Datil Peppers: Heat with a History

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The Minorcan Datil Pepper Products Company
Many St. Augustine area families have developed their own homemade Datil sauces, each one a special recipe that has been handed down, modified, updated, and kept well guarded. What started out as a hobby for Marcia McQuaig, who married into her Minorcan heritage, has become a successful business venture. What began as simply bottling a few gallons of hot sauce for family and friends around Christmas time has evolved into a full time job for her. “Everyone has their own secret recipe around here, but mine is pretty darn good,” she noted. McQuaig, who learned how to make the sauce from her mother-in-law Mildred, began selling a few bottles of Datil mustard to local restaurants and it was such a hit she and her husband opened up the Minorcan Datil Pepper Products Company. “It all started with the mustard, but since then, we’ve added to our list of offerings and our hot sauce is now the big draw,” she told me. The sauce is spicy, sweet, and tangy all at once and can be used on just about anything, from scrambled eggs to sauteed vegetables. It’s unlike any other hot sauce on the market.  The McQuaigs would love to expand, but sourcing their Datils from local farmers is a challenge because there just aren’t enough growers to satisfy their demand. Nonetheless, the company offers an astounding array of products, including a number of excellent hot sauces, mustards, marinades, BBQ sauces, dry spices, and my personal favorite, a cranberry Datil sauce that turns Thanksgiving leftovers into an extraordinary turkey sandwhich. To order their products, visit http://www.minorcandatil.com/.

The best places in the St. Augustine area to sample dishes with a hit of Datil peppers are the previously mentioned Johnny’s Kitchen in nearby Hastings, FL and O’Steen’s Restaurant in St. Augustine proper. O’Steens is a St. Augustine landmark that has been serving authentic Old Florida seafood dishes for decades, despite accepting neither credit cards nor reservations. The unpretentious diner is known regionally for its perfectly fried butterflied shrimp and crispy hushpuppies—traditional Southern fritters made with cornmeal and diced onions. The nation’s shrimping industry purportedly began in North Florida’s rich waters, and nowhere can you find better fried shrimp than at O’Steens. Their gargantuan seafood platter (shrimp, fish, a crab cake, oysters, scallops, hushpuppies, and two sides) is enough for two people to share, and the casual eatery makes one of the best Minorcan clam chowders around. Just like at Johnny’s Kitchen, homemade Datil vinegars and old Grolsch beer bottles filled with Datil hot sauces are scattered on tabletops, ready to be doused on everything from field beans to Southern-style cooked greens. The local favorite is the house “Pink Sauce,” a Datil-infused, mayonnaise-based seafood dipping sauce that keeps the crowds coming back, as the hungry customers lined up around the building, waiting for a table, attests.

The Hastings Cafe (formerly Johnny’s Kitchen)O'Steen's Restaurant
224 N. Main Street
Hastings, FL 32145
(904) 692-1800

O’Steen’s Restaurant
205 Anastasia Boulevard
St. Augustine, FL 32080
(904) 829-6974

Minorcan Clam Chowder
(Recipe courtesy of John Barnes)

Planning ahead of time is the key to making a good pot of Minorcan clam chowder. “You can’t just run into the kitchen and say you’ll whip up some chowder in an hour. It’s just not gonna work,” Barnes explained to me. “This is a dish that takes time, and the more time you give it, the better it will be.” Like many soups, stews, and chowders, Minorcan clam chowder is better when served the day after preparation to allow the ingredients to marry. When Barnes prepares his chowder, he often makes the base, referred to by Minorcans as the “mull,” a few days ahead for added flavor. “Cook today, eat tomorrow—that’s the secret,” says Barnes. He also suggests using the most heavy-duty pot you’ve got in your kitchen to avoid scorching the mull, which must cook down very slowly into a thick concentrate.

Minorcan Clam Chowder
¼ pound bacon, diced
2 large onions, diced
2 green peppers, diced
1 quart canned diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
2 tablespoons dried thyme
4 Datil peppers
5 lbs. thin skinned white potatoes, diced with skin on
2 48-ounce bottles of clam juice
1 48-ounce can (or the same amount of frozen) chopped clams
Salt to taste

For the Base:
Add diced bacon to pot and cook on medium heat till soft but not crispy. Add the peppers and onions and cook till soft throughout.

Stir in tomatoes, two chopped Datil peppers, marjoram, and thyme and cook on medium-high heat until it begins to bubble, then turn heat to low, stirring frequently. Cook down slowly until the base is reduced by at least half. Stir frequently!

When tomato base becomes a paste and is almost sticking to pan, it is ready. (Base may be made one to three days early. If so, refrigerate then add back to pot when ready to use.  If you’re making the base for same-day use, let it sit and cool for a while.)

For the Chowder:
Warm the base on medium heat and stir in the clam juice.

While the base is heating, boil diced potatoes in a separate pot until soft but not falling apart—like cooking pasta al dente. Keep stirring base!  

Drain the potatoes and add to base and one bottle of clam juice. If more liquid is needed to cover the potatoes, add more juice.

Bring to a full simmer then add the clams, including juice from the can. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, with frequent stirring.

Let the chowder sit and cool to allow ingredients to marry. Taste for salt and heat, adding more Datil peppers and salt if necessary. (Datils will mellow in the chowder over time, not intensify. Additional Datils will brighten the chowder, though be careful on the quantity you add, which will affect the chowder’s spiciness.)

Let chowder completely cool before refrigerating. Minorcan clam chowder freezes very well for later servings.

Serves 12 to 15.
Heat scale: medium to hot

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