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There was something for everyone Sunday at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Chili Pepper Fiesta. From face painting and chili pepper puppet workshops for kids, to karaoke hosted by Jammin’ 105 for adolescents, to myriad spectator and interactive performances for all ages, it was a day of learning and fun, with the spectacular backdrop of the gardens in all their mid-fall glory.

I bypassed the chili pepper artists and gardening workshops and followed my nose to the food. While the activities were scattered all around the garden, the hub of the activity and most of the food, was in a huge tent on the Cherry Esplanade under which were a stage, food stations and chili pepper-themed gifts for sale.

As I approached, all eyes were on the stage where Biker Billy, a TV food personality whose specialty is cooking vegetarian chili, was doing his thing - an entertaining though somewhat contrived cooking demonstration that relied more on his biker image than on his cooking expertise.

Biker Billy does have his image down pat, however. A large man with gray hair in a ponytail down his back, Billy keeps his motorcycle on the stage as part of the hype while he jokes and teases with giggling young people brought onto the stage from the audience about just what chili peppers might do to their relationship.

"There’s no cuisine around the world that’s safe from me infusing it with chili peppers," he enthusiastically told me after the performance. His three-bean meatless chili didn’t seem to live up to his passion, however, as I found it to be watery and a tad bland.

That was the last I saw of bland for the day.

On to Pablo Diablo, aka Paul Petersen, and his "Texas flame-kissed fajitas." Petersen, who hails from San Antonio, moved to New York to perfect his culinary skills while also marketing his own salsa. I arrived just in time to sample the last fajita - a slice of grilled skirt steak with guacamole and grilled sweet onions in a tortilla.

The steak, marinated for eight to 12 hours in a combination of beer, lime juice, chili powder, cumin and fresh oregano, cilantro and garlic, was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The guacamole had a good balance of sweet, from orange juice, and spicy, from diced serrano chilis, the combination coming together in an utterly wonderful fajita experience.

I spoke with Shawn Letchford, co-owner and chef of The Islands, a three-month-old Jamaican restaurant around the corner from the Botanic Garden on Washington Avenue, as she was preparing to do her outdoor demonstration in one of the interior kitchens. Apparently there had been a misunderstanding about the equipment that was to have been provided for her live demonstration, which was why she was cooking indoors while the audience waited somewhat impatiently outside. Rarely have I seen anyone so cool under fire.

Letchford chatted with me about her early love of cooking, while she turned salt cod fritters that sizzled in an enormous pan of oil.

"All of Jamaican cooking uses lots of different kinds of peppers, but the Scotch bonnets are the most popular," she said. "That’s what I’ve used in these. You can use more or less depending on your taste. If you want to eat with your mouth closed you use less."

I discovered she employed mercy when spicing the fritters, which were not too hot, but very tasty, with a light batter and a lot of onion in the filling.

My hottest encounter of the day was the chicken with Thai basil, a recipe by Prapap Kongsmai, an employee of the Botanic Garden, who does their labels and signs.

"I used to have my own restaurant in Queens, but I gave it up five years ago," he explained. "I’d love to get back into cooking for a restaurant." It was at about this juncture in our conversation that I realized my eyes were tearing up in reaction to my first bite of Kongsmai’s dish. Before I knew it, my lips, tongue, mouth and throat were on fire.

"That’s the Thai peppers," Kongsmai said, grinning. "They’re very spicy, though not as spicy as the Korean."

Convinced my taste buds could handle no more, I staggered away from the food, in search of water. In the nick of time, I came upon a stand of Loco Sodas, an ingenious coming together of fruit (lime, lemon, mango and raspberry) and - of all things - freshly brewed chili peppers. It was satisfyingly light and not too sweet.

Just the ticket for a recovering chili pepper survivor.


The Islands [803 Washington Ave. between Eastern Parkway and Lincoln Place in Prospect Heights, (718) 398-3575] is open everyday from 11 am to 11 pm. Entrees: $8-$25. The Islands accepts Diners Club, American Express, Visa, Discover, Carte Blanche and MasterCard.

Loco Sodas are available at these locations: Two Boots restaurant, Second Street at Seventh Avenue; Eagle Provisions, 18th Street at Fifth Avenue; Boerum Green Market, 404 Atlantic Ave. at Bond Street; and Butta Cup Lounge, 271 Adelphi St. at DeKalb Avenue.

For more about chili peppers visit these Web sites: www.bikerbilly.com and www.pablodiablos.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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