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Article Published March 29, 2019
Pick a Pepper, Kick Up the Flavor
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

Sweet? Hot chile? If you want to know which way to go when it comes to kicking up the flavor of food with peppers, just ask Southern Connecticut's beloved "pepper guy," Tom Marone of Mad Hill Peppers.

In early spring, Marone tenderly transfers 100 varieties of thousands of pepper seedlings from a home-grown incubator to Mad Hill's greenhouse. There, the baby plants will harden off, ready to be transplanted to Mad Hill's growing fields in North Haven.

Within 60 to 100 days, thousands of chile pods, from mild-medium varieties like the green, tapered Pasilla Bajio, to the wrinkled, bright yellow Fatalii Hot Pepper (there's a reason they call it "fatal") will be ready for harvest. Most will take a trip through Mad Hill's dehydrators. The resulting dried peppers, powders, and special blends, all bursting with just-picked heat and flavor, are packaged up and sold.

Bringing Exotic Peppers to the Masses

The specialty tabasco sauce industry has taken off – Marone likens it to the current craft brewery craze. Many of today's sauces are outrageously hot, such as those fueled by ghost peppers like Bhut Jolokia, a bright orange beauty from India. While these special sauces often bring more heat than the average person can handle, Marone says the right amount of heat, from the right type of pepper, can open new worlds of flavor in just about every type of food.

"You have to temper the amount of heat that you want so you don't misalign your taste buds, and so the heat enhances the flavors of the food," he says.

For Fun and Flavor

While many may not consider pairing the sweetness of fruit with the heat of chile peppers, Tom says it's one of the easiest ways to appreciate that extra kick of flavor you've been missing. He suggests sprinkling a little powdered Aji Colorado (a mild red chile pepper, born in Bolivia's Andes Mountains) or Lemon Drop (a medium yellow chile pepper from Brazil) on a bowl of fresh strawberries or chopped mangos. Stir, let sit for a few minutes, stir again, and "...enjoy for fun and flavor," says Tom.

With a mild lemony flavor and nice kick of heat, Lemon Drop also makes Tom's list as a "go-to" pepper seasoning in many recipes, including those for chicken and fish. Instead of adding standard tabasco to your next batch of hot wings, try making a Lemon Drop Hot Sauce. Recipes abound online, with most requiring about an ounce of dried Lemon Drop chiles.

Speaking of sauces, let's talk tomatoes. Yes, tomato-based chili sauce has its place; but to go beyond, think pasta. Tom recommends adding the medium heat from a Chinese variety, Ta Pien Chiao, to your favorite tomato sauce.

"The Ta Pien Chiao is a round, smaller pepper that's the upper level of mild," says Tom. "In the dry state, powdered, it's terrific with a tomato sauce; whether it's for a chicken dish or pasta. I love it in pasta."

It's also a great stuffing pepper, along the lines of classic cherry hot peppers.

But when it comes to working with a world-class traditional stuffing pepper, try Tom's favorite variety, Poblano. Wide at the top and tapered to a pointy tip, these traditional green chili peppers from Mexico impart a mild-to-medium heat.

"It's a little hotter than a regular bell pepper. It just has a bite," says Tom.

How Hot?

All peppers produce capsaicin, a compound which causes the sensation of heat. The exact heat a pepper puts out can be measured by determining its capsaicin level on the Scoville scale, created in 1912.

Sweet bell cherry peppers have traditionally hovered at the bottom of the scale, but with the rocketing popularity of insanely hot peppers, the top of the scale keeps changing. Although the gnarly red Carolina Reaper has certainly made its mark as one of the all-time hottest (it first claimed the title in 2013), one hellishly hot variety Tom's added to his inventory in recent years is the Trinidad Scorpion Chocolate.

It's just one of dozens of "chocolate" peppers, which come in an abundance of varieties. Their deep brown skin gives chocolate peppers their name, but the taste is anything but sweet; it's much closer to nutty, Tom explains. Another chocolate pepper Tom recommends for seasoning is the flavorful, hot, Brown Congo Habanero. It's great for sauces, rubs, and soups.

Time for the Sublime

In past years, Mad Hill Peppers has paired up with the pastry and cuisine chefs of Madison Beach Hotel's Wharf Restaurant for special event dinners. One memorable meal featured jumbo lump crab cake with Frisee salad, mango and Lemon Drop pepper coulis; Ghost Pepper pork belly (brown sugar and Ghost Pepper rub); and dark chocolate panna cotta (mango yogurt compote, Trinidad Scorpion Pepper and strawberry gastrique).

When it comes to infusing pepper heat and flavor into delicious food, Tom puts the talents of Wharf Restaurant Pastry Chef Sarah Sankow and Chef de Cuisine Sean Carney at the top of the scale.

"Sarah is outrageously brilliant in mixing hot peppers with her desserts that are elaborate. She's a master. And Sean can handle any pepper for any crowd. He knows just the amount to put into every dish," says Tom.