; conical, medium-spicy Santa Fe Grande; and insanely incendiary habaneros, 100 times as hot as a jalapeno.

Neal said he bought the 2.6-acre property and planted fruit trees and vegetables in 1987 when he retired as a marketing executive. In 1995 he started selling the surplus at the Temecula farmers market. He put in peppers because he liked salsa, and gradually his hobby became an obsession.

"Every time I'd look at a catalog, I'd order more seeds of different peppers," he said.

The Brattons now sell at three farmers markets, offering a diverse range of produce, including Cajun Pride okra, heirloom French lettuces and pale Siberian Wonderlight tomatoes, which look like lemons but taste sweet. Carol's six large desert tortoises (two of them more than 100 years old) take care of any leftovers.

Carol has mastered the recipe for their best-selling habanero jelly, which makes a vibrant glaze for meats. But Neal does most of the work for their 20 kinds of pepper powders, including mild but tasty green types, coruscating cayenne and that amazing habanero.

The Brattons make sweet powders too. After my tour of their garden, I drove with them to a kitchen at the nearby Temecula Community Recreation Center, where Neal prepared a batch of paprika. In a blender, he grated dried strips of Hungarian paprikas, previously stemmed, seeded, shredded and dried in an electric dehydrator. A rich, warm fragrance filled the room.

"Don't worry," he said. "The habaneros will be along in a week or two."

Good thing. My supplies are running low.

Neal and Carol Bratton sell at these farmers markets: Redlands, at East State and Orange streets, Thursdays 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Temecula, 6th and Front streets, Saturdays 8 a.m. to noon.; and Beverly Hills, North Canon Drive between Clifton and Dayton ways, Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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