A few weeks ago, when I called Krissy Scommegna, the 32-year-old owner of the Boonville Barn Collective in Boonville, Calif., she was taking a break after clocking three hours in the greenhouse pulling off the stems and shaking out the seeds from 750 pounds of chiles. I wasn’t quick enough to do the math, but because she, a few friends who came to lend a hand and the three people who work with her had harvested 15,000 pounds of peppers in their first pass across the fields, I figured they had a lot to do before the second harvest, and the third. All those peppers have to be picked, set in the greenhouses for a time, stemmed and seeded, dehydrated, ground, scooped and sealed into jars. “We grow esoteric chiles,” Krissy said with a full and easy laugh, “but we’re a down-to-earth farm.”
Not all of the dozen or so chile varieties grown on the farm are “esoteric,” but the Piment d’Ville, its original crop, is unusual in the United States. It’s a California-grown chile that was planted using Espelette pepper seeds from France’s Basque Country. (Piment d’Espelette is a protected name and can only be used for peppers grown in a specified region, which is why the Boonville Barn version goes by Piment d’Ville.)
The taste of the chiles isn’t easy to describe. They have some heat, but not all that much. They score 4 out of 10 on the Scoville scale, which means they’re a little milder than jalapeños — although nature can be capricious, and every once in a while you get a hot one. They’ve got a touch of sweetness, as you find in Aleppo or Urfa peppers. And sometimes there’s a little smokiness. I think of their flavor as warm and toasty rather than sharp.
In Basque cooking, you find piment d’Espelette in everything from omelets to chocolate. It’s made into jelly, hot sauce and even syrup, which is good in cocktails. And while it’s not as widely used in America, it was beloved at the Boonville Hotel when Krissy worked as a sous-chef there.
“When I started at the hotel in 2011, we used piment d’Espelette in lots of our signature dishes,” she told me. Roast chicken was rubbed with salt, black pepper, garlic, thyme and piment d’Espelette; steaks were served with a chile cream; prosciutto and melon were finished with lime, mint and chile powder; and croutons were made with salt, rosemary and chile.
According to Krissy, they started growing their own peppers at the hotel when they realized how many of the imported chiles they were using and how counter it was to their ethos of sourcing as much local food as possible. The climate there, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, is similar to that of the pepper-growing area of the French Basque Country, and so the plants thrived. A separate farm, which would evolve into the Boonville Barn Collective, came a few years later.
I asked Krissy if she had any advice for me about how to use the pepper. “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t treat the spices as precious. Use them!” To get to know the chile, she suggested I use it in place of black pepper for a week — a good idea that I didn’t adopt. She also said: “Go for it! Use a tablespoon on your next chicken.” And I did.
I also sprinkled the powder over roasted vegetables, into hummus and guacamole, on steamed corn and grilled fish, and into the dough for World Peace Cookies, the cocoa-and-chopped-chocolate cookies I learned from the pastry chef Pierre Hermé, which are usually flavored only with sea salt. But the most exciting dish I made with it was a sweet-potato-and-apple galette with a velvety piment-spiked spread, kind of like an offbeat pimento cheese.
The recipe for the crust is a favorite of mine: It’s unfussy and easy to work with; it’s got good flavor; it’s sturdy once it’s baked; and it keeps much of its texture even with a creamy topping. That you roll the dough out as soon as it’s made and then cut it to size and use it flat, like a pizza — no fluting or crimping — means it lives in the realm of attainability, even for new pie makers. The top layer of the galette is made up of slightly overlapping rounds of sweet potato and apple, a combination that plays to autumn and holds its appeal through the winter. While I scrub the potato and apple, I don’t peel them — I like how the rust and red colors curl and burnish under heat.
The galette looks beautiful, but the most intriguing part is the hidden filling, a mix of cream cheese and milk fortified with a little Parmesan. I know that the Parm is an odd addition, but it accentuates how savory the galette is. And then there’s the chile powder, the ingredient that turns all expectations for the dish topsy-turvy. When I’m using chiles, I often include honey too, but the sweet potato and apple pushed me to maple syrup — the right choice. The syrup also made a nice glaze for the finished galette.
As I measured out the chile powder for the filling, I could almost hear Krissy urging me on, saying: “Go for it! Go for it! Add a tablespoonful.” I thought about it. I dipped the spoon into the jar again, but I stopped short. Maybe next time.
Recipe: Sweet Potato Galette
Dorie Greenspan is an Eat columnist for the magazine. She has won five James Beard Awards for her cookbooks and writing. Her new cookbook is “Baking With Dorie.”