Saturday, November 21, 2009

PICK A PECK OF PIQUILLO PEPPERS

When I spotted the packet of piquillo pepper garden seeds, I thought it seemed a brilliant idea—plant a whole field of peppers and enjoy them fresh instead of buying them in cans.

Piquillo peppers are those flame-red peppers you buy in jars in the gourmet section of the grocery store. Chefs and food magazines rave about them for their complex sweet and piquant flavor. Once an artisanal product from Navarra, where they are grown in the area around Lodosa in the Ebro valley (and where they enjoy PDO—protected denomination of origin—status), in the last 20 years their fame has spread far and wide. Piquillo peppers are roasted over coals, peeled and packed in cans or jars. Beyond trendy, they have become an emblematic and essential ingredient. 

That’s why I thought growing them would be a dream-come-true. I would roast them myself and conserve them in olive oil. I was already planning to serve a starter of tiny piquillos stuffed with shrimp for Christmas dinner. Their gorgeous red color makes them perfect for festive meals.

Well, I have to confess, my piquillo dreams were dashed. Oh, I picked my peck of piquillo peppers, all right. They were beautiful specimens, crimson in color, small (3 to 4 inches) triangular peppers with tips like little curved beaks (piquillo means beak). I picked peppers from September till November.

The first thing I learned is that the skins of fresh piquillos are like leather. Whether green or red, raw or cooked, the skins are too tough to chew. Which explains why the only way you ever find these peppers is roasted and skinned, in conserve. 

So I started roasting them. I tried charcoal, gas flame and broiler. I baked them, I steamed them. But after hundreds of peppers passed through my home processing, I had not a single whole one suitable for stuffing. The flesh was so delicate it ripped into shreds or had to be scraped from the tough skin. Perhaps this was due to lack of some nutrient or insufficient water in my terroir. Instead of meaty little whole peppers, I had a quantity of piquillo pulp. This I packed in small containers and put in the freezer, an ingredient for a sensational sauce.

The next thing I discovered when I went to the supermarket to buy canned piquillos for the beauty shot is that they are imported from Peru! I did find the “real” ones, with the seal of PDO Piquillos de Lodosa, at El Corte Ingles, the department store that is Spain’s equivalent to Nieman Marcus.


About that sauce. If you have a can or jar of piquillos in the cupboard, you have the makings of a fabulous sauce. Serve it with grilled foods, as a dip or as a dressing for vegetables or shrimp. All you have to do is open the can, put the piquillos in a blender with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and a touch of vinegar (Sherry vinegar preferred). Garlic is fine too, or a pinch of thyme or cumin or chopped chile. If you want a sauce to serve with hot foods, just heat the sauce gently in a small saucepan.

You can also confit the peppers—whole or in strips—in olive oil until they are soft and silky and serve them as a side dish. But, best of all is stuffed—with seafood, goat cheese, boned quail. The classic filling is bacalao, salt cod, a version that I’ve sampled in the taverns of San Sebastian (Basque Country). My favorite recipe is piquillos filled with shrimp and topped with cheese.


Pimientos de Piquillo Rellenos con Gambas
Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Shrimp


The traditional way to prepare the peppers calls for an extra step—before baking with sauce, the peppers are coated in egg and quickly fried, giving them a sort of outer skin that holds peppers and stuffing together. But then you don’t see the luscious red color until you cut into them.

Makes 6 tapas or 4 starters.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon dry Sherry
1 cup less 1 tablespoon milk
½ teaspoon salt
6 ounces uncooked, small, peeled shrimp
20 piquillo peppers, drained (2 jars)
4 tablespoons white wine
Flour for dredging peppers
1 egg, beaten
Olive oil to fry the peppers
2 ounces grated cheese

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Sauté the onion and 1 clove of the garlic, 2 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook 1 minute. Whisk in the Sherry, milk and salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce is thickened, 5 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Select 12 of the drained peppers. Carefully spread them open and spoon shrimp filling into them. Place them in a single layer on a shallow pan or tray. When all are filled, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour to allow the filling to thicken.

While the shrimp mixture is chilling, prepare the sauce. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons oil, 1 clove of garlic, white wine and remaining piquillo peppers in a blender and blend until smooth.

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Place flour and beaten egg in two shallow bowls. Heat oil in a skillet on medium heat. Dip the open end of the stuffed peppers into flour, then dredge the peppers in flour. Roll in beaten egg and fry until lightly golden. Remove the peppers from the pan and place them in a baking dish or individual cazuelitas. Spoon the sauce over the peppers and top with grated cheese.

Bake the peppers until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbly, 15 minutes. Serve hot or room temperature.



28 comments:

  1. It's too bad they didn't come out to be stuffed, but the sauce sounds really good. I'll have to try that.

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  2. Yes, I found them at the Spanish Table but good thing I read the label: Product of Peru! Only one jar from Navarra and this was quite costly. But for the holidays I will brave the price tag and try your ideas for tapas or a dip.

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  3. You said you found the pimientos del piquillo seed available for purchase. Could you please give me the company name that pacaged the seed and made them available ... if you have a means of contact that would help me. I am in Raleigh, North Carolina and would like to try my hand at growing these peppers in my organic garden. Thanks. My name is Willie D. Pilkington. I can be contacted at hobbitgarden@att.net

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  4. Willie: I bought the piquillo seeds at a garden shop in Spain. The name of the company on the seed packet is ROCALBA S.A., Girona (Spain). Good luck!

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  5. when roasting these peppers, did you try "burning" them over fire so that the skin peels off easily as almost an ash? This is how I believe this is done.

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    1. Anonymous: Indeed, I roasted them until charred. However, I found the flesh so delicate that it tore when removing the blackened skin.

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  6. Christine H MitchellDecember 5, 2012 at 9:45 PM

    I found the seeds at Cooks Garden and had a bumper crop all summer into fall. I'm presently trying to figure out what to do with the remaining peppers. I used a many in pepper jelly. Chris Mitchell, Louisiana

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    1. Chris: Pepper jelly sounds good. But, tell me, were you able to roast and peel whole peppers?

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  7. nightshades like plenty of calcium and phophorus in the soil. Perhaps a supplement next season would make them fleshier.

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    1. Sue: Thanks for the helpful hints. I haven't planted piquillos again since that season. My other peppers, bell and frying peppers, do quite well.

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  8. Hi. I just wanted to let you know that all we do is blanche the pepper and the skin comes right off. We are from Asturias and piquillos are always in our kitchens. I now live in the States but wanted to share this with you; hopefully, you'll try them again. I will follow your blog.... I am tickled that an American is as fond of our food as we are.

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    1. Wendy: Thanks for the suggestion about blanching the piquillos. I thought they were supposed to be asados/roasted. Time to start some seeds right not.

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    2. Janet, right after you blanche/peel, you can roast/asar. I asked my aunt about stuffing them and she said that it can be done but doesn't hold up as well as regular bell peppers. We use them more as "strips" and they are the crowning glory of our paellas. I used to take all that stuff for granted until I got to the States and couldn't find it anymore. Baby Manchego is not the same when it comes from a supermarket. Thank God for La Tienda dot com.

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    3. Wendy: Yes, La Tienda is great. I order serrano ham from them to send to my son (who grew up in Spain) in Atlanta at christmas. Do you know De España in New York City? It's another great source of Spanish products.

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    4. Wendy, how to you roast them after you have removed the skins? Can you do it in the oven, or do I need to build a fire? Thanks!

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  9. Hi Janet.
    Had my first Tapas in Germany of all places and one of the dishes was this wonderfully sweet and creamy pepper. When asked what is was, we were told they were Piquillos; that they were very expensive because they could only be grown somewhere in Spain. But it was not red, but green. And the owner explained that he dips them in very hot oil and once cooked to his liking he just adds a little bit of salt. The skin was not tough at all, with a yellowish meat inside, it was absolutely delicious by itself without stuffing. We ordered another portion.
    Since they were not red and the skin not tough as leather, could it have been that perhaps they were not Piquillos after all?
    Your recipes sound delicious. Thank you for sharing them.

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    1. Perhaps they were green piquillos--but that is very unusual. How long were they? See this blog for kinds of peppers that are fried: http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com.es/2011/09/peppers-for-frying.html

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    2. I wonder if they were padrons? In Galicia these are fried and served with bread and salt. Delicious.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Padr%C3%B3n

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    3. Strangerthanfiction: I think you're probably right. Spain's two best-known peppers are padron and piquillo. In Germany perhaps just a mistake in nomenclature.

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  10. Hi Janet
    I grew loads of piquillos last year in Southern France. I tried various things and then fired up the barbecue and really charred them until the skin was blistering. I then packed them in plastic bags until they cooled and the skins just rubbed off. I packed them into preserving jars and topped up with olive oil. The jars were simmered submerged in water for at least half an hour to ensure a good seal. I still have a jar left!
    The barbecue gave them a great smoky flavour. A bit time consuming but really worth it.
    I think the green peppers must have been padron peppers. They are usually served fried whole and tossed with salt.
    Didn't grow them this year but visiting Spain next month so I'll be looking for seeds for next year.

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    1. Sounds like you were more successful than I was. My fire-roasted and peeled piquillos tasted wonderful, but I wasn't able to keep a single one whole, suitable for stuffing. I should try again---

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  11. Janet, do you want to know the percentage of Peruvian pequillos that are the make up of the Spanish market?
    More than half.

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    1. Jay: I bet it's as much as 75%. Those with PDO are produced in very small quantities.

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  13. Janet- My first attempt to roast piquillos was exactly as you described. Jay's comment led me to try scorching them quickly with a propane torch. This was a huge success. They remained very meaty and firm after peeling. Next up will be a try over very hot oak coals.

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    1. Guy: Glad to know I'm not the only one with difficulties in skinning piquillos! I still think my home-grown ones were just too thin-fleshed. Good luck with the hot coal roasting.

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  14. We are from Spain, and my mother would always make roasted red pepper salad by first roasting the red peppers in the oven, then taking them out and covering the pan with a kitchen cloth so they would "sweat," and then after they had cooled down a bit the skin came off super easy. We never did this with piquillo peppers, but it might be worth a try.

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    1. Thanks for your suggestion. I think my piquillo peppers were just poor quality--not enough flesh. Perhaps I should try growing them again. But, it's just so easy to go buy a can!

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