Journey to Shishito Peppers

In my article, Giving Our Fruits and Vegetables Their Names, I talked about how, after decades of limited varietal choices (resulting from our commercialization of agriculture), we're experiencing more diversity in our food choices. I suggested that learning varietal names of the food we eat is an important part of knowing more about our food and it allows us to easily seek out and repeat very specific experiences. For me, shishito peppers have provided an experience I've repeated often since stumbling upon them and falling in love with these delightful peppers several years ago.

Most of us are familiar with traditional bell-shaped peppers: green, red, yellow, orange, even purple and chocolate. I love bell peppers as much as the next person for their juicy crunch, sweetness and the many ways they’re used in the kitchen. But there are other varieties of sweet peppers, such as pimentos and a jewel called Lipstick—all bell shaped peppers but more pointed, with thicker, deeper, redder flesh. I encourage you to look for such peppers and find out their names so you can seek out your favorites.

But here I'd like to explore some other types of peppers that are also worthy of attention. I’m thinking mainly of a class of peppers called frying peppers. Sometimes they’re called Italian peppers, because Italians are fond of sauteing them. A famous heirloom is the Jimmy Nardello, named after the man who gave the seeds his mother had brought from Italy to the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Then there are the handsome Corno del Toro (or Corno di Toro or bull horn) peppers, a large, twisted sweet Spanish or Italian pepper. I’ve seen some pretty varieties from New Mexico called Sunset and Sunrise. The padrón is a small frying pepper with a touch of heat very popular in Spanish tapas. As a group, frying peppers don’t have the thick walls and heft that bells do so you just slice them and saute them as a vegetable. Or cook them whole if they happen to be padrones or the Japanese pepper called shishito.

Four years ago I had never heard of a shishito pepper, then suddenly there they were at the Santa Fe farmers' market. One grower had them and everyone wanted them. Here’s why: they are absolutely delicious, couldn’t be easier to fix, they’re a fun to eat finger food, and are perfect appetizers for a summer’s eve.

So, what are they exactly? Small and dark green, about the size of a jalapeño, they’re neither smooth skinned nor hot like that plump little chile (occasionally one might have a little heat, but that’s rare). Rather, the shishito has a slightly corrugated or pleated surface and the tip folds into itself rather than being pointed. Shishitos have a mild, slightly sweet flavor because they’re ripe even when green. So even if you’re wary of green bell peppers, it doesn’t mean you won’t like these. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t fall in love with them.

Here's how I like to cook them for appetizers: Heat a pan with some olive oil. When it’s hot, drop in the peppers then cook them over a medium-high heat, shuffling the pan back and forth, until they’re charred in places and have softened. This could take five minutes or more, depending on how full your pan is. Once they’ve collapsed, squeeze a little lime or lemon juice over them, sprinkle them with fine or flaky salt, transfer them into the dish and serve. To eat, just pick them up by their stems and pop them in your mouth: seeds, skins and all (except for the stems). If any are leftover, stir them into your eggs the next day.

If you don't have shishitos in your area, look for padrones, Jimmy Nardellos, Corno del (or di) Toros or other types of frying peppers. If you can't find those, you might consider growing them. If bell peppers can be grown in your area, frying peppers can grow there, too. And shishitos are pretty easy. (A variety of frying peppers can be found at seed companies such as Seed Savers Exchange, Johnny's Select Seeds and High Mowing Seeds, and Kitazawa Seed Company for shisitos.)

Seek them out, enjoy their flavor, learn their names. Our commercialization of agriculture has limited the types and varieties of food available to us. It's worth exploring the vast varieties available—not only can it help promote increased biodiversity, but you might just unearth a whole new world of favorites.