Seasonal Pantry: Why we love crushed red pepper

  • Spices including crushed red pepper are used to cure pork loin. Photo taken at Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg, California on Thursday, January 27, 2011. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

What, exactly, is crushed red pepper? Large-holed shakers of it are ubiquitous in Italian restaurants and pizza parlors and it is as common as salt and pepper, or nearly so, in recipes, including my own. When you order a take-out pizza, it comes with two tiny plastic containers, one filled with grated Parmesan cheese, the other with crushed red pepper.

But what is it, exactly, and why is it so popular?

Some form of dried and crushed hot chile is found the world around, even in England, where much of the traditional foods are rather bland. But England's second national cuisine, that of India, is everywhere and where there's Indian food, there's heat, including in the form of crushed chiles.

Crushed red pepper is not pepper in the scientific sense, which is to say it is not part of the Piperaceae family that gives us black, white and green peppercorns, all of which come from the same flowering vine. The differences are based on time of harvest and manner of processing.

Crushed red pepper comes from chiles of the large genus Capsicum, part of the nightshade or Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, eggplant, deadly nightshade (a poisonous plant with pretty blue blossoms), nicotiana, tobacco and hundreds of other plants.

But it is capsicums that interest me now.

The heat of capsicum is mildly addictive, which is to say that the more we eat it, the more we crave, as our tolerance of the heat increases fairly quickly. Our bodies release endorphins when confronted with the "danger" the heat triggers and endorphins make us feel good. So as our body adapts, we need more to get that flush of good feeling. It's that simple.

There is a secondary benefit to becoming acclimatized to the heat. Once we no longer feel the pain of novice tasters, we appreciate the range of delightful flavors that chiles possess.

The best crushed red pepper is made from a selection of dried chiles so that there is a depth and range of flavor. In most cases, the entire chile, including seeds and interior veins, are used. If you are used to the common restaurant version or one from a major spice producer, you are in for a pleasant surprise when you try crushed red pepper from smaller producers.

My appreciation soared when I received a jar of Mammarella Crushed Red Pepper, produced by Francis Coppola, in the mail. I happened to be making a very simple pasta dish when the package arrived and so I opened the jar and added a few shakes to my spaghettini, which was already cloaked in olive oil and seasoned with grated nutmeg and freshly ground black pepper. The new addition made the flavors soar and when I finished my lunch, I reached into my spice cabinet, extracted my old jars of crushed red pepper, put the contents into the compost and recycled the jars.

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