The Fat of the Land

Month: August, 2015

Like Pepper for Pepper

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Most people who went to grade school in the United States know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. As I remember it, he was hired by the king of Spain to sail farther west than anyone before him had (anyone, that is, on 15th Century Europe’s radar) and to settle, once and for all, the age-old argument over whether the earth was round or flat. In third grade, that logic was good enough for me. And, becoming something of a Columbus Day protestor in my teenage years (after my brother read a book called, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that detailed all the atrocities Columbus unleashed upon the New World), I put the whole story on the back shelf.

Years later, I picked up a library book about the spice trade (Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner), where I promptly learned that Columbus headed west not to solve some existential puzzle, but for the very practical reason of securing a more direct trade route to import black pepper from India. He did it for two reasons that sound jarringly familiar to our contemporary minds: money and ego.

Pepper, that uber-ordinary seasoning we take completely for granted, was as precious as gold in Columbus’ day—a sign of wealth, a highly valued commodity in very short supply, a craze. Men lost their lives fetching pepper, and everyone thought it was worth it. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Silk Road became too dangerous for commerce, so the Portuguese (who monopolized the spice trade at the time) took to the sea, rounding the horn of Africa in order to reach the pepper-producing coast of southern India. Spain, with Columbus’ help, was looking to outdo their northern rival by finding a shortcut.

When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he thought it was (or close enough to) the East Indies. And when, in keeping with his plan, he looked for black pepper, he came upon chiles. Of those arresting fruits he and his fellow explorers found in such profusion, one crewmember wrote: “In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes, which make fruit as long as cinnamon, full of small grains as biting as [Asian] pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit like we eat apples.”

Our modern palates separate the two peppers by a wide margin—black pepper is floral, pleasantly bitter, stinging the tongue with a quick zing only when eaten in excess; chile peppers are fruity, acidic, sour, often sweet, with a sensation we call heat that ranges from a mild tingle to something akin to the mind-altering hammer of a white-hot brand. Europeans had trouble with chiles (and still do), though hot peppers found a home at the margins—Eastern Europe’s paprika, Southern Europe’s spicy sauces and cured meats.

Where it’s hard to imagine that chile peppers were only introduced a mere 500 years ago is nearly everyplace else: Korea, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, China, and Senegal, to name a few famously spicy Diasporas. These cultures quickly adopted the chile pepper as their own, exploring its wealth of genetic traits and producing a mind-boggling collection of new varieties (one that continues to grow today). At a recent count, there were 79 distinct varieties passing under the umbrella of “Thai pepper,” a barometer that helps to translate the enormity of chile pepper diversity.

Then, of course, there is Mexico—the chile’s homeland and where its role in the cuisine is still, arguably, the most refined. Believed to be one of the first domesticated plants, chiles, along with corn and squash, constituted a mainstay of the Central American diet. From my own quasi-European perspective (averse, I hesitate to admit, to all but modest chili pepper heat), I’ve never thought of chiles as more than a seasoning. Like the black pepper they are named for, chiles unquestionably add dimension to a dish, but not substance, not weight. I did try to make myself more tolerant of them once, devoting an entire summer to cooking progressively spicier dishes until the persistent heartburn and other unpleasant side effects forced me to admit defeat. But even then, they were an addition, an adornment, a very small percentage of a dish’s overall volume; not at all, as that Spanish sailor reported, like apples.

But he (and the sophisticated cuisine he observed) was right. The first time I fully appreciated chiles in their own rite was when I watched friends make red mole from scratch. The pile of dried chiles and their seeds—toasted separately and ground together with water, warming spices, and nuts; thickened by hours of stirring and simmering; and at the very end, finished with dark chocolate—was, to my eyes, overwhelming. While the process was beautiful and ritualistic, I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to eat the results. But the sauce, only mildly spicy, exuded a graceful, effortless richness that compelled me to keep spooning it into my mouth, that fed both my simple, daily hunger and the one that no apple has ever quite quenched: the hunger for enchantment, for transformation, for food that drops an anchor and lingers, warmly, long after the meal is finished.

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Tales from the Sweet Pepper Patch

Jimmy Nardello

Say the word pepper and one of two things likely comes to mind: the table shaker filled with black and gray dust, and the flamingly red and famously spicy crop we either crave or avoid, depending on our culinary disposition. Thirdly, some of our minds may drift to that molar of a fruit, glossy and green as spring grass: the bell pepper. In a typical North American produce aisle, it (and its yellow, orange, red, and purple siblings) is the sole pepper not relegated to the ‘ethnic’ produce section and the only one I tasted until a shamefully late age.

