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The Pepper People
Family Farming Specialty Peppers in the San Francisco Bay Area Since 1980
When my cooking becomes too elaborate, memories of the pimientos de Padrón I have eaten in Galicia bring me back to my center
These tiny green peppers, a specialty of Spain's humid northwestern region, require no embellishment. All you need to bring out their refreshing grassy flavor - reminiscent of freshly picked asparagus - are the warm caress of olive oil and the rugged kiss of coarse sea salt.
I first tasted them at a tapas bar in Santiago de Compostela in the early 1970s, and I was seduced for life. They came to the counter whole, blistered and softened from frying. I grabbed them by the stem, as everyone else was doing, and popped them into my mouth between sips of Albariño. Like a greedy child, I reached for more and more until I was ready to fight my husband for the last scrawny pepper on the plate. Savoring and craving them on this and other summer visits to Galicia imprinted their green purity in my mind as an ideal of true pepper flavor.
Lore has it that a friar at the Franciscan monastery of San Antonio de Padua in Herbón, a parish of the municipality of Padrón in the province of A Coruña, brought the pepper seeds from Latin America and planted them in the monastery's garden. Friar Lamela, 77, one of three Franciscans living there today, tells me the garden is still lovingly tended and that a lively feast celebrating the peppers (Festa do Pemento) is held each August. Today, pimientos de Padrón are sold throughout Spain and, to the chagrin of Galicians. Three years ago, he sent samples to Spanish restaurants throughout the United States. His first Miami customer was the Catalan chef Jordi Valles, then at Mosaico, followed by Mesón Ría de Vigo (where my colleague Enrique Fernández enjoyed them last year) and Casa Juancho. Expect to pay $10 to $12 for a generous serving - a price that reflects the special growing conditions and pampering they require., grown in Mallorca, Murcia and even Morocco to meet the year-round demand. I imagine the early peppers were hot, becoming tamer through human manipulation. That genetic memory kicks in when the growing season is excessively warm or the peppers are left to ripen too long. It is not uncommon to find a few in a bunch that are hot enough to make you gasp.
David Winsberg, a Florida-born farmer who relocated to California in the 1970s, grows about 6,000 pounds of pimientos de Padrón each year at his two-acre Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto. Winsberg sends the seeds to his family farm in Delray Beach in November, and the seedlings are returned to him in January. Florida is too hot and humid to grow them to maturity. ``The climate in this part of northern California is similar to that of Galicia,'' he said, with warm days and cool nights. The pepper plants grow as tall as seven feet, producing an average of 100 pods each from May to December. As Winsberg says, ``calling pimientos de Padrón peppers is like calling truffles mushrooms.'' Heat the oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat until sizzling. Add the peppers, and cook, stirring, until they are blistered and softened but have not turned brown. (Shishito peppers need a bit more time.)
PAN-FRIED PADRON PEPPERS (Pimientos de Padrón al Sartén)
The one pepper I've found that comes close to the Padrón's easy charm is the Japanese shishito, which is forgiving of the heat and grows beautifully in my garden.
15 to 20 pimientos de Padrón or shishito peppers
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt such as Maldon or fleur de sel
Place the peppers in a colander and rinse under running cold water. Dry thoroughly with paper towels. Transfer to a decorative plate, sprinkle with salt and serve immediately as a tapa or as a side dish for grilled meat, fish or poultry with a fresh Galician Albariño. Makes 1 serving.
Maricel E. Presilla is the chef/co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, N.J. Her latest book is The New Taste of Chocolate. Product: Piquillo Peppers. Fresh: Available by mail-order from Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto, Calif. (650-325-0823, happyquailfarms.com) for about $6 a pound plus shipping; minimum order 2 pounds. Canned: Available at Spanish delis including La Vasca, 3407 SW Eighth St., Miami (305-461-1898) and Delicias de España, 4016 SW 57th Ave., South Miami (305-669-4485). Look for the numbered Lodosa DO (denomination of origin) label.