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)

Seasonal Pantry: Why we love crushed red pepper

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.

Mammarella brand has remained my favorite since that time but recently I tasted Local Spicery's "Bistro Blend," a combination of four varieties, including jalape?. That jalape? adds a dimension that I love in certain dishes, as it contributes what I call a green flourish. It's particularly delicious with queso fundido, a recipe for which follows here.

This was not the first time my path crossed with Coppola and crushed peppers. In the mid 1990s, I fixed dinner for a small group at Congressman Mike Thompson's home in St. Helena. Eleanor and Francis Coppola were the special guests and I prepared an old Sicilian recipe, Gudene, that I'd gotten from a friend whose mother grew up in Sicily. The first and second courses went off without a hitch but when I presented the main course, which consisted of stuffed, rolled and sliced pig skin, flat meatballs, Italian sausage, slow-cooked tomato sauce and spaghetti, Francis looked around and then leaned close and whispered, "Do you think we could have some crushed red pepper?"

I blush whenever I think of it and even more so after reading the back of the label on his brand, where he tells a story from his childhood.

If his father, Carmine, asked "Who set the table?" everyone knew what he meant. The crushed red pepper had been forgotten, a tradition that continues today in Coppola's home.

If I've piqued your interest, here's what I recommend. If you find yourself at Coppola Winery, snag a jar of Mammarella Crushed Red Pepper Flakes ($7.99, 2.3 ounces). If you see Local Spicery at a farmers market — they attend several — ask to sample the Bistro Mix and if you like it, take some home. Alternately, you can visit their website at localspicery.com.

You might also stop by the Savory Spice Shop (317 D St., Santa Rosa) and give theirs a try, too. They have a classic blend, along with dried jalape?, crushed Aleppo flakes and crushed Urfa chiles, which have a smoky flourish.


This dish is rich, indulgent and irresistibly delicious, unless you dislike cheese. It is also highly adaptable to what you have on hand. If you have scallions, for example, but no cilantro, slice them into thin rounds and use them. The main point is, as the title implies, to have some delicious fun.

Summer Queso Fundido

Makes 3 to 4 servings

8 ounces, Joe Matos St. George cheese, grated

6 ounces Vella High Hoisture Monterey Jack or similar cheese, grated

4 ounces queso cotija, crumbled

3 fresh garlic cloves, minced

1 serrano, minced

1 teaspoon crushed pepper flakes, preferably Local Spicery Bistro Blend, plus more for the table

1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder or ground serrano

3/4 cup quartered cherry tomatoes

1 firm-ripe avocado, cut into small cubes

— Kosher salt

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

12 small corn tortillas, hot

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.

Put the cheeses into a medium bowl, add the garlic, serrano, crushed pepper and chipotle powder or ground serrano and use to forks to toss gently.

Tip the mixture into an ovenproof earthenware dish and set on the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the mixture is hot and bubbly.

While the cheese is in the oven, put the tomatoes and avocado into a small bowl, season with salt and a couple of shakes of the red pepper flakes, taste and correct for salt.

When the cheese is fully melted, transfer it to the table, being sure to add a pot holder or towel underneath it for protection. Spoon the tomato mixture on top and scatter with cilantro leaves.

Enjoy immediately, slathered onto hot tortillas and another shake or two of the crushed pepper.


When poblanos come into season sometime in July, roast, seed, peel and julienne 3 or 4 and scatter them on top of the cheese after it has been cooking for about 12 minutes.

After removing the queso from the oven, top it with slow-cooked pork, carne asada or cooked and crumbled chorizo.

After the cheese has been in the oven for 12 minutes, top it with 3 or 4 eggs, breaking them carefully so that they do not end up on top of each other. Return to the oven and cook until the eggs are set up but the yolks still liquid; offer the tomato and avocado mixture on the side.

Serve as an appetizer with your favorite tortilla chips instead of corn tortillas.

Michele Anna Jordan has written 17 books to date, including "Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings." You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. Email Jordan at michele@saladdresser.com.

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