In Season: Peppers perk up the kitchen
Time and summer’s heat transform mild green peppers into richly flavored, sweet and crunchy vegetables that can lift many dishes from the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Now the hot sun colors up the pepper’s skin, the wide-spreading roots pump water to the fruits and thicken their walls, and the green leaves madly make sugar to sweeten their flesh.
And so splendid, prolific August is the time to look for specialty peppers in the farmers markets, for it would be a shame to stop with bell peppers, or fiery jalapeños and serranos, or even the marvelously fragrant and dangerously hot habaneros that are in the stores year-round these days.
Three specialty peppers to especially keep an eye out for are the Spanish Padron, the Japanese shishito and the Jimmy Nardello, a pepper whose name sounds like a kid you knew in third grade. I’ve seen Padrons at Whole Foods and Oliver’s and have been told shishitos will arrive soon, while Jimmy Nardellos are turning red for their mid-August appearance at local farmers markets.
Pimientos de Padron
Franciscan monks returning to Spain from Mexico in the 16th century brought pepper seeds with them. Over the centuries, those plants adapted to the maritime climate of far northwest Spain and became the Padron pepper that’s now the indigenous pepper of the Galicia region. But it’s no longer grown only in Galicia. It has returned to Mexico and is grown in Morocco and the United States.
The peppers are small, stubby cones, bright green when young and turning a yellowish green when ripe. The flavor is rich, nutty and earthy, and the heat level is usually mild. One has to say “usually” because about one pepper out of 10 comes packing heat — about as much as a jalapeño. The saying in Galicia is, “Os pementos de Padron, uns pican e outros non,” (Padron peppers: some are hot, some are not).
Padrons are a low-calorie food with goodly amounts of vitamins A, B1, B2 and C, plus calcium and iron.
They are a popular tapas throughout Spain. Spaniards fry them quickly in hot olive oil until they soften and begin to blister, flick a pinch of coarse sea salt over them and serve them. Takes about five minutes, and if someone gets one of the hot peppers, everyone laughs.
The shishito pepper is probably descended from Padrons brought to Asia by European traders. It found a home in Japan, and due to the Japanese distaste for fiery food, was selected for sweetness rather than heat. It’s more slender and wrinkly than Padrons and is the size of a finger. Like Padrons, about one in 10 or 20 shishito peppers will prove hot, but nowhere near as spicy as a Padron hotty. It has the same nutritional value as the Padron. Besides Whole Foods, you might find shishitos at Trader Joe’s. Or to find any of these peppers in the weeks to come, visit Local Harvest at localharvest.org/santa-rosa-ca.
Shishitos are sweet, grassy and citrusy, and have a slightly smoky flavor. The Japanese poke a hole in the pepper before cooking so the expanding hot air inside doesn’t burst the thin walls. They often chop it raw for salads, use it in tempura and grill or fry it the way the Spanish treat Padrons.