Piquillos / Red and Yellow
The aphorism that appearances can be deceptive does not apply just to people, but is equally descriptive of peppers. Yes, peppers, those brightly colored, glossy, plump vegetables belonging to the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. While botanically a fruit, the pepper is one of those foods that are considered culinarily a vegetable.
Botanically, peppers are a species of the genus “capisicum” a part of bell type peppers, a second cousin to the tomato and potato. The pepper belongs to the solanaceae family. To this day, then, in English/Spanish, the word for pepper as a spice/vegetable is the same, distinguished in Spanish only by a change of vowel: pimienta for black pepper, and pimiento for all vegetables of the capisicum family.
The subject of peppers may seem at first a simple, rather unexciting one. But take another look and you will see that this tasty vegetable is fascinating because peppers come in so many shapes, sizes, colors and degrees of sweetness or pungency. They are economical, available, year-around, do well when canned, and have a long refrigerated life. People love their mouse-feel, and taste their vibrant color enough a dish/presentation.
A pepper is just a pepper – right? Wrong. There are hundreds of Capsicum types the world over. Some are hot, some are not. Some are made for drying, other to be ground into pimenton (a type of paprika from Spain), and others are grown specially to be eaten fresh. They are so ubiquitous that, like the tomato, they are easy to take for granted; however, without them, the world would certainly be a poorer place. In the kitchen, peppers are happy either to take center stage or to blend discreetly into the background.
Green peppers in an essensial element of cold soups like gazpacho (cold vegetable soup), as well as summer recipes like trempo (tomato, onion, and pepper salad). Classic summer vegetable dishes like pisto (vegetable stew with eggplant, tomato, and onion), and tumbet (over-baked layers of potato, eggplant, and pepper) would be literally unthinkable without peppers, green and red. Stuffed peppers, with a filling of ground beef, pork, and ham, morcilla (blood sausage), salt, cod, mixed shellfish and/or rice, are a staple of culinary life.
The genus Capsicum belongs to the family Solanaceae, which also includes the potato, eggplant, tomato, and deadly nightshade (belladonna). Of the five cultivated species of Capsicum, that which encompasses by far the widest number of varieties is Capsicum annuum. Under the umbrella of annuum, we find modst of the peppers cultivated on a worldwide scale, from Mexico to Italy, Peru to Spain. Instead of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, the explorers brought back many native American plant species, including corn, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, meanwhile changing the name from “chili”, as the peppers were known in Americas, to “pimiento”, as it has since become known in Spain. It is believed that sweet peppers are natives of Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru, and probably native to the Olmec Indians. Today, China is the largest producer of peppers (54%).
Peppers are always green to begin with, but as they ripen most of them change color to red, yellow, orange, or even purple and brown. Their flavor ranges dramatically from sweet and mild, to hot and spicy. They have an unmistakable aroma, which is so unique that descriptions of other, unrelated foods and beverages often refer to a “green pepper” smell as part of their vocabulary. For example, it is often said that certain red wines have a “green pepper” aroma!
Peppers require plenty of light, and higher temperatures and relative humidity than tomatoes. Once ripe, harvesting is done manually every 7-12 days. This is a crop that has to be treated with care, so the main cost is labor (56%), followed by the purchase of the seeds, and seedbeds (10%). Our Peruvian/Turkish peppers are grown using sustainable agriculture, using the minimum of chemicals. We favor crop rotation to rid disease cycles, and improve soil health. Weeds are controlled through natural methods, thus the large portion of labor in the cost. We improve organic soil matter by covering the crops, and using earthworms. We time the use of nitrogen to avoid water contamination, and eliminated the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. We import only GMO-free product. Seeds are bought only from certified GMO-free seed growers in France, Spain, and/or the U.S.
The large, stout, green, red or yellow peppers typically grow to 2 to 4 inches wide and 3 to 6 inches long. They are can be square, rectangular, or triangular in shape with a thick wall and interior ribs. In Spanish cuisine, these sturdy vegetables are usually roasted or baked, and are often stuffed. Bell peppers that are fully-ripened are red, yellow or orange, with a sweet and mild flavor. The larger ones are the sweetest. Peppers may be prepared in many ways, often baked, or sliced and fried. They are also frequently roasted, peeled and canned in either oil or their own juices. When prepared in this method, they are called morrón in Spanish, or in English, pimento.
Despite the attention that chili peppers have received in recent years, sweet bell peppers have remained a culinary staple. What is new is the general shift from green to red as the ripe red variety became more widely available year round. They are economical. They mix well with our balsamic, capers, kalamatas, and olive oil, and add color. You should look for color that is deep and uniform.
