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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Hot and spicy

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer

The gift that kept on giving day after day arrived just after my birthday.  The big cardboard box, clearly marked perishable, was waiting for me on the dining room table.  Intrigued, I carefully removed the tape, opened the flaps and saw….veggies.  Loads of veggies in a wicker basket that would make any Easter bunny proud.

Artichokes, the big edible thistle buds

A card was tied to the handle.  “Your Bountiful Harvest Assortment Basket was thoughtfully prepared for you by Ellie” and a smiley face.  The baby vegetable basket contained the freshest available specialty vegetables packed and sent from California the same day.  

Radishes with a bite

Underwood Family Farms is located in an area that experiences warm dry summers and mild wet winters.  Somis farms and Moorpark farms are both in Ventura County California.  The name Somis is Chumash for ‘water of the scrub oak.’  The Chumash, known as bead or sea shell people, were Native Americans who lived in the central and southern California coastal region for thousands of years.  The Europeans arrived in the 1700-1800’s with diseases and Spanish missions that wiped out their culture and religion.  The tribes were decimated, but the Chumash still survive in small numbers, working to preserve their language through songs and stories.  

Moorpark probably came from the apricot, which is still grown in the area.  Underwood Farms cover over 900 acres.  They offer on-site pick-your-own veggies and fruits, a corn maze, farm animals for kids and wagon rides.  The diverse farm operates produce stands, participates in farmer’s markets and sends out boxes filled with home-grown seasonal fruits and vegetables.  

Japanese Turnips

Underwood Family Farms are the direct-sales division of the business.  Underwood Ranches is the wholesale side. The family has been farming in Ventura County since 1867.  Craig Underwood, graduate of Cornell, Navy veteran and fourth generation farmer started out by providing veggies for a frozen food cooperative in Oxnard.  When that petered out, he focused on carrots, beets and mesclun salad.  From there produce expanded to artichokes, brussels sprouts and fennel.  The first produce stand in Somis opened in 1980 where Craig learned his customers also wanted yellow seedless watermelons and bicolor sweet corn.  What they learned from the public was applied to the wholesale branch.

California’s expansion of their water project in the late 1980’s created an overproduction situation and low prices.  Growers had to rethink what they were doing.  Underwood contacted David Tran, founder of Huy Fong Foods, and asked if Tran was interested in jalapenos.  

Underwood Ranch Jalapeno Sauces

Tran began making his chili sauce in Vietnam in 1975.  The major in the South Vietnamese army became a refugee who eventually arrived in Los Angeles spring of 1980.  He made spicy chili sauces in buckets, hawking his wares at Asian markets and restaurants.  The company name Huy Fong Foods came from ‘Huey Fong’, the wreck of a Taiwanese freighter that transported David Tran and 3,300 refugees from Vietnam in December 1978.

Tran agreed to buy the Underwood peppers produced on 50 acres.  When harvest time arrived, Underwood delivered when other growers didn’t.  The relationship progressed and jalapeno acreage increased to nearly 2,000 acres.

Chili peppers, which originated in Central and South America, can be plagued with blossom end rot, aphids, leaf miners, and soil pathogens. Looking for disease resistance, flavor and heat, Underwood conducts 50 to 100 pepper trials a year to discover the best.  He says their peppers today are much spicier than the earlier ones. Harvest is mid-July into early October.

The operations manager for the pepper farm designed a harvester that picked only peppers and almost no leaves, twigs and dirt. Machines pluck 90% of the crop, reducing labor costs   This allowed Huy Fong Foods to make a reasonably priced locally grown item.  One hundred million pounds per year of mature fresh red jalapenos were harvested by Underwood Ranches.  Three-quarters of their business was with Huy Fong Foods.

Twenty-eight years of business partnership ended July 2019 in court.  Huy Fong Foods was ordered to pay 23.3 million dollars to Underwood Ranches after a falling-out and disagreement, resulting in employee lay-off and indebtedness incurred by Underwood Ranches. Not the first lawsuit for the pepper company.  In 2013 the city of Irwindale filed suit against the company and their 650,000 square foot factory.  The seasonal processing of millions of pounds of red jalapeno hybrid red chili peppers caused watery eyes and difficulty in breathing.  That lawsuit was dropped in 2014.  In 2019 batches of Sriracha were recalled in some foreign countries due to build-up of lactic acid that could erupt into a sriracha geyser.  

Huy Fong Foods Srirachi Sauce

Sriracha is a fermented spicy sauce with red jalapenos and garlic used in Vietnamese and Thai cooking.  Huy Fong Foods add vinegar, salt, sugar and preservatives.  After the 2019 court settlement, David Tran had to change the source of peppers. Customers have noticed the change in the hot sauce, also called ‘Rooster Sauce.’  Why rooster?  Chinese-Vietnamese David Tran was born in the Chinese zodiac year of the rooster.  

Meanwhile, Underwood Ranches have come out with their own selection of 6 different jalapeno sauces.  Still the largest pepper grower in the US, their “Seed to Sauce” condiments highlight the jalapeno peppers.  

The Mega Veggie Basket

The Bountiful Veggie Basket from Underwood Family Farms contained two artichokes, bundles of baby kohlrabi, Bok Choy, baby beets, baby multicolored carrots (orange, white and purple), baby Japanese turnips, radishes, several potatoes, two squash, yellow and red peppers, two bunches of broccoli, one small head of cauliflower, one eggplant and two zucchinis. All fresh and tender.

Thus, began the week of veggies.  Wednesday night was mashed potatoes, fried squash, gently boiled baby beets and carrots with raw radishes on the side.  Thursday the Japanese turnips were lightly cooked and the kohlrabi, Bok Choy, red bell peppers stir-fried.  Friday the artichokes were steamed and zucchini sautéed.  Saturday the eggplant was breaded and fried, and broccoli stir-fried with onions and garlic.  Sunday the cauliflower florets were roasted with olive oil and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, with radishes and yellow peppers added to a salad.  Monday the rest of the squash with onions were baked.  Tuesday my husband and cats celebrated since the veggies were all gone.

Have you seen comet C/2020 F3?  The comet Neowise (Near Earth Object-wise Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer)? The three mile wide icy mass with debris tail has swung around the sun in its very LONG orbit and is now on the way to the edge of our solar system.  It came closest to Earth July 22nd, but is dimming.  The space rock won’t be seen again for 6,800 years.  I’ve spent a few nights with binoculars trying to find the comet as it flies south of the Big Dipper above the horizon.  The hazy sky has been patchy with thin clouds but full of satellites, jets, stars and fire flies.  Have a few more days of comet hunting before it’s gone.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.