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In Season: Peppers perk up the kitchen

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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.

Shishito peppers

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.

Jimmy Nardello pepper

Giuseppe and Angella Nardiello grew these peppers in their garden in Ruoti, a village in the Basilicata region of southern Italy that forms the instep of the Italian boot. In 1887, they pulled up stakes and sailed for Naugatuck, Conn., bringing their favored pepper with them. They eventually named the pepper for their fourth son, Jimmy, whose surname has been anglicized (slightly) to Nardello.

This pepper is a wonder. It has thin walls that turn red when ripe, and although classed as a frying pepper, it’s great chopped raw for salads. It has such a lovely, sweet flavor that Slow Food has placed it in its “Ark of Taste.” Just in time, too, because it almost went extinct in 2005.

The mildly herbaceous flavor of the raw pepper softens and becomes rich and smooth when fried. When sliced lengthwise and dried, the sweet slices are like vegetable jerky.

And Jimmy Nardello really pumps out the peppers on its 2-foot-tall plants. I have six of them in my garden now, and there must be 100 or more 6- to 8-inch, slender, twisty-curly peppers with many more on the way. To store them, just toss them raw into a gallon freezer bag and freeze for winter sauces, soups, stews and such.

Street Sausage Sandwich
Makes 2 sandwiches

2 mild Italian pork sausages (or spicy, if you prefer)
1 medium onion, sliced
4 ripe Jimmy Nardello peppers, de-stemmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 sweet French rolls, partially sliced lengthwise
1/2 cup chili sauce

Boil the sausages for about five minutes, then drain and roast in an oiled skillet on the stove top or in a 350 F. oven until browned on both sides, about 20 minutes.

Peel and slice the onion crosswise into rounds, then slice the rounds in half. De-stem and chop the peppers.

Heat a skillet over medium heat, then add olive oil, onions and peppers. Toss frequently to coat and cook, about 8-10 minutes.

Place one sausage in each roll with half the onions and peppers, then spoon 1/4 cup chili sauce on each one.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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