Sweet peppers, most often bell peppers, are a frequent player on the dinner plate, often without fanfare. Though they are not necessarily trendy, they are often useful, adding a riot of color and a sleek touch of dulcet flavor that is subtler than fruit. When used raw, they offer texture. Roasted, their personality changes to sultry, smoky and exceptionally rich. Because they have less moisture than some other ingredients, like tomatoes, they do not add unwanted liquid to the pan as they cook. Indeed, the juices they exude have an almost oily richness. Though local suppliers can provide them at reasonable prices in the summer season, they are a reliable, year-round asset, often shipped from Holland.
The category of bell peppers starts with green, which is what they all are before being allowed to ripen fully. Green peppers have their place in some dishes, including Chinese stir-frys, Italian dishes with sausages and onions, and antipasto platters. Yet their flavor is more vegetal and aggressive, and less sweet than ripe yellow, orange, red or purple peppers.
Roasted peppers have been around for ages in cuisines from Italian and Greek to Latin American and Arabic. All pepper varieties take to roasting, and the application determines the type of pepper used. Roasted, spicy-hot varieties, such as habanero, jalapeño and hot banana, are used sparingly in dishes. When ground and mixed with olive oil and other spices and ingredients, like coriander, garlic or nuts, the resulting flavor-packed paste adds a hint of heat and richness to various applications.
Roasted sweet peppers, such as red, yellow orange or green bell peppers, are used in side dishes, main entrées, small-plate offerings or appetizers. Roasted sweet peppers are typically kept in sizes that retain piece identity, although they are sometimes puréed for use in soups and sauces.
Roasting peppers is not a complicated process, but it is time consuming. There are many methods of roasting peppers. The most traditional is holding over a flame or charcoal on a grill and rotating to roast all sides. Peppers roasted over wood will impart an even smokier flavor accented with the flavor of the wood, whether pecan, hickory or mesquite. Peppers can also be roasted in ovens on sheet pans or in a broiler or salamander.
The best peppers for roasting are thick-fleshed and free of bruises, dents or blemishes. They should be kept whole for roasting, and not pierced during the process. The flavorful volatile oils and other liquid inside is the source of much of roasted peppers’ flavor.
Roasted peppers shouldn’t be indistinguishable charred remnants of their former selves. They should be charred, brown and blistered on all sides. When cooked, the skin will begin to pull away from the flesh. Once thoroughly roasted, the skin is removed. Roasted-pepper ingredients should arrive free of all skin so as not to impart an off flavor or texture. Once peeled and seeded, the peppers are not rinsed to avoid washing away some of the carefully developed flavor.
Roasted peppers are available commercially packed in olive oil or water, flavored with garlic and other ingredients, dehydrated, or individually quick frozen (IQF). They can be found in many forms: whole, pieces, slices, various dices, purées and pastes.
Roasted peppers add a depth to dishes when used as an ingredient, and on their own add color and variety to antipasto and other meal options.
There are techniques for taming or balancing the sweetness of the peppers. At Bluestem in Kansas City, Mo., they are cooked with some vinegar to make a sweet-and-sour agrodolce garnish for Berkshire pork with spring onions, black mission figs and chorizo oil.
Sweet peppers, especially red ones, can bolster a sauce, or even become one. At the Green Kitchen, in New York, sweet-corn fritters are served over a red-pepper puree, with sharp, aged cheddar cheese. Greeen Kitchen also offers a steak sandwich laden with caramelized onions, roasted sweet peppers, and an herbed mayonnaise. Similarly, at the Rat Pack Café in Framingham, Mass., a lunchtime steak and cheese sandwich made with grilled tenderloin of beef and fontina cheese also depends on peppers, onions, and mushrooms.
A hanger steak sandwich is layered with peppers and onions on garlic-Romano bread at One Walnut in Cleeveland. A pressed sandwich, on the tapas list at Rio Mar in New Orleans, is filled with roasted sweet peppers and eggplant, and the grilled assorted seafood Romesco includes shrimp, mussels, clams, and fish with red peppers, and almonds.
The new Café Soleil in New York includes sweet peppers in a chicken salad, which also is made with artichokes, tomatoes, and cilantro. The fritto misto at Alfredo’s in New York combines calamari, shrimp, red and green peppers, and green apples in a tempura batter. Seviche in Louisville, KY., tosses pan-fried calamari with sweet peppers, onions and green and black olives. The calamari comes with cumin-lime aioli and sweet chile sauce. Also in Louisville, at the Brown Hotel, roasted sweet red peppers receive star billing in a dish of saffron fettuccine with portobello mushrooms, arugula and a garnish of pesto.
When sweet peppers take center stage, it’s often as an antipasto dish or a first course, as at the legendary Rao’s in New York and, soon, in Las Vegas, where roasted red peppers with raisins and pine nuts, can be ordered as a separate dish. Il Sole Ristorante in West Hollywood, CA., leads its list of antipasti with Il Sole Rosso, combining prosciutto, marinated eggplant, roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and olives. Among the pasta dishes is orecchiette with a ragu of sausage and red bell peppers.
Roasted red bell peppers anchor the antipasto array, green peppers are often scattered on pizza and both green and red are still sautéed with the sausage hero. As important as these peppers are in Italian preparations, bell peppers have also taken their place as a seasoning for sauces, a smoky accent, and an ingredient for a variety of pasta dishes. When used with care, the distinctive and often aggressive flavor of bell peppers can provide a bright accent to an otherwise lackluster dish.
Lately, with the popularity of Portuguese and Spanish cooking, there is a new player… roasted red piquillo peppers, more sweet than piquant. At Tintol, a spot for Portuguese tapas in New York, they come classically stuffed with bacalao. They are showing up unstuffed too, as at Lido Restaurant in Marina Del Rey, CA., where a grilled asparagus and fingerling potato salad is tossed with piquillo peppers, red onion marmalade, and shavings of manchego cheese.
Piquillo peppers are from China, Peru, or Spain. Piquillo means “small beak” and refers to the shape of these small, triangle-shaped peppers. The peppers are roasted in a fire, seeded and peeled before being bottled. The small red peppers are bitter when raw. But, when they are hand-picked, cleaned, slow-roasted over open wood fires, then seeded and hand-peeled/cut/bottled (any contact with water compromises the flavor), they acquire a flavor so complex, so rich, wonderfully smoky, and teasingly spicy-sweet (piquant), that they have become the most sought-after sweet red pepper in the culinary world.
Piquillos are bold, but subtle, and convenient. Like all peppers, they are rich in vitamins and nutrients. There is no need to select, roast, or peel them. Every pepper is uniform in shape (slender, no more than 4 inches long), color, and texture. There are no chemicals/preservatives used in the washing, roasting, or peeling process. Eaten by themselves or stuffed with meat, baby squid or cod. They go well with almost anything – fish, eggs, meat, and roast. But the pepper season is short, so you must conserve them well.
One tasty first course on the current menu comprises the peppers underneath a poached egg inside a fried potato shell with a small toasted strip of bread with Serrano ham. And El Tubal serves a filet of sole with a Piquillo pepper sauce. Brilliantly red, firm-textured yet thin and delicate, piquillos are delicious straight from the jar. They make an excellent tapa by themselves, and can be stuffed, or cooked into a stew. Piquillos were first discovered by Basque chefs in the 1970’s.
If most of the sweet peppers used for appetizers, sauces, pizzas, sandwiches, soups and garnishes around the country are red, there are some preparations that add yellow and orange peppers, especially when they are abundant in season. A newcomer is the purple pepper. At Adrienne in Manhattan, grilled salmon rolled with marinated scallops is served in a purple bell pepper sauce.
Peppers stand up well to nutritional scrutiny, as they are an excellent source of vitamins A, B1, B2, C, E, and the mineral potassium, while being very low in calories. They contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, and more vitamin C than an orange. Consumption of 100 grams of red peppers covers 85% of the vitamin A needs for an adult woman, and 68% of those of a man. They contain about 4% carbohydrates, less than 1% protein, and no fats. The popular belief that raw peppers are indigestive turns out to be the culinary version of an urban myth. Exactly the opposite is true: the properties of peppers as a foodstuff include inducing appetite and aiding digestion, while also acting as a mild disinfectant. They are little affected by acids or alkalis, so taste good in salads, and/or mixed with complex ingredients.
Fresh peppers will keep well in a refrigerator for about a week, but their vitamin content diminishes as time goes on. They are also excellent canned in their own juices or in oil, and can be kept for many months like this. Peppers keep for about a year when frozen: they should be washed, stemmed and seeded first, then sealed in an airtight container.
Flame roasting bell peppers gives them a new and unique taste. The roasted pepper becomes slightly cooked and the charring of the skin enhances the pepper’s natural sweetness and adds smokiness to the flavor. Canned roasted bell peppers serve as both an ingredient, and garnish.
As we all look for new ways to put attractive and healthy products before the consumer, roasted peppers fit the effort perfectly. Many fine chefs have enjoyed the wonderful flavor of roasted bell peppers for years. However, the effort and time involved in roasting peppers made them impractical, and also expensive to offer on most restaurant menus. Now, Napoleon offers the flavor and eye appeal of roasted peppers without the labor, time and expense required of roasting your own. Fresh red peppers vary in price from month to month and are often too expensive for most applications. With Napoleon, the time and labor intensive process of roasting fresh peppers is also avoided, simply add to your favorite recipes directly from the can or jar.