Posted October 14, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Meet Pepper Mike

This sultan of spice grows the hottest chiles around Pepper Mike
Knight Ridder Newspapers

He’s the Houdini of heat, the sultan of spiciness, a caliph of culinary combustion with cast-iron taste buds.
He’s ”Pepper Mike” Simpson, and no, you probably don’t want to get into a chile-eating contest with him.
There was, for instance, the brawny fellow who challenged Simpson during a chili cook-off in a biker bar. Spitting out his first bite of habanero made him the laughingstock of the bar — and more than a little perturbed with Simpson.
”It was good I had friends there,” Simpson says.
Tough biker joints aren’t the usual settings for culinary showdowns, but chiles are a different type of food, their pain-is-pleasure quotient inspiring a machismo among aficionados.

Simpson, a 56-year-old Haysville, Kan., construction worker and veteran of chili and barbecue cook-offs, started growing chiles two decades ago out of curiosity.
Within a few years he had 80 varieties under cultivation, including many that make jalapeños seem bland by comparison. He scoured catalogs for chiles mostly grown in other countries and found Kansas’ summers well suited to raising them.

Today, he’s cut back a bit, to about two dozen varieties. Nevertheless, the chiles he’s raised this cool, wet summer present an astounding panoply of vibrant color, shape and heat. They include chocolate-colored Scotch bonnets, tiny round ”Birdeyes” and other chiles you won’t find on many supermarket shelves.

”Slicing and dicing” chiles, and then chewing them raw, is the way connoisseurs enjoy them — and prove their mettle. According to Simpson, chiles have subtle differences that inexperienced tasters aren’t likely to appreciate.
A Portugal, for instance, has a ”sweet hot” flavor, while the Birdeye ”goes bang in your mouth and then goes away,” and habaneros ”build in your mouth.”

”If you can handle the heat, you can tell the difference, especially between a green pepper and one that’s matured to yellow or red,” he said.
So what’s the hottest chile of them all? Simpson said it’s the Scotch bonnet or closely related habanero, though heat levels of individual chiles vary from plant to plant, day to day, according to how they were raised and when they were picked.

Simpson turns many of his chiles into an incendiary hot sauce (“Tabasco doesn’t compare”), a pepper vinegar and a pepper relish, which make spicing up any dish easy.
He used lots of chiles when he was on the chili cook-off circuit, but about seven years ago, he migrated to barbecue competitions.

His team, which consists of his two grown sons and two friends, is named, naturally, the Firebreathers.

|Pepper Mike’s chili|
½ med. white onion
½ med. red onion
½ red bell pepper
2 jalapeño peppers
2 hot Portugal peppers
2 habeneros (optional)
1 stalk celery, optional
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
About 7 T chili seasoning (see recipe below)
1 lb. sausage
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1½ cups spicy tomato juice
2/3 cup tomato juice
½ cup beef broth
1 can (16 oz.) dark red kidney beans
1 can (16 oz.) light red kidney beans
1 can (16 oz.) black beans

Steps: Chop the onions, peppers and celery, keeping them separate. In a skillet, brown the ground beef with the onions (and celery, if used), drain and put into a large pot. Brown pork with 1 tablespoon chili seasoning. Add the sausage to the pot and brown; add crushed tomato, bell pepper, tomato juices, beef broth, jalapeño and Portugal peppers and 4-6 T. chili seasoning. While this is heating, drain three cans of beans. Add beans to the chili just after it starts to simmer. While bringing the temperature back up, stir the chili carefully so as not to break down the beans. After about 20 minutes, taste and add chopped habenero to taste. Add more beef broth or tomato juice if mixture is too thick.

To make the chili seasoning: Combine 1½ tsp. ground black pepper, 1½ tsp. seasoned salt, 3 T. paprika, 5 T. chili powder, 1 ½ tsp. cayenne pepper, 1½ T. cumin, 1½ tsp. crushed red pepper and 1½ tsp. garlic powder.

Note: Mike Simpson prefers to use coarsely ground beef and pork in this chili. If you don’t add beans to the chili, leave out 1½ T. chili seasoning.

|Pepper relish|

Use this relish in chili, stews or anything you want to ”kick up a notch,” Mike Simpson says.
2 cups chopped chile peppers (Scotch bonnets, habaneros or other peppers)
2/3 cup white vinegar
½ teaspoon canning salt

Steps: Wash, stem and split chile peppers. Using a food processor, chop peppers until they are the consistency of pickle relish.

Combine peppers, vinegar and canning salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. There be enough vinegar to just cover the chopped peppers.

Ladle relish into jars and close with lids.

|Hot pepper sauce|

1 cup pepper relish (see recipe)
vinegar, as needed
garlic powder, optional

Steps: Pour relish and about ¼ cup vinegar into a blender. Blend until smooth, adding more vinegar until you get the consistency you want. Add garlic powder, if desired. Pour mixture into shaker bottles and refrigerate.

|Pepper vinegar|

Use this spicy vinegar like hot sauce.
assorted peppers
rice vinegar

Steps: Puncture several slits in each pepper and stuff into shaker bottles. You can split peppers that are too big to fit through the narrow mouth of the bottle. Fill bottles with vinegar and refrigerate.

The mixture will get hotter with age.


Handling chiles: Keep your hands away from your eyes while handling chiles. A minuscule amount of oil from them can be extremely painful if it gets into your eye. You may also want to use kitchen gloves if chopping a large number of chiles. Simpson says the oil from chiles can get under fingernails and prove irritating there as well.

Eating chiles: When tasting, place chile slices directly in your mouth, bypassing your lips, where the oil tends to linger. To cut the heat in your mouth, milk, cottage cheese and other dairy products are best because they contain lactic acid. Water and beer just spread the heat around, Simpson said.

Cooking with chiles: Simpson doesn’t like freezing chiles because it changes their texture. He prefers turning them into hot sauces or relishes. However you add them to a recipe, start with a small amount and taste, since ”you can’t take them out” once they’re in a dish.

Growing chiles: Simpson orders many of his exotic seeds from and other Internet sites. He says sandy, well-drained soil is best for growing chiles.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog