Something special happens when you throw veggies in a smoker.
Peppers emerge richer and more complex, beets, earthier. Carrots somehow become a sweeter, bolder version of themselves. Like an Instagram filter or the mastering on a great album, these foods just become more of themselves. They show a whole new attitude.
This is what San Miguel local Jane Hian found after messing with her own smoker on an average taco night. Although she might claim that her new, fiery condiment—Gnome Sauce—is made by mischievous garden creatures—let me tell you the truth.
It's not magic; it's smoke. Well, smoke + farm fresh root veggies + a lot of playful experimentation.
This, Hian found, was exactly what every hot sauce she loved was missing.
Hian is (like me) one of those strange people who has a specific hot sauce for every kind of food and feeling: one for eggs, one for soup, one for salad greens—the list goes on forever.
For folks like us, it's not about pain, it's about adding something new to the plate.
"I'm not a hot sauce head; I'm not interested in burning my face off," she said. "It's not about really vinegary for me, either. I just really love flavor."
Hian got into hot sauce years ago, while traveling in Belize (it was a fateful bottle of Marie Sharp's that turned her to the hot side of life).
There was just something irresistible about the combo of red habanero peppers, fresh carrots, onions, key lime juice, vinegar, and garlic.
"I stuffed my suitcase coming home with all this hot sauce, and I found it was the one hot sauce I could use on literally everything," she said. "Later, I got more into complexity of flavors and started using a certain hot sauces for certain things: tacos or spaghetti, pizza."
Of course, all that ended temporarily after the home chef threw some jalapeños in the smoker for the first time.
"I thought, 'I'll make a little hot sauce for these tacos.' The jalapeños came out all black and beautiful. It was a super basic sauce. I don't really even really remember what I put in there," Hain said. "It was a delicious flavor, but I knew it needed more."
She resolved to find out what.
Hian was pretty much obsessed with creating the perfect smoky hot sauce made to be shaken on everything. Certain elements became clear to her: the tang of apple cider vinegar added oomph. The fresh acid of lime juice couldn't be denied. The bite of pasilla peppers inspired her tastebuds to do backflips. She thought back to her fave—Marie Sharp's.
Why was it so mesmerizing?
"I realized the one thing I loved about that first hot sauce—and the one common thread on every hot sauce I ate—was carrots. This is what led to me making a smoked root vegetable hot sauce," she said.
This was a major turning point and what led Hian to scour local farmer's markets for the freshest veg around.
The ingredients listed on her debut bottle include smoked jalapeño and Anaheim peppers, dried ancho chilies, lime juice, cilantro, salt, onion, garlic, and tomato, as well as carrots and beets, which add a unique and earthy depth of flavor.
The sauce is thick and viscous, dribbling out of the bottle in satisfying blobs (I like a dab on fried eggs, chicken tacos, charred potatoes, and even buttered green beans).
The true-to-life smoke flavor shows no trace of weird chemical "liquid smoke" attributes, like you might find in some cheap barbecue sauces. It's not super spicy, but it's got kick to spare.
In a nutshell: It is Hian's dream hot sauce, finally realized.
"At first it wasn't smoky enough, so we actually just threw all the vegetables in the smoker. We made it for friends and everyone was loving it," she said. "I started the business about seven months ago and it's been incredible. This community has been so, so supportive."
You can find Gnome Sauce mostly north of the grade, including wineries, markets, cheese shops, and boutiques (check her website for all the locales). I suspect the reddish-brown condiment will sneak its way south in 2018. Note: True heat seekers will be glad to know that Hian is also working on what she calls a "true, burn-your-face-off" flavor, out next month. That said, it will never top the first. The original.
As it turns out, you only need one really good flavor (and one really specific dream) to push a business forward.
The hot sauce maker produces about 16, 12-bottle cases per week, and they usually all sell out.
Yes, there have been mishaps, where hot pepper sauce has found its way onto skin and eyes: Yes, Hian's husband has revolted against giving away the free labor necessary to fill each glass bottle by hand.
Yes, it's difficult to source all of the ingredients locally and seek out the freshest, most choice peppers, cilantro, et al. But—if you ask a true lover of hot sauce like Hian—it's really no big deal.
"It's been a process and a journey, but this is the hot sauce I love to eat on everything," she said. "It's crazy, but I believe in the product and the feedback I'm getting is incredible. I feel like it's at the edge of blowing up."
Blow up her feed. You can find Gnome Sauce on Instagram @gnomehotsauce and purchase bottles at a range of businesses across the Central Coast, including Spice of Life in Paso Robles and Mission Market in San Miguel. For more information on Gnome Sauce, including all available locations, go to gnomehotsauce.com or visit the business on Facebook.