I grew up in the Germanic and Scandinavian influenced cuisine of the upper Midwest, but that is not an entirely sufficient explanation. Peppers, imported to Europe from the Caribbean and Central America by Columbus and his successors, spread widely through the well-established trade routes of the time, each culinary tradition choosing what they liked from the pepper’s plentiful genetic archive. Though northern Europeans are certainly not known for their peppers, they ate them, more often as dried powders (paprika) or as immature (green or yellow) fruits.

I blame my pepper ignorance on my own singular obsession with the green bell—something of an anomaly in the pepper world, their mild, watery profile and crisp texture yield easily to bolder flavors. I used them often as a budding young cook in the few recipes I’d successfully mastered. It took a lot of practice to build the confidence needed to branch out, and until then I had no reference point for the nuance and diversity of pepper flavor, no clue at all as to what I was missing.

The first pepper that really stumped me was the Jimmy Nardello. It turned everything I thought I knew about peppers inside out, hung it to dry under an unfamiliar and illuminating sun. These skinny things, bright and lustrous red, looked like a sleeve of capsicum fire. “They’re not hot,” I was told, but my eyes, after years of dedicated chili pepper avoidance, refused to believe it. I cooked a few up, alone in the frying pan as I was instructed. Their thin walls softened quickly, their delicate skin blistered into oil-crisped bubbles, their sizzle unleashed soft, cherry-scented steam.

They were not hot. What spice they had was the citrusy kind, pinching their expansive flavor with compassionate sharpness. The rest was full-throated, candy sweetness and a quality of fruit deeper and darker than the best tomato. That enlightened moment led to many other fried Jimmies, to pickled Jimmies (my favorite), to roasted and grilled Jimmies. My freezer always has a bag of sliced raw Jimmies to add to off-season sauces and stews.

Jimmy Nardello himself would also dry his family’s now famous pepper, strung and hung in the shed for winter the way his mother, Angela Nardiello, likely taught him. Inheritor of her family’s slender red frying pepper, she brought its seeds with her when she immigrated from the southern Italian town of Ruoti to the United States in 1887. Jimmy was her fourth son and the one, if legend holds true, that was most interested in gardening. He kept the family pepper alive until he died in 1983.

Lucky for us, Jimmy shared his beloved peppers with the newly founded Seed Savers Exchange not long before his death. In the subsequent thirty-two years, they’ve become something of a cult sensation—seducing gardeners, small-scale growers, and in-the-know home cooks and chefs with their alluring set of traits. As easy and productive in the garden as they are quick and straightforward to prepare, I was not the first to be swayed by a single bite.

I have made other discoveries since then. Red bell peppers, with their diluted sweetness and juicy flesh, have nothing on the pimiento. A pepper type usually associated with Spain or the Southeastern United States, these plump, round fruits (also called cherry peppers) have unusually thick walls for their size, their flavor a mix of Jimmy Nardello richness and caramelized sugar. Though they are traditionally dried and ground into sweet (or smoked) paprika, they are one of my favorite peppers to eat raw.

Then there are the roasting peppers, Italian in origin (going by the name Marconi), perfected most recently by Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed, with bold names like ‘Stocky Red Rooster,’ or ‘Gatherer’s Gold.’ Bred for oven and fire roasting, they peel with relative ease, leaving behind meaty strips of tender, delicious flesh. Northern gardeners appreciate their ability to ripen in quantity despite a climate that is not always accommodating to this tropical native.

My favorite pepper color is now red, though the realm of the sweet pepper is host to many flavorful greens. Shishito, small frying peppers with undulating walls are best sautéed whole with oil and salt, and make a delicious drinking snack. Yellow wax peppers (also called banana peppers)—looking like a pale yellow, bulked up Jimmy Nardello—are tangy and bright, good raw or cooked, though if you’re expecting something mild, don’t confuse them with their spicier look-alikes, Hungarian Wax or Pepperoncini.

I was a toddler when Jimmy Nardello died, but I get to smell his kitchen each time I fry up a batch of the slender, transcendent peppers that bear his name. I still cook green bells when a favorite recipe calls for them, though I find myself delighted more often by the more particular pepper personalities, the ones that shine like a badge of someone else’s devotion and perseverance. Through flavors we can travel, and in this endeavor, the pepper—hot or sweet—is a vehicle so precise it can deliver us (whether we know it or not) to one family’s garden, terraced more than a hundred years ago at the ankle of Italy’s boot.