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A Plethora of Peppers

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There are so many varieties of peppers out there, enough to overwhelm that most famous of pepper pickers, Peter Piper himself. As for me, I have gone a little crazy and grown everything from colorful purple and yellow bells to the heart-stopping scorpion and ghost peppers. I have traded seeds with my students and ended up with a tiny red-hot pepper that I christened hot Chubs in honor of the student from whom the seeds came. I later found out from my Instagram friends that it is a black cobra or goat weed pepper. I have even hybridized my own by crossing a jalapeño with a sweet Italian long, which are now big, hot, Italian longs, which I call Italapeños, only to learn later that there is such an official hybrid called monster jalapeño. Well, in my case, actually Ma Nature did it; I just saved the seeds.

Usually the bells are first to deliver and quickly make their way into a salad or stir-fry. Next come the Italian longs, followed by the jalapeños and then the plethora of other peppers. The hot ones are kept near the kitchen sink, ready to be diced into anything I think needs a bit of extra spice, which is essentially everything. By far the most popular pepper at my summer gatherings, and almost as revered as the first tomato, is the Italian long pepper simply fried in extra virgin.

It’s the simplest yet most popular of all my recipes. I say my, but this one has been passed down many generations, with origins in Southern Italy, where my great-grandparents were from. I still remember getting so excited when I read in The Godfather that Carmela Corleone was frying them up in her kitchen. When my immediate family first moved to the Valley from the Bay Area, my dad’s family would all come up the end of August, and we’d all hop in the backs of our pickups to go pepper picking. We visited a local farmer, where we got bushels and baskets full of those shiny green Italian longs, which we would roast to make Italian-style canned peppers and tomatoes, fried peppers and roasted pepper salad.

When we got back from pepper picking, my grandma would put on a big kettle of water for pasta and cook up a huge batch of spaghetti for the crowd of cousins, aunts and uncles. On the burner next to the sauce was a skillet full of peppers frying in olive oil, making our mouths water. There would be two dishes on the table, one of sweet peppers for the kids and one with hot peppers for the adults and the kids who were nearing rite-of-passage, or just a bit more adventurous. But for most of us, the peppers were just a means to an end; it was the juicy oil at the bottom of the dish that had us elbowing each other out of the way so we could get to it first with our sourdough. The peppers were wonderful, but the prize was stuffing our mouths full of bread drenched with the rich, golden juice seasoned with nothing more than a little sprinkle of salt.

Fried Peppers
Beginning with a stack of Italian long peppers, rinsed and seeded, add them a pan-full at a time into hot extra virgin olive oil. Add a little water to help them cook down and to keep from scorching. Cover for best results and turn as they brown. As the peppers become limp and done, remove them to a dish to make room for more. Add oil as necessary; remember, this is the best part. Make sure you have plenty of sourdough. Set out salt for guests to season individually.

Peperoni Arrostiti Sott’olio
Roasted pepper salad is saved for late summer when I have bushels of ripening Italian longs. Lay the peppers whole, stems intact, on a baking sheet with a head of fresh garlic. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and bake at 400º for about 45 minutes, or until the skins bubble up and look like they would peel easily. When they are cool enough to handle, starting from the tip, peel and scrape out the seeds. Place on a dish with the peeled, roasted garlic. Drizzle with more extra virgin and a good balsamic, top with a chiffonade of basil and season with salt and pepper. Serve with a good crusty sourdough, making sure your guests know how to dip it in the delicious sauce hiding underneath those pretty peppers.

Grilled Italian Longs with Jack
If you’re already heating up the grill, just stuff some of those sweet Italian longs with a slice of Monterey jack, brush with extra virgin and toss them on the grill with the chicken or tritip. There’s hardly any work involved and if you want a little extra heat, stuff with jalapeño Jack instead of regular. Any way you fix ’em, they are sure to be the hottest or coolest thing off your barbie.

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