I wish I could say I first had these in Spain, but I didn’t. It was actually at a tapas bar in San Francisco, on a chilly February night right around Valentine’s Day. Sam and I were going to a fancy party–tux for him, satin for me. We shared a bottle of very dry Iberian cider, and a cheese plate, and a little skillet of roasted Padron peppers. They astonished me, those peppers, sharp and smoky and once or twice fiery, punctuated with the occasional crunch of a salt-flake. So later that year, in summer, when I spotted Padron peppers at the farmer’s market, I snapped up a big bagful and roasted them myself. And I’ve been doing it regularly ever since.
This is one of those 1-2-3 food tricks that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. It starts with fresh Padron peppers, adorably dimpled and bright leaf-green. Padrons have a flavor all their own–where jalapenos are fruity, and poblanos are sharp, these are grassy and light, almost parsley-like. They’re also conveniently bite-sized, with long elegant stems that make them an ideal finger food. They really don’t need much done to them: just a dance in a hot pan until they shudder and crackle and char all over. (Some recipes coat the pan with olive oil before adding the peppers, but that generates an awful lot of smoke, so I keep the pan dry.) Then just a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of flaky salt, and a tapa is born.
A slightly dangerous tapa, too, because there’s an element of chance involved. Padron peppers are naturally mild, but occasional cross-pollination with nearby chiles can produce the occasional spicy pepper. I’ve most often seen a pile of Padron peppers described like a roulette game: most are utterly mild, but about every one in 10 is shockingly spicy. I think there’s actually a little more nuance to it than that. Most are completely without heat, a few will prick you lightly, and every batch has one or two that detonate in your mouth. I’d say the hottest Padron I’ve tasted was about on par with a jalapeno. There’s no way to tell in advance which peppers are the spicy ones, so adventure is the only option. Which I happen to love.
These are at their absolute best when they’re hot from the pan. I’ve been to multiple restaurants that serve them in miniature cast-iron skillets; if you’re able, I definitely recommend going that way. Otherwise, use these as an excuse to gather people around the kitchen with their glasses of wine, and hand over the peppers the moment they’re oiled and salted.