Red, green, fresh or dry, peppers have a place in a multitude of Spanish recipes
Capsicum, the genus name for both hot and sweet peppers, must be one of the most successful immigrants in the history of forced migration, perhaps second only to its cousin, the tomato, both members of the same family of plants. Capsicum is used as many things, including as a vegetable, spice, medicine and even as a weapon. It’s native to South and Central America but was introduced to Spain in the 15th century by Christopher Columbus, according to some, or plundering pirates according to others. Opinions also differ as to where the first exporters picked up their peppers: Peru, Haiti or Colombia. But what’s indisputable is how far the peppers have come in integrating into European, and particularly Iberian, cuisine. Today it’s reckoned around half of all of Spain’s traditional dishes use the pimiento, whether green or red, fresh or dried.
But peppers haven’t just stimulated the creativity of chefs; they’ve also stimulated the curiosity of scientists. Botanists have catalogued the minute variations in the various varieties of pimiento (Colman Andrews quotes scholar Charles Perry’s naming of the ñora pepper (Capsicum annuum grossum/
provar.pomiforme/sub-var Conc. humilirotundum!). They have theorised that the pepper’s active substance capsaicin (which gives chilies their kick) is enjoyed by birds, because birds eating peppers and excreting the seeds is the plant’s primary dispersal technique.
Medical researchers suggest that capsaicin may have prostate cancer-fighting properties. It’s also used as a stimulant and a pain reliever. The 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper described cayenne pepper as “a violent fruit” that could “help digestion, provoke urine, relieve toothache, preserve the teeth from rottenness, comfort a cold stomach, expel the stone from the kidney, and take away dimness of sight.”
Peppers have good levels of vitamins A, C and E. In fact, pound for pound, they have between six and nine times more vitamin C than tomatoes. And with only 25 calories per 100 grammes, they’re a good snack for dieters.
Even psychologists have pondered the pain/pleasure payoff of eating chilies, postulating that, like riding a roller coaster or bungee jumping, it allows us to enjoy the highs of simulated risk without any real danger.
Peppers of all stripes are now grown and eaten across the world, from Bangkok to Bogota. But even just here in Spain, where hot peppers have relatively few aficionados, there are numerous varieties, each with special characteristics and recipes to match.
More than half the peppers grown in the world are bell peppers (pimiento rojo, verde or morron). Prized for their sweet succulent flesh, they’re excellent when roasted and peeled to get rid of their rather thick skin. Prepared in this way they form part of the famous Catalan dish escalivada, along with aubergines and onions. Cut into strips and fried, they make the basis of chilindron, a typical dish in Navarra and Aragón. A similar variety is what’s called the pimiento italiano in Spanish. It has thinner skin and flesh than the bell pepper and has a an elongated, conical, often twisted shape.
A small, green pepper, the pimiento de padron, from Galicia, is prized for one strange property—algunos pican y otros non. That’s to say, some are spicy and others aren’t and, despite many theories being proffered, it’s nigh-on impossible to know which is which before biting into one.
The fertile land of the Ebre river valley produces excellent peppers of many shapes, sizes and uses. Navarra is the home of the piquillo pepper, the small, beak-shaped red pepper that mostly comes in conserved form in jars or cans. Those certified by the DO of Lodosa are considered by many to be the best, with Pedro Luis and El Navarrico being two of the tastiest brands. For a preserved pepper to be DO, it must be scorched over an open flame, and peeled, destalked and deseeded by hand without the application of chemicals, or even water! In Lodosa, itself, peppers that still have some green on the skin are highly prized.
The cornicabra from Rioja gets its name (goat horn) from its curved form. It’s picked ripe and red and usually sold in dried form. The pepper’s lightly spicy flavour and rich red colour are prized in dishes such as besugo a la riojana.
From the same earthly bosom, the prettily-named alegrías riojanos are similar to piquillos, but smaller and with an unusually high level of spice, which unusually seems to be appreciated by the locals—hence the name of happy riojanos!
Another dried red pepper, long and more oval in shape, from the Basque country. After being soaked in water, its flesh is scraped out and used in many typical Basque dishes, such as bacalao a la vizcaína.
Pimiento de Guernika
Another Basque pepper is the pimiento de Guernika—small, green peppers similar to pimientos de padron, except they’re prized by delicate palates because they don’t share the padron’s dangerous random spiciness.
The ñora is often confused with the pimiento choricero, however, it’s shorter, more bell shaped, and comes from Murcia. It’s used in a similar way, but you shouldn’t think they can be substituted for one another (unless you want to start some sort of Basque-Murcia war). The most iconic dish of which they’re a vital ingredient is the caldero, a rice dish from the Mar Menor.
Chilindrón (Serves 4. Time: 50 minutes)
300g jamon serrano
6 large red and green peppers
2 medium onions
3 cloves of garlic
1kg of tomatoes
salt and pepper
teaspoon of sugar
virgin extra olive oil.
Put about 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide bottomed casserole dish and heat gently. Add the onion chopped into thin slices. Chop the garlic into thin slices lengthways and add those to the onion. Stir until the onion and garlic start to soften. Chop the ham into fine pieces and add that to the casserole and stir everything together. Destalk and deseed the peppers. Cut in half and then into long strips. Add to the casserole, stir and leave to cook fairly gently for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile peel and chop the tomatoes into small pieces. Add these to the rest of the ingredients and season with salt, pepper and a teaspoon of sugar. Let cook gently, stirring to make sure the mixture doesn’t stick or burn. When the ingredients melt into each other, like a sofregit, the sauce is ready. Then add meat or fish (such as strips of chicken breast or fillets of tuna) and cook until the meat or fish is done, or cook these separately, serving the sauce as an accompaniment.
From the archive: June 2007