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.
This week has been INSANITY. Sheer, near-unmitigated insanity. So, instead of something eloquent and carefully-crafted, here’s a soup I made up.
This is the perfect example of what happens with a bunch of odds and ends and a lot of time on my hands. I had shrimp shells in the freezer, left over from my last lemon-caper experiment. I had a powerful hankering for a bowl of soup with pesto on top. And I had a germ of an inspiration, thanks to a video about Tex-Mex chowdah.
Full disclosure: I’m sitting in a hotel room right now, on day one of a whirlwind business trip, and I’ve had a very long day and I’m just a little loopy. This post may be slightly more, um, idiosyncratic than usual. You’ve been warned.
On to the good stuff. After
two three weeks (whoops!) of waiting, I can finally tell you about the Thing that I made (wait for it…) three weeks ago. In the wake of the Great Salsa Verde Fiasco of March 2011, this has now restored my faith that I am, in fact, kind of a badass. Give me a head of cabbage, some chili paste and a whole lotta salt, and I will do science to it.
That’s right. I made kimchi. And it’s awesome.
So let’s get this out of the way, right here, right now. This is a post about chili. But not the old-school kind of chili. Not the kind of chili you put on a chili dog. Not the kind of chili that, when I was in college, I used to slop over fries and drench with nacho sauce and call it dinner. (I am shamed.) Oh, no, this is not your generic tomato-red, capsaicin-swimming, orange-grease-slicked Amurrican chili. If I ever enter this chili in a cookoff, they’ll almost certainly ride me out of town on a rail.
There are about a million and one traditional chili recipes out there in the ether, all more or less the same. What I’m after is none of them. I want chili that demands nothing but a bowl and a spoon and a sprinkle of cheese, that fills to the ribs without coalescing into a belly-brick. I want incongruous meats and funky textures, toothsome chunks of vegetation, beans of all different sizes. And I want something so far beyond the pale that it hardly qualifies as chili at all. My signature chili is absolutely killer, but it’s also miles away from tradition. It’s almost–dare I say it–un-American.
So here’s the proof. I’m done. Haul me away and lock me up. I surrender.
One of the reasons I love to cook is that it allows me to indulge my own particular tastes. Like anyone else, I can get finicky, and sometimes the only way to get a really satisfying version of a favorite dish is to conjure it up myself. Case in point: stuffed bell peppers.
Up until recently, I’d never had a stuffed pepper that really hit the mark with me. (Chiles rellenos are a whole other beast; someday I’ll get around to writing about how Mexican food is my high-speed transport to my happy place.) The traditional American stuffed bell pepper usually involves a) ground beef, which I think tastes like cow-flavored gravel, b) instant rice, which creeps the hell out of me, and c) enough tomato sauce to drown a small mammal. And most recipes instruct you to cook the filling entirely in the pepper, so that by the time the meat and the rice are fully cooked, the pepper is soggy and bruised, a shadow of its former crisp self. Not really my idea of a good time.
So I set out to do American tradition one better.