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FOOD: The place with all the peppers

Farmer Hilario Alvarez is bent over a row of green plants, pulling weeds from the field. The sun is flaring in the photo, and he's wearing jeans and long-sleeves, despite the temperature being in the mid-90s.
Ed Ronco
Hilario Alvarez pulls some weeds on his farm near Mabton, in Yakima County.

In a huge farm field, standing among rows and rows of peppers and leeks, Hilario Alvarez starts weeding.

It’s not necessarily what he planned to do at this precise moment. But he’s out here talking to us, there are weeds at his feet, and so why not pull a few? He has to keep ahead of them.

KNKX food commentator Nancy Leson and I have driven out here to eastern Washington, and the Alvarez Organic Farms, off a two-lane road just north of Mabton, a town of about 2,000 people in Yakima County.

Nancy reaches down and grabs a weed or two.

“That’s some back-breaking work,” she says. “How’s your back?”

“It’s great,” Alvarez says. “I’m OK when I work in little bits. When I work all day long, it’s not too good.”

Alvarez, 69, has been farming for decades — his 70 acres here in Yakima County and, before that, on other people’s land. He’s never seen a year this bad. The extreme heat (it’s in the mid-90s today), the drought, the pandemic and a shortage of workers have all conspired to make this a really rough year.

He worries aloud about all of that, but he also says he’s happy.

“It’s hard work,” he says. “But I like it, because a lot of people benefit from my farm. Every year, over 10,000 people are eating my vegetables.”

Red and green peppers overflow from boxes at a farmer's market. There are also zucchini and tomatillos in the frame.
Nancy Leson
Alvarez Organic Farms sells a number of varieties of peppers, and other produce, at farmers' markets across western Washington. Here's part of their display at the Edmonds Summer Market.

Alvarez Organic Farms sells at farmers markets up and down western Washington. After they received organic certification in the early 1990s, prices went up a bit, and some traditional customers disappeared. But shoppers at farmers markets in the Seattle area couldn’t get enough.

And there’s plenty to get. Alvarez sells cucumbers, zucchini, beans, a wide variety of eggplant and so much more. But their flagship product is peppers — more than 200 varieties that are just coming into season now.

“A lot of people in Seattle call me Walmart,” Alvarez said, “because Walmart’s got everything, and Alvarez Farms has everything.”

The business is a family enterprise. Hilario’s wife, Maria, used to drive the truck to and from the markets in Seattle, but stopped after the stress of the early morning runs took its toll.

Their kids are involved now, handling a lot of the work on the farm. Son Steve and daughter-in-law Sam handle sales at the Edmonds Summer Market, where Nancy shops every Saturday.

Hilario and Maria Alvarez smile for a portrait in front of their home in Mabton.
Nancy Leson
Hilario and Maria Alvarez, at Alvarez Organic Farms in Mabton.

What to do with all those peppers?

Here are a few quick-and-easy ways Nancy likes to use fresh peppers:

  1. Blister the peppers. You can do this using the broiler in a standard oven, the burners of a gas stove or your outdoor grill, but Nancy likes to use her toaster oven’s broiler function. Put the peppers on a tray and as they heat up, the moisture will evaporate and the skin will turn black. Turn the peppers every so often to evenly char the skin. Once that’s done, place the hot peppers in a bowl with some plastic wrap and let them steam then cool. Gently pull or wipe off the charred skin to reveal the tender, tasty flesh underneath. Use these however you’d like — in salads, on burgers, wherever you think they’d be delicious. Which is almost anywhere.
  2. Make a cold salad with some cucumbers. Remove the seeds from any sweet raw pepper and dice the flesh, then toss with diced cucumbers, a hit of rice vinegar (or a splash of fresh lemon juice), olive oil, salt and fresh ground pepper. Add feta and kalamata olives and you can call it a Greek salad.
  3. Eat them. Just … eat them. They’re good. 

Nancy Leson is KNKX’s food commentator and a Seattle-based food writer, cooking instructor and public speaker. Find her at Ed Ronco hosts All Things Considered weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. “Food” airs monthly on KNKX.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.