Callie Lawrence of Grandview is a cool cook and a hot pepper aficionado, Lawrence grows and cooks the hottest, most exotic chilis on the planet: Carolina reaper, Trinidad scorpion and Pinguita de Mono.
Lawrence’s family — husband Corey and four children: Mykael, 25; Audrye, 22; Devin, 19; and Aiden, 17 — all take the heat she dishes out. A nurturer by nature, Lawrence works at a pet store during the day and unwinds in the garden at night.
Q: How many pecks of peppers does Callie Lawrence pick?
A: While I seem to have a special green thumb for growing peppers, I also like growing melons and tomatoes you don’t find at the grocery store or most farmers’ markets. My love for heirloom tomatoes started when I met the Tomato Whisperer James Worley and bought unusual plants from him. James also grows many varieties of peppers and I enjoy working in his garden and getting my hands in the dirt.
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Q: How does your garden grow?
A: This year was a tough year for my garden, with all the heat, rain and the invasive Japanese beetles. To be a gardener is to be an optimist, because no matter how bad your garden gets, there’s always next year. I have a 6-year-old Scotch bonnet pepper that I have in a pot and take inside during the winter, and that plant is flourishing.
You can’t control the growth of a pepper plant and it can become like a bush. Generally, peppers like hot weather, but they also like to be watered regularly. I also fertilize them with compost and organic tomato fertilizer. I am most proud of growing the Pinguita de Mono, which comes from the jungles of Peru, and although it’s really hot, it is also has a fruity and sour taste to it. I am excited to share its seeds with other people in Kansas City.
Q: Why do some like it hot?
A: Anthony Bourdain said that when you discover hot and spicy food, it opens up another level to your palate, and I believe that to be true. I grew up in Overland Park with a mother that did many things well — except cook — so I didn’t grow up with a rich culinary history.
In my early 20s, I started to realize a whole creative world of food that combined sweet, sour, salty and spicy tastes, and I was hooked. I love Thai food and have developed a palate in which hot Thai food isn’t always that spicy to me. There’s an endorphin rush that happens to me when I’m eating spicy food. But, you don’t make and eat hot food just for the sake of making it spicy. There’s a lot of nuance in flavor that’s packed into these tiny peppers. There’s also a reason that Indians serve yogurt with their spicy dishes because it neutralizes the heat. My father always added milk to his chili, but sour cream also works.
Q: What constitutes a good bowl of chili?
A: I like a chili that has lots of spicy flavor and texture to it. When I add the meat to brown it, I keep it chunky and want larger pieces of tomato to enjoy by the spoonful. The thing about chili is that you can make it as hot as you can tolerate it. Don’t try to show off and make it super spicy if you can’t tolerate it. If you grow your own peppers, make sure you taste the bottom of a pepper for heat before adding it to a dish. Peppers grown from the same plant don’t always have the same amount of heat. I’ve grown commonly milder jalapenos that have become super hot for whatever reason — the weather, the harvest time, the amount of sunlight. Like people, no two peppers are exactly alike.
James and I grow rare and super hot chili peppers, and I'm not afraid to use them in my cooking. But, I understand I am far more tolerant of heat than the average person, plus most folks don't have access to the peppers I grow. I’ve included a hot condiment sauce that can be made very quickly with ingredients already used in the recipe, so people can add heat to suit their tolerance, without diluting the chili. That's what I do when I make big batches of chili for group gatherings — offer add-ins for those who like to breathe fire!
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Join Lawrence at a local gardeners’ Pepper Tasting at The Local Pig (2618 Guinotte Ave., Kansas City) on Friday, Sept. 23, starting at 6:30. Join the potluck by sampling a selection of locally grown peppers, bringing a pot of chili for the cook-off or packing up your homegrown salsa, hot sauce and other peppery goodie for folks to share.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 (3-pound) package ground chuck
1 medium white onion, diced
8 garlic cloves, minced, divided use
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
5 tablespoons chili powder, divided use
2 tablespoons cumin, divided use
2 teaspoons ground smoked paprika, divided use
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and diced
3 (14.5-ounce) cans fire-roasted tomatoes with juice
2 habanero peppers, stems removed and seeded
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed
2 (15-ounce) cans dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (15-ounce) can light red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups spicy hot vegetable juice
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning or sea salt (see note)
For optional chili condiment:
½ cup spicy hot vegetable juice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 habanero pepper, stem removed and seeded
Garnishes: hot sauce, sour cream, shredded cheese and crackers, as desired
In a large Dutch oven, warm the oil over medium-high heat on stovetop. Add ground chuck, white onion, 3 garlic cloves, tomato paste, 2 tablespoons chili powder, 1 tablespoon cumin and 1 teaspoon paprika to pot and, using a wooden spoon, sauté until meat is browned. Drain off fat and discard.
Return pot to stovetop and turn heat down to low. To the meat mixture, stir in diced tomatoes, fire-roasted tomatoes with juice, habaneros, diced sweet onion, black and kidney beans, vegetable juice, remaining 5 garlic cloves, 3 tablespoons chili powder, 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 teaspoon paprika, black pepper and Cajun seasoning or salt.
Add lid to pot and slowly simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
To prepare optional chili condiment: In the bowl of a blender, add vegetable juice, vegetable oil and habenero. Process until smooth and pour into a small dish.
To serve: Ladle chili into individual bowls and serve immediately. The optional chili condiment can be spooned into each bowl, according to individual tastes. Additional toppings can include bottled hot sauce, sour cream, shredded cheese and crackers.
Note: For Cajun seasoning, Lawrence uses Tony Chachere's More Spice Seasoning.
Per serving, based on 8: 841 calories (44 percent from fat), 42 grams total fat (15 grams saturated), 128 milligrams cholesterol, 69 grams carbohydrates, 49 grams protein, 1,692 milligrams sodium, 20 grams dietary fiber.