Season of the Pepper

When you see a half-dozen Caribbean women buying ten-pound sacks of peppers first thing Saturday morning you know it's time to pay attention.

The guys at Eckerton Hill grow too many varieties of peppers for me to keep track of, but when you see half-dozen Caribbean women buying ten-pound sacks of peppers first thing Saturday morning you know it’s time to pay attention.

Farmers’ market tip #42: When you see an unfamiliar ingredient, wait until you see someone buying it, then ask them what they’re going to cook. Grenada and Trinidad, it turns out, are famous for the varieties of habañero peppers that Eckerton Hill sells (though when I asked the Trinidadian woman why she was buying Grenada peppers she just laughed at me). Some of the Caribbean women called them “seasoning peppers.” They’re not hot, or at least not very hot, but they have a ton of fruity citrus flavor and acidic tang like a taut wire. “You just take the seeds out and put them in the blender with lots of garlic, salt, and herbs, you know, some thyme, and blend it up and put it in what you’re cooking” was all the recipe anyone would give me. With that encouragement I brought home a box to try.

I’ve put them in more than a few dishes over the last several weeks (a squid, potato, and pepper stew; a ragout of fresh shell beans) but the real winner was a variation on the Basque dish piparrada from Penelope Casas’s The Foods & Wines of Spain. I cut a big pile of sweet cubanelle peppers into wide ribbons, sliced an onion into thin half-moons, and softened them together slowly in a wide pan with some salt and olive oil. When the onions had lost their bite I added some sliced garlic and a few of those Caribbean peppers minced fine, waited a couple minutes, then added some chopped late-summer plum tomatoes and let everything get cozy for ten minutes. Right before dinner I cracked four eggs into the pan, put a cover on, and let it all sit until the eggs were just poached. Spooned into bowls and served with crusty bread, it was brilliant. The seasoning peppers added a note of high-pitched excitement and a subtle undercurrent of heat to balance the sweetness of the slow-cooked tomatoes and frying peppers. I may yet buy my own big sack.

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