I could have sworn I saw Peter Piper last week, purchasing his peck of peppers to pickle at the Tuesday afternoon Culver City Farmers Market. I’ve never pickled a pepper, let along a peck of them, but they were absolutely beautiful and so alluring. I brought home enough to give Peter Piper a run for his money. Unlike Peter, I had no intention of pickling my peppers. There are so many other ways to enjoy them.
New to the market this year: Padron peppers. These Spanish delicacies were going fast at the Finley Organic stand. At $6 a pound, they may seem a little pricy to the uninitiated, even for organic produce. However, bringing these tender beauties to market is quite labor-intensive. Padrons are picked while still small, immature, and mild. This requires frequent and painstaking work in the field. Larger Padron peppers develop a spicy kick. Once in a while, even a small one might deliver more of a punch than expected. Larger Padrons can still be used in cooking, but the quintessential roasted Patron tapas require peppers under two inches long.
Peppers started peeping out of my shopping bag as I progressed along Main Street. Tiny red and green Thai “bird” chili peppers at the Hmong stand near Venice Blvd. A rainbow of bell peppers at Underwood Farms ranging from the palest yellow to a deep purple. I even ran across elongated, thin peppers – both red and green — which curved inward like a large “C.” Of course, there were plenty of Jalapenos, Anaheims, Poblanos, and the like.
I paused for a while, admiring the sinuous shapes and dramatic color contrasts of the long, skinny, and curved peppers. An employee was busily replenishing produce in an adjacent area. Noticing that I was still standing there, he turned to me. “They’re Italian, he explained. “Very good. Not hot.” He had me at “Italian.” I can do heat, but I’m always eager to try new tastes. Grilled peppers and onions with a sweet Italian sausage. With these beatiful peppers? Yum. “Very good” was icing on the cake. I bought some. At home, I perused the internet trying to find a little more about these “not hot” beauties. The closest match I could find was the heirloom pepper Corni di Toro. That’s Italian for bull’s horn, an earthy description of the peppers’ characteristic curves. The peppers I was admiring were curved at both ends, though, so I’m not entirely sure they were a perfect match. When we branch out from supermarket standards, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with possibilites. For example, Jeff’s Garden of Eaton in Willamete Valley lists eight pages of sweet pepper varieties and a mind-bending fourteen pages of hot pepper varieties. And these are just the ones he chose to grow in 2011, not all the varieties available.
Farmers market shoppers benefit from this diversity. It seems perfectly natural to us to have sweet red Hungarian paprika peppers, spicy Thai peppers and Italian frying peppers for sale along with the very familiar red and green bells and their increasingly common yellow, orange and purple cousins. What would Eastern European cuisine be without stuffed peppers? Can you imagine ratattouie without those green bell slices?
A lot has changed over the last 600 years, including the introduction of New World produce into Old World cooking. Archeologists believe that a variety of bell pepper was in cultivation in the Oaxaca and Pueblo regions of Mexico as far back as 3000 B.C. In fact, the Mexican word for these plants, chile, is derived from their similar-sounding name in ancient Nahuatl.
Prior to the Age of Exploration, Europeans were unfamiliar with peppers as produce. Scientifically, the ones we love to eat are in the capsicum genus of the solanaceae (nightshade) family. Like potatoes and corn, they were brought across the Atlantic by early explorers and traders. Our black, white and green peppercorns, in contrast, come from an entirely different genus (piper) of the piperaceae family.
Residents of the Atlantic coastline of Spain and Portugal were among the first Europeans to experience and grow the pepper seeds brought back from the New World. Residents of Galacia (now an autonomous region on the northwest portion of Spain) soon wholehearted incorporated tender, thin-skinned immature peppers into their local cuisine. Roasted with a little bit of olive oil and seasoned with coarse salt, the peppers were so popular in the town of Padron that they now share its name. The roasted peppers are a popular tapas dish in Spain, and are becoming a favorite here as well.
Roast your Padrons on a grill or on the stove top in a heavy cast iron pan or skillet. If you’re using a grill, you’ll want to use skewers and an oil mister. Skewer your Padrons. Give each a little room, because you want to ensure all areas are exposed to the heat. Mist lightly with olive oil. If you don’t have a mister, you can drizzle olive oil on them while holding the skewers over a bowl (which catches the drips). Place the skewers on a hot grill. When the peppers are fairly charred on one side, flip the skewer over and cook the other side until it chars. Remove from the grill, sprinkle with coarse salt, and serve while hot.
The stove top method works just as well. It’s best to work with a handful of peppers at a time. You don’t want them touching each other. Leave plenty of space so that the chances of evaporating liquid steaming them is minimized. Again, lightly mist with olive oil or drizzle a small amount into the pan and distribute evenly. It’s not essential that the Padrons be charred all over. Aficiandos perfer a little variety in each bite. But please use a coase salt, not regular table salt, to season them after they are grilled. You’ll miss out on the authentic tapas experience.
The tradition of tapas, or small plates, is thought to have originated from the practice of putting a piece of bread over the top of a glass to prevent flies from sharing the drink. If you prefer wine, roasted Padrons go better with white than red. They also go well with beer. But if you end up with a pepper which is hotter than you expected (and that does happen on occasion despite careful harvesting), don’t drink alcohol or water to quench the fire in your mouth. They’ll only intensify the heat. Milk is the soothing beverage of choice.
The downtown Culver City Farmers Market is held each Tuesday from 2 pm to 7 pm on Main Street between Venice and Culver Blvds. The Culver South market is held on Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the northeast corner of the Westfield Culver City parking lot, at the corner of Hannum and Slauson.
Katie Malich generally roasts her peppers on the stove top. If you’re not grilling for a crowd, there’s less fuss, less mess, and less waiting for the proper temperature.