Monday, September 29, 2008

In Praise of Peppers

There are some ingredients that, like some great actors, only seem to get supporting roles. Even though they may shine and elevate the quality of the end product, they're rarely the star of the show. One such ingredient that never seems to be in the limelight is the humble pepper. There are several varieties, and chili's in particular have become popular in recent years, but in general, if it's not bringing the heat, it's probably not getting much attention. Sure, we all like to toss a few sweet bell peppers into an omelet or a scramble, not to mention the occasional pasta dish or with some sausages, but when was the last time you brought peppers to the forefront of a meal?

I too am guilty of repeatedly casting peppers, only to have them play second fiddle to a seemingly sexier and more appealing star ingredient. But, from time to time I see the error of my ways and carve out just the right part for just the right pepper. A recent weekday trip to the farmer's market was an eye opening moment for me, where in the middle of a stall I'd never visited were a few crates of Japanese peppers I'd never heard of. Even better, one of the women running the stand was cooking up samples for passersby. I immediately noticed that what she was making looked an awful lot like Spanish pimientos de Padrón. Assuming from their size and shape that these peppers would also have some degree of heat, I inquired as to how hot they were. The woman behind the hot plate turned and informed me that the shishito peppers she was making were not spicy in the least. Since the last batch of pimientos de Padrón that I purchased were not only scorchers but a bit steep in the price department, I jumped at the chance to eat a plateful of mild peppers for under 2 dollars. After some research I learned that shishitos are already quite popular on the west coast, particularly in California, and can often be found there in tempuras, stir fry, and are even served as an appetizer.

I'd been told by the same woman at the market that the peppers were to be prepared simply, and it turns out, exactly the way I make my Spanish peppers. Less than five minutes in a non-stick skillet with a drizzle of very hot, light olive oil is all it takes to make these wonderful peppers truly delicious. The skin blackens and blisters as the pepper's natural sweetness helps it caramelize from the high heat. Cooking them can be a messy sport and a symphony of crackles and pops as the skin slowly breaks down and the peppers begin to deflate. Once they're blacked and soft, but before they lose their naturally plump shape it's time to take them off the heat and sprinkle with a generous pinch of coarse sea salt. I had a plateful as a light lunch with some toast (to sop up what little salty, pepper infused oil was left in the pan), but it would make an excellent side dish to a steak or a sandwich. Making them couldn't be simpler or faster, just watch out for rogue oil droplets that tend to make their way to the closest bare arm.

Pan Fried Shishito Peppers

Heat a non-stick skillet until very hot but not smoking. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil (not extra virgin) then carefully add peppers. Cook peppers on medium-high heat until peppers are blistered on all sides, about 4-5 minutes total. Remove from heat and sprinkle with a generous pinch of coarse sea salt. Enjoy!


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