We could simply say that Bill Spencer is not the type to take the air-drying easy route to preserving the organic tomatoes and jalapeños that he and his wife, Barbara, grow on their Paso Robles farm all summer. And that they're fantastic, particularly those chipotles that the Spencers added to Windrose Farm's Wednesday Santa Monica lineup this fall. All true.
But we know that Bill would be disappointed if we didn't tell it like it really is. "People ask us why we don't sun-dry our tomatoes and jalapeños," he says, tossing almond wood branches into the brick smoker's giant side fire box (more of a fire "hut" than a box). "I tell them that with our variant temperatures here on the farm, all we'd do is grow maggots."
Hey, whatever drives Bill to spend so much time on these little gems. He makes some of the best smoked tomatoes we've ever tasted and even better meaty chipotles. What makes them so good?
For starters, if you've ever had a fresh pepper from Windrose Farm, you already know the Spencers grow some pretty fantastic ones. And before you say you never hit the Santa Monica Farmers Market, if you've ever had baby shishetos, Padrons, Italian Treccia, Lipstick, Pimiento or yellow Antohi Romanian peppers at AOC Winebar, Eva, Joe's, The Langham, Lou Wine Bar, Lucques (we could go on), you've likely had Windrose Farm peppers. In other words, these chipotles begin their life as some very high class -- and high on flavor -- jalapeños.
Bill also happens to be a "real" smoke devotee, not a commercial smoker fan -- a key point when you're talking about anything smoked. Sure, you can buy a shiny metal electric smoker in home-friendly sizes at Home Depot and make your own, but the huge brick smoker on Windrose Farm's property is another beloved beast entirely. "I stay away from the smoking, that's Bill's thing," says Barbara with a wink, which is code to anyone visiting the farm that her husband is about to start off on an endearing mini sermon.
"A commercial dehydrator has no external variables that affect what it is cooking so what you end up with is always the same -- Wood is always different, always yields something different in your final product," says Bill, opening the smoker door to check on pepper drying progress. "There's a hierarchy to cooking that's never changed with wood at the top, always the best, then gas, then electric, then the microwave at the bottom." Yeah, this is definitely the guy you want in charge of your smoked peppers -- smoked anything, for that matter.
Bill says all that time and attention means he has to charge a little more than he'd like for the finished product. "Even chefs don't always understand why it's so expensive in bulk," he says. "It takes ten pounds of tomatoes [or jalapeños] to slow smoke for several days to make just one pound."
Actually, we think it's a pretty fantastic deal for the quality and quantity. Our 2-ounce bag of chipotles ($5) had 15 intensely flavored, meaty peppers inside. The smoke flavor is so intense, we've been cutting them in half before dropping them into pots of beans, soups and sauces. Simmering half a Windrose Farm chipotle in tomato-wine broth before adding mussels was one of the best quick weeknight meals we've sopped up with a crusty baguette in a long time.
Now, Bill, about that BBQ that we're sure you're thinking about introducing at the farmers market next summer, right?
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Windrose Farm chipotles are available at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market.
[More from Jenn Garbee @eathistory + eathistory